I’m convinced that there are only so many ideas in the world and only so many ways one can present it. Once the originals have been established, the job of a new wave of creators is to pick and choose multiple originals and find a way to present them as something brand new.
Yet, some creators go above and beyond to dismantle my conviction. I have observed in recent television that every year, there comes along this seemingly mundane series, behind which encapsulates a whole new story and form of story-telling that shatters all expectations. For me, in 2018, it was Killing Eve; 2019 brought me Euphoria, and 2020, before the year has even concluded, I can tell you that it is The Queen’s Gambit.
Visibly, this is going to be a review, and since it’s impossible to thoroughly review this work of art without heading into some details, I’m obligated to warn you of the spoilers lying ahead.
Set in the 1950s-60s, the miniseries is an adaptation of the brainchild of author Walter Tevis. Books don’t always translate well to the big screen, but this is what we’re here to judge.
In short, The Queen’s Gambit, named after a chess opening, tells the story of Elizabeth ‘Beth’ Harmon. In an accident, Beth loses her mother and is sent to an orphanage where she learns chess under the tutelage of Mr. Shaibel, the janitor. At the orphanage, the girls are given green pills to keep them calm, for which Beth develops a dependency. Upon ingesting the sedatives before bed, hallucinations take the shape of chess pieces on the ceiling of her dormitory, allowing her to mentally recreate games to better grasp strategies. Just like that, under the dusty ceiling of a dimly moonlit room, a chess prodigy was born.
As we follow Beth’s journey from age nine through twenty-two, we watch her attempt to balance a normal life and her expanding affinity for chess after being adopted, but ultimately prioritizes the latter, chasing after her dreams of uncrowning the world’s greatest chess player, a journey that, admittedly, is no small feat. Beth struggles to stay afloat in a stormy sea of drug and alcohol addiction, more often than not letting her emotions get the best of her.
I have never read Tevis’ book, so I wouldn’t know how closely the series mirrors the original; nonetheless, this isn’t your typical rags-to-riches tale—it’s a riveting tale of a genius who uses chess to keep her sanity in check.
Themes and Motifs
The move itself, the queen’s gambit, is the main theme of the series, and when we analyze how the series incorporates the concept of “pieces that are sacrificed in every game of chess” (yes, that’s Hamilton), it only becomes more enthralling.
Beth is caught up in a chess match in her private life, one where she is applying the queen’s gambit to win. Almost every episode, Beth loses somebody; either a parental figure, friend, guide, or love interest is ‘sacrificed’. At first, it might seem like she is surrendering her freedom and milieu to achieve her set-in-stone ambitions, but a good chess player understands that the occasional sacrifice has to be made to gain the upper-hand, Beth included. At any point that she lets down someone around her, she makes it up by gaining her strength back and seeing things through to the end, marking her spot as the best chess player and making them proud.
Mirror this to the actual chess opening, the objective of which is to give up a pawn to gain ultimate control of the centerboard, and it brings back an article excerpt written about Beth in the series that says while for some chess might be an obsession or addiction, it is a birthright for Beth. It is often said that art imitates life, but in Beth’s case, art—chess—and life seem to influence each other in parallels.
Now, let us address the elephant in the room. You’ve heard the tale of those who fall back into the arms of substance on their way to the stars, and Beth Harmon is no exception. In one of the beginning episodes, Beth tells a reporter that chess is “an entire world of just 64 squares” which she feels safe in because she can control and dominate it. Beth goes on to explain that every move and outcome is predictable, so if she gets hurt, she has only herself to blame. The core of the show is that as her talents and wits grow to become more and more irrefutable, she learns that a world, however small, can still become unpredictable and potentially spin out of control.
Our protagonist deals with her share of alcohol and drugs which she thinks helps her focus better in matches; however, it’s important to note that Beth isn’t only addicted to pills and potions, she’s addicted to winning as well. The competitive persona that pushes her to strive for the very best and her inability to accept anything below that is one that had me thinking “Here’s something I can well relate to”. Who doesn’t want to ride on a smooth sail of winning streak?
