Series Review: “The Queen’s Gambit”
The instantly addictive story of a brilliant young mind which takes the world of chess by storm, while a battle between genius and addiction rages within. It’s a must-see.
The first time I saw the face of Anya Taylor-Joy in her breakout performance in The Witch, I was transfixed. And now that wondrous face has been employed to maximum effect in her star-making, central performance in The Queen’s Gambit, a visually stunning 7-episode series that will do for the game of chess what Jumanji did for board games.
Based on the novel by Walter Tevis, this visually scrumptious show tells the story of a 9 yr. old orphan named Beth Harmon, who is delivered to the care of a strict, ultra-religious orphanage after her single mother kills herself in a mysterious car crash. Based in Kentucky in the mid-60s, there seem to be little to no rules regarding the practice of widespread tranquilizing of the girls, no matter their age. Young Beth, already a quiet and introspective outsider, quickly becomes addicted to the sedative which her caregivers dish out like candy. When she stumbles upon the janitor, Mr. Shaibel, and wonders about the strange-looking game laid out on his little table in the cellar, he tries to explain the game of chess but opts instead to show her rather than tell her. Thus begins the apprenticeship of Beth under the tutelage of the orphanage’s janitor.
It’s not long before Shaibel realizes he’s witnessing a true prodigy in the making, while Beth herself discovers that it’s only when her mind is blurred by the sedative that it can laser-focus on the moves on the chessboard with an almost preternatural acuity. In her nocturnal, drug-infused state, Beth has only to look up to the ceiling of her dormitory to watch — as if on a giant screen — the board and its pieces literally take shape and begin moving from square to square, in elaborate gameplay. Beth becomes consumed by the game yet still only has a glancing idea of the larger world of competitive chess. Her addiction to the pills continues, despite new laws that outlaw their prescription to children, which leads to an almost tragic set of circumstances that result in Beth being forbidden to play chess with Mr. Shaibel or anyone else.
Now a teenager, Beth is adopted by a childless, middle-aged couple whose marriage is on the rocks, and while observing her adoptive mother’s drinking habit, Beth also discovers her prescription for the very same tranquilizer of her youth. Her pill addiction has now found a new best friend: booze. She also resurrects her chess game, and it’s not long before Beth begins competing on the local level, learning the ropes, and quickly making a name for herself as a young female wunderkind. In the masculine world of chess, Beth Harmon sticks out like a sore thumb but what makes her truly special is her zenith, laser-like ability to size up her foe and dispense with him mercilessly. Still a complete loner, Beth also comes across as not quite human in that her aloof affect isn’t at all performative; she truly can’t connect. Or just doesn’t care. And her addictions to chess, alcohol and pills (in that order) make it impossible for anyone to get too close.
After a while, Beth’s adoptive mother, Alma (herself a frustrated and talented intellectual and artist) realizes Beth’s brilliance and her ability to become a star. Not to mention win considerable cash. And so begins a chapter of mother-daughter travels to tournaments far and wide, in which Beth slowly comes to regard Alma with a degree of familial affection. Which is huge for Beth. And throughout all the competitions and publicity opportunities, the one adversary who alone intimidates her is the Russian champion, Borgov.
As Beth continues to ascend the ladder of word-class chess, it’s only a matter of time before her mettle will be tested, not only against the best Americans (some of whom will emerge privately in critically important ways in her future) but the champion of all champions, Borgov himself. . . and on his home turf. The captivating journey of Beth Harmon doesn’t require a familiarity with the game of chess to hang on every Rook, Pawn and Knight that’s sacrificed over the course of 7 immersing episodes.
This enticing and addictive series was created by Scott Frank (based on the Tevis novel) who brought another excellent show about women in traditionally male roles, Godless, to the streaming scene a few years back. Much has been made of the genius-to-madness theme in The Queen’s Gambit, and although the connection is clearly there, it’s more broadcloth than fine fabric.
Yes, Beth’s mother (in flashback) was apparently herself a mathematical genius, and yes her suicidal impulse was no doubt stirred by whatever psychological demons plagued her sad life. But I don’t see the character of Beth Harmon as anything approaching madness, as much as a life uprooted and separated from the normal ties that bind, at a susceptibly young age. Her genius is abundant and probably makes for a disconnect that is emblematic on its own merit. In many ways and until the very end of her story, the most real-world experience for Beth is landscaped on the 64 squares of a chessboard. The game, the board, its pieces, and the myriad moves and plays of the chess litany can never let her down. . . the way the real world and real people have and will. For a loner such as Beth, chess is all she’s ever needed. At least that’s what her hubris has suggested to her up until now. In one of the most exhilarating final episodes of a show ever, Beth finds out if she has what it takes to conquer the world. She also finds out if she can do it alone. And if that’s what she really wants, in the end.
Queen’s Gambit is presently streaming on Netflix.
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