I hadn’t heard of or read about Netflix’ latest hit miniseries The Queen’s Gambit (based on the novel by the same name) when my enchanting significant other casually suggested it last week. Goodness me, am I ever thankful she did. This show caught me completely off guard and it has nested itself firmly in the upper echelons of my best-of-the-year list. Seven delicious episodes of roughly an hour depict the story of a young girl in the 1960’s getting acquainted with chess as she engages in an impromptu game with the janitor down in the basement of the orphanage where she resides. They quickly realise her talent for it is beyond remarkable and from there we follow her as she basically rockets straight to the top levels of international competition. To be honest, the premiss didn’t particularly speak to me at first but it wasn’t long before I revised my initial viewpoint.
First off, the protagonist, Beth Harmon, is an absolute delight. She is well-mannered and sweet but also confident and ambitious. In magnificent contrast, though, one might call her somewhat socially challenged and she is evidently quite prone to self-destruction (mainly by way of substance abuse) contextualized by her background story which is pretty dark at times to say the least. This specific narrative is revealed in a brilliantly paced set of flashbacks and although it certainly is relevant to the story and adds a certain perspective, it remains elegantly subordinate allowing the true star of the series – namely the game of chess… d’uh – to shine fully (see last paragraph). Additionally, the show doesn’t force-feed sentiment or barfs out exposition leading the viewer to a specific mindset. Rather, the way Beth behaves feels entirely organic and consistent with the events that occur and how her character evolves through the years. It is subtle and genuine and extremely efficient. I applaud the writers for the immaculate precision displayed and actress Anya Taylor-Joy for her magnetic performance. As far as flawed characters go, this particular one is flawlessly brought to life.
Side characters are equally fleshed out and enjoyable. Certain elements could have easily brought about your stereotypical villains (the staff at the orphanage, the fellow students at her school, the competition at the tournaments) but apart from a crooked (substitute) parent here and there, you will find very little resembling an antagonist. This is somewhat unconventional but truly pays off. The show isn’t at all devoid of tension because of it and you remain committed and eager to learn what happens next.
Refreshingly, they also manage to stay clear of crazy plot twists, ostentatious political agendas or the kind of extremely dramatic or brutal instances we are so often presented with these days (by lazy writers hoping to capture and hold attention through mere shock). Instead to excel the show doesn’t need much more than gradually introducing lovable and intriguing characters in a jaw-droppingly detailed setting (gorgeous wardrobe, hairstyles and vehicles, that hideous wallpaper everywhere, mid-flight cigarette-smoking and the omnipresent Russophobia all of which result in seamless and rather immediate immersion) and having them play out a relatively grounded albeit inconspicuously exciting story. There are social themes sprinkled left and right, yes, but this fits with the era and context in which the story takes place and simply provide some added spice.
I would be remiss not to commit a paragraph to the obvious heart of the show. Indeed, it is made quite evident that the game of chess is pure beauty deserving of the utmost awe. The writers address it with such great esteem and manage to render its cosmic scope and qualities bordering on the mystical in a highly accessible and entertaining way through riveting scenes where characters discuss chess literature or obscure tactics or simply play out matches with long stretches devoid of any talking. I’m far too feeble-minded for the game myself, and as such haven’t the slightest about what exactly was going on most of the time. Nevertheless, the editing is rock-solid, and the performances are remarkable throughout (with excellent dialogue to work with) so prior knowledge isn’t a pre-requisite to acknowledge and appreciate the game’s unimaginable depth. I guess it is a testament to how well the makers know their craft when something I understand literally nothing of somehow remains so intensely captivating. Good stuff.