When Beth loses to Borgov (the Russian chess grandmaster), she finds it unacceptable and takes it as a public humiliation. The chess extraordinaire then defines herself by this one failure instead of her hundreds of triumphs, and it isn’t until the encouragement of her friends that she packs up the flawed mentality and heads to Russia for the final tournament. I don’t know if this speaks to anyone else, but it sure showed that at the end of the day, in spite of our talents and looks, we are all humans at the core and are bound to make mistakes, and that dwelling on the past doesn’t change anything but learning from it can.
One could also argue that the show pivots around loneliness. “The strongest person is the person who isn’t scared to be alone,” is one of the quotes from the series that lingered in my brain long after it has been said. Beth is frequently alone and lonely, save the rare visits from her friends or ex-lovers. When observed closely, she is actually the most alone when she is crowded; look at her chess matches: the whole world watching, possibly rooting for her, but the only way she can keep their attention is by relying on her intuition and studies of the game—her and her alone. Taylor-Joy nails this emotion and sullen feeling marvelously, no matter if she’s playing against herself on a board, lying in bed, or on a plane.
Onto more positive notes: Feminism. Beth plays all her professional matches, save the first one, against men. Chess was a male-dominated game back in Beth’s days. In her first tournament where she works her way up the chess world to gain recognition, most men plastered on a smug look knowing they were up against a girl, that is until Beth unseats Harry Beltik at the very same tournament.
Beth is also visibly confused when a reporter poses the question “How does it feel to be a girl player in chess?” This is because Beth isn’t looking to be the best female chess player, she just wants to be the best chess player, period. When she plays, she is just another chess addict, her other personalities are stripped to showcase only her wits and inborn prowess.
In proceeding episodes, most of Beth’s major opponents respect her along with the game instead of looking down on her or diminishing her abilities. They shake her hand in awe after being defeated, as if happy to meet a player of similar standards, to celebrate her once-in-a-century gift.
I don’t name a cinematic work as ‘TV Series of The Year’ in my journal purely based on the plot. If that were the case, I would be knee-deep in a quagmire of superb plots. The Queen’s Gambit excels in its attention to detail in all aspects, some of which I will now discuss.
The focus of the show is chess, second to Beth herself. Though I am neither a player or observer of the strategy game, I can say that each match was carefully choreographed and gave the impression that the actors and actresses were actually chess grandmasters. From the ease of scooping up chess pieces to the intensive stares before decimating their opponents, the cast was magnetic on camera and tingled my nerves better than any action-packed film ever could.
More importantly, the filming and editing of the match scenes were done astoundingly. Since the story involves Beth kicking ass in multiple games of chess, the filmmakers had to avoid scenes appearing dull and similar, and thus had to crunch their brains for different shooting and editing styles to keep the audience on their toes. Sometimes, the camera focuses on the cast’s eyes; other times, it’s their agile fingers dancing across the chessboard—one way or another, you will not be lulled to sleep by the games.
And it isn’t just the game itself. In every episode, we crest through a scene thinking that the beautifully planned sequences are the peak of it all; however, given a closer look, what’s truly captivating is the relationship between Beth and her opponents: How she studies, deciphers, intimidates, and finally conquers them.
The bloodlust that ambers her eyes as she strategizes ten steps ahead, the curl of her lips as she dominates the field within a few dozen moves, and her magnetic ability to attract a handful of onlookers during each game; every movement is coordinated with purpose and naturality and only adds to the story-telling. The Queen’s Gambit particularly shines through when it comes to the age-old advice of ‘showing not telling’, such as the insertion of a scene displaying the winners’ names circled instead of outright announcements and zooming in on Beth’s watery eyes instead of having her voiceover tell us she was about to lose.
Then, there are the titles. Each episode is named after a chess term (‘Openings’, ‘Exchanges’, ‘Middle Game’, ‘Adjournment’, etc.), which goes to show how much attention the scriptwriters put in for this series, with every element reinforcing the theme of the show instead of taking the easy route of ‘Episode 1, 2, 3’.
Beth’s little consistencies and changes also add to the element of the series. We see a young Beth slowly try on makeup and, more notably, lipstick, as she ages. The shade of her lips ranges from mute pink to bold red, symbolizing her becoming a woman. Daniel Parker, who is in charge of hair and makeup revealed in an interview that “Towards the end, Beth’s shades become similar to her second mother’s as an ode to her. It all helps to tell the story.”
