I’ve always had a soft spot for chess. It is far more interesting and thrilling of a game than many people realize it is, and if more give it a chance then they will be engrossed in its strategy and suspense. The Queen’s Gambit realizes this and more about the game of chess, and is one of the most gripping and enthralling television shows of 2020 as a result. The show lays the conception that chess is boring and elitist to rest once and for all by creating a tournament-based sports drama with more interesting plot progression than almost every football movie in the last decade. It also has one of the finest ensemble casts assembled in recent memory, with every supporting performance bringing substantial weight and substance to the heroine’s journey. Scott Frank, the creator/writer/director of all seven episodes, proves to be an amazing presence in television with The Queen’s Gambit, and Anya Taylor-Joy, the main actress, proves to be a future award-winning A-lister. If anyone wants an amazing show to binge-watch in one go, then that show has arrived, served on a silver platter.
The Queen’s Gambit is essentially a biography of Beth Harmon (Taylor-Joy), a girl who realizes she is a chess master at a very young age. She is orphaned at around age nine after she survives a deadly car accident that killed her single mother, and she is sent to Methuen Home for Girls, a Christian school, immediately after. There she is introduced to a new type of misery in the form of the uniform Christian teachings of this orphanage, but she is also introduced to her love of chess by a janitor (an underused Bill Camp) who plays the game in his spare time. When Beth begins beating him after just two games and annihilating anyone who plays across from her, people begin to realize how much of a legend they are dealing with. Throughout her rise to prominence, she deals with many parallel traumas such as substance abuse, confusion regarding relationships, and the death of those close to her. However, chess is still the centerpiece in all this madness, and proves to be an amazing vehicle for both a character study of a damaged girl and a thrilling/inspiring story of perseverance.
First things first: Anya Taylor-Joy absolutely kills it. She is great in other films like The Witch, Split and Emma., but here she delivers a performance that will get her noticed by people around the world as being one of the most talented up-and-coming actresses of the year. Taylor-Joy embodies Beth’s arrogance, naïveté and addiction marvelously through every shot she is on-screen and never once lets the complexities of her character become too much to handle. I cannot wait for her to get awards acclaim for this performance. Along with this, literally every other performance compliments Taylor-Joy perfectly. From Marielle Heller (director of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood), who plays Beth’s adopted mother with a subtle melancholy of a woman trapped in a situation she cannot escape, to Thomas Brodie-Sangster and Harry Melling, who play two of Beth’s closest friends with considerable complexity, the entire cast is brimming with talent. The smallest performances feel monumental and the most involved performances feel subtle, making this ensemble cast one of my favorites of the year. To reiterate a point I’ve already made, awards need to be given to members of this cast if there is any justice in the world (there isn’t, but that is beyond the point).
The Queen’s Gambit also has some of the finest production design television has seen this year. Streaming services have already been showing off their incredible costume and set design with shows like The Crown and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, but Netflix steps in with a major contender for the best in The Queen’s Gambit. The costumes in nearly every scene, save from those in the orphanage, are a fashion designer’s dream, with chess patterns and ‘60s flair thrown into all of Beth’s outfits. The set design makes one feel like they walked out of their 2020s living room and right into a 1960s shopping mall, with certain scenes having such immaculate backgrounds that it makes one wonder how long it took to visualize and execute. Not enough credit can be given to the various stage hands and art directors who made the look and feel of this show possible, and it rivals The Crown in how accurate and visually stunning it is but without the astronomical budget.
The last factor of that makes this series amazing is writer/director Scott Frank. He wowed viewers with the underrated Godless, a western limited series that needed far more recognition than it received, and is back with a vengeance with The Queen’s Gambit, a more than worthy follow-up. Frank directs and writes all seven episodes, which means the quality of filmmaking rarely dips even a little in all seven hours, with an exception in episode six that I will discuss later. The montage sequences of Beth playing chess and thrashing man after man in the all-star chess tournaments are exciting to say the least and a textbook example of how to use the art of the montage correctly. The Queen’s Gambit expresses a great range of emotions through its chess matches that I doubt anyone watching ever realized the game was capable of, from despair and sadness to joy and cheerful exasperation. The final matches in the final episode are more tense and emotional than most blockbuster action movies even though the stars are only moving pieces on a board, which speaks to Frank and crew’s exceptional talent.
The only aspect of the show that faltered for me was the progression of the plot on a surface level, which ended up being a tad predictable. While never ruining the show or any of the characters, at times it ruined the potential suspense during scenes where it was already clear what outcome the writers were shooting for from the outset. The prime example of this is episode six, where Beth is struggling through her addiction and is at the lowest point in her entire life after she suffers a crushing defeat. She acts irrational and stupid in this episode, and while this is clearly a side effect of her lifelong addiction and her inability to accept loss, it ends up coming across as the writers just making it happen so she can get better. The lows she hits never felt crushing for me, and the entire time I found myself just waiting for her to get back in action so the show could pick up again.
However, the show does pick up, and when it does the result is glorious. The somewhat cliché points of the narrative are few and far between the awesome and cheer-inducing scenes, and dwelling on the misfires too much would be a mistake similar to the ones Beth makes. The Queen’s Gambit is a miraculous achievement for all involved, and I suspect many people will face great exposure from this project. Taylor-Joy has landed the role of Furiosa in the upcoming George Miller/Mad Max reboot alongside Chris Hemsworth and Yahya Abdul Mateen II, and I expect to see similar exposure with many of the other stars of this limited series. It is odd to be saying that the most bingeable and thrilling show of this holiday season is about chess, but here we are. The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix is more than worth your time and I suspect it will be in conversations about quality television for some time.
I give The Queen’s Gambit an A-.