Usually, I am by nurture and by nature diametrically opposed to watching a show based on its popularity; however, the depiction of an awkward young woman insisting on equal participation in a tournament run by men replayed addictively in my mind just as it did on Netflix’s homepage. As a founder of a woman’s exclusive gaming group and avid participant in the global board game community, the allure of Scott Frank and Allan Scott’s “Queen’s Gambit” was impossible to escape.
Until “Queen’s Gambit” dropped on Netflix and captivated the world, Chess, the mother of all boardgames, was seemingly relegated to a bygone era of Nerdom that predates this past decade’s increased popularity and “mainstream-ification” of gaming as a hobby (and even as a profession). Therefore, the October 23, 2020 “Queen’s Gambit” release tapped not just into the Zeitgeist of a year defined by isolation and trauma, but also one of boardgames.
Opening Moves: “Would you like to start my clock?”
You do not need an extensive knowledge of the game and its strategies, however, to be drawn into the show’s enchanting performances, impeccable set and costume design, and carefully crafted narrative and character arcs.
From the moment you hover over the title on Netflix to the final proclamation of “let’s play”, the indomitable spirit of Beth Harmon, portrayed by Isla Johnston and Anya Taylor Joy, immediately enthralls the audience. From the moment you press “play” “Queen’s Gambit” is unapologetically enigmatic and refreshingly raw.
A far cry from the trailer’s gawky teenage girl demanding to play Chess “with the big boys,” so to speak, the audience is introduced to Beth first as a hungover celebrity then an anesthetized orphan. Isla Johnston gives a performance beyond her years as a young Beth grappling with her shared trauma and brilliance. Even in teen and adult Beth’s darkest moments, Anya Taylor Joy captivates the audience with the breadth of her uncanny talent for both divine elegance and raw emotion. Among many others, particularly notable performances include Moses Ingram’s precocious Jolene, Bill Camp’s brusque Mr. Shaibel, and Marielle Heller’s formidable Alma Wheatley. The believable, enthralling characterizations of individual struggles, particularly those of Beth Harmon, to navigate society’s hierarchies earn “Queen’s Gambit” it’s allocation to Netflix’s “intimate” genre.
As for its moniker of “cerebral,” the themes of emotion vs. logic, addiction, and trauma deliver consistently on the show’s promise of witty banter, mesmerizing ambience, and an intricate plot. With an ambient analysis of late 50’s – 60’s gender roles as a backdrop Beth quickly rises through the global Chess rankings. From the girls of Apple Pi’s cult-like devotion to societal norms to Alma Wheatley’s journey towards freedom to Jolene’s series-long rejection of propriety, the full scale of feminine roles within the patriarchy is on full display.
A particular scene of note, without being spoiler-ific, is Beth’s response that “it’s [just] Chess” to a Rita Skeeta-eque reporter who waxed philosophical about Beth being a beacon of women’s empowerment. Echoing the pain of all women and minorities, Beth adamantly insists to the reporter, then anyone who will listen that her skills should be the primary focus, not her gender. Indeed, the narrative’s focus is not just on how Beth impacts society or how society impacts Beth, but the interplay of both. Her heightened skills, however, are what allow her to transcend life’s hierarchies where others cannot. Frequently, however, the audience is reminded that, much like the story of Daedalus and Icarus, brilliance can quickly become tragedy. As the narrative crescendos and decrescendos with every win and especially every loss, Beth (and audience along with her) must come to terms with the fact that the only things truly black and white in the chess prodigy’s life are the pieces of the game with which she is entranced.
Mid Game: “All Pawns and No Hope”
Though the pace may feel lethargic at times, making the audience wait approximately half a season to 1) make full sense of and 2) receive closure about the opening scene, “Queen’s Gambit” will inhabit your mind just as Chess inhabits Beth’s. In fact, a predominant strength of the narrative is that it is not bookended by its opening scene and how it ultimately plays out (pun fully intended). That is because its main message is that only through breaking cycles can we thrive. This may seem ironic, as at its core Chess tends to be a repetition of cycles and if/then statements that lead to ultimate victory or defeat. Life, however, may be a game (as D.VA from Overwatch likes to put it), but it is certainly a far more expansive and messy experience than Harmon’s beloved “world of 64 squares.” This is why, approximately 7 hours of watch time (intro and credit time included) goes by as quickly as Harmon’s frequent and decisive wins over those in the lower ranks of the Chess world.
While this review is almost unapologetically a love letter of sorts, one criticism that I have is how many male characters become romantically entangled with Beth. Spoiler alert: If you are attracted to men you may find yourself swooning over both Dudley Dursley (Harry Melling) and Jojen Reed (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and I personally still don’t know how to feel about that. Nearly every male of acceptable dating age for Beth with more than supplementary lines becomes a love interest. This is the “trope-iest” element of an otherwise visionary production. I do have to admit, however, that each romantic lead has a truly profound meaning in Beth’s life and lends to her character development. Similar to those we tie ourselves to in real life, they also have enough weight and enough mystery behind them to feel real.
End Game: “It’s your game, take it.”
For the most part, the show is continually and almost painfully from Beth’s perspective with only three exceptions. Two out of the three have to do with other characters discovering her pill collection, and the other serves to create a sense of fulfilment as we watch Beth’s family of friends react to the outcome of her final (in the show not in life) match. For Beth, the love and respect of her adopted mother and family of friends was not enough. She needed to be recognized by the best. Even when her friends were the best in America, it did not satisfy her hunger for recognition. Harmon herself, however, would not see it as such. For her she simply wants to win.
However, there is a not-so-subtle undertone of searching for acceptance and recognition throughout the entire piece. At the beginning of her story Beth Harmon had literally nothing to lose, but as she collects relationships and climbs in the chess ranks that changes and at the very end it is the accumulation of everyone in her life, not just her own genius, that culminates in her successes in Chess and in life.
From start to finish, “Queen’s Gambit” is about how those who stand out because of an intrinsic difference, unbridled skill, or both must balance their individuality with societal expectations. Outside of its value as a piece of art, “Queen’s Gambit” is an applicable lesson in how profound becoming established in a community as a minority is. “Claiming your spot at the gaming table” as I often put it, means garnering respect that is not otherwise afforded you. It is an unfortunate fact for many, that in arenas where skill and talent are the focus, intrinsic human value is not enough. Instead, minorities are often subject to the same proving grounds as Beth Harmon without her excessive proficiencies to buoy us. If there is one take away from this show and my review it is that women, men and minorities of all kinds, must buoy one another. That is what we must do in the time after our greatest successes.
“Let’s Play…” Again?
I have enough searing questions to write novels of fanfiction. How will Beth recover from her addiction and her trauma? Will she ever learn a fuller truth about her parent’s divorce and mother’s descent into unmanageable mental illness? Will she adjust to a “normal life” or find even more ways to maintain her foothold as a celebrity? Will she transform her gift into a type of mentorship role for other young women?
Ultimately, I am emphatically hoping for a second season like Beth yearns for chess but seeing as the show is an adaptation of Walter Telvis’ novel: I doubt that we will get one. While there is no original source material left to adapt, however, a second season would give Beth the opportunity to ask herself the same question that she posed to another young prodigy that she played in Las Vegas:
“What will you do after?”
There will forever be winners and losers in the gaming hobby, but as “Queen’s Gambit” so eloquently illustrates there is an entire world outside of the games we play in which we are allowed to make, break, and change the rules for the benefit of all people.