And as far as changes go, it’s nice to know that Beth didn’t lose herself completely on the road to chess stardom. Being accustomed to handshakes with her opponents after a match has concluded, we see nuances of this in her private life. Take, for example, the time she loses her virginity at a college party. After they had ‘done the deed’, Beth gives the guy an awkward pat on the shoulder, as if to say (as she does in her games) “Good job, we’re done with that now”.
It’s always the little things that add up to elevate a film or series even further, and the crew behind The Queen’s Gambit surpassed all expectations.
The tale of Beth Harmon’s path to fame is an engrossing one, made that much more spellbinding by its stellar cast.
Anya Taylor-Joy’s performance undoubtedly anchored the show for me and is perhaps the best decision in the making of this film and I have one reason to prove it: There is no hiding the fact that Taylor-Joy’s character is a lonely one, and what better way to show this than through the windows of one’s soul? The actress is blessed with a pair of bright, wide, and beautiful eyes, which is to her advantage in reflecting the emotions her character is feeling. Not only do we see glimpses of hope and loneliness in them, but Beth also uses them to see through her opponents’ moves and destroy them.
From Thomas Brodie-Sangster to Harry Melling (the boys from Love Actually and Harry Potter have grown up), Moses Ingram to Marielle Heller, this legendary ensemble settled into the psyche of their characters so well and brought the story to life. Though Tevis’ original work is one of fiction, the TV adaptation made it feel like it was based on a true story, as if beyond our screens, Beth Harmon is still the reigning chess champion affixed to the occasional drink and pill or two.
More often than not, I enjoy shows that I can truly understand. Here’s where The Queen’s Gambit stands out for me once more: I have never set foot in the world of chess, which is why I was caught off guard by how much gusto I enjoyed the show with.
Sure, I knew the names of the pieces, but I didn’t quite have the movements memorized. Fazed by the many technicalities of chess, I was still able to catch up with every dialogue and scene in the series, even more so surprised that I found chess to be a gripping game and wanted to re-savor the whole show again.
In one of the scenes, Beth is asked if she knew of apophenia, the “tendency to perceive meaningful connections between unrelated things”. She is then warned that genius and madness often go hand in hand. This insert is a subtle nod to Bobby Fischer—world-renowned chess grandmaster who represented the U.S. to defeat Russian champion Boris Spassky in a match that would become the highlight of the Cold War, reflecting the rivalry between the two countries—who became deranged after his win against Spassky.
Speaking of the Cold War era, the show’s setting is also worthy of a standing ovation. Doing the sixties justice, we are served with glamorous A-line skirts and classic bangs alongside short haircuts, bringing out the fashion staple during Beth’s time. Instead of feeding into the false stereotype that chess players are all nerds who only care about checkmating and not their appearance, the team behind The Queen’s Gambit did a marvelous job by fixing Taylor-Joy’s character up to be stylish. It gives the impression that this young orphan is capable of winning chess in style.
As this review rounds to an end, I would like to shower appreciation on the poster of this miniseries. The featured poster shows Anya Taylor-Joy with that icy glare and iconic fiery hair glancing into the audience as a chessboard lies in front of her, supporting not only playing pieces but also alcohol bottles and the green tranquilizer pills she was once addicted to.
The Queen piece lies in the middle of the print directly below Taylor-Joy, a subtle nod at the series’ title and perhaps hinting at the ending of her becoming the ‘queen of chess’. The essence and general plot of the whole series are made clear in this compact poster, itself requiring no further explanations, which I find to be brilliant.
Ever since its premiere on Netflix in late October, The Queen’s Gambit has delivered a swift blow to existing shows on the streaming platform, rising to number one to dethrone Holidate. To title the miniseries as ‘binge-worthy’ would do it no justice. It is both a work of art in cinema and in writing to be savored, the five-out-of-five kind that leaves you longing for more even after the final credits roll.
The Queen’s Gambit didn’t just breathe life into the fictional Beth Harmon, it breathed life into chess itself.