The Queen’s Gambit Is, Pound-For-Pound, Excellent TV
It’s like a Rocky Balboa flick, if like, Rocky played board games
The Queen’s Gambit revolves around Beth Harmon (played by Anya Taylor-Joy), a prodigy orphan who, struggling with an addiction to tranquilizers that started when they were fed to her at an orphanage, develops a knack for the cerebral game of chess. We watch Beth climb up the ranks of the game’s upsettingly patriarchal competition system, mount offenses, fortify defenses and trap helpless kings, while the Cold War era hums forebodingly in the background.
The show is a bildungsroman, but also a suspense thriller, but also a sports anime, but also a Rocky flick if Rocky played board games. Genre-bending contemplations aside, it’s good TV.
It speaks to how compelling this story is told, the way there has been an uptick of people Googling if The Queen’s Gambit is based on a true story, and in some ways it is. While there is no actual Beth Harmon; chess masters Garry Kasparov and Bruce Pandolfini consulted on the show regarding plays each character could make and even how professional players move pieces across the board. There is a thrill to watching Beth and her opponents make their moves, even though we as viewers with a rudimentary-at-best understanding of chess can’t quite comprehend the significance of the Sicilian Defense or how powerful an opening the actual Queen’s Gambit is. The show depends on its audience suspending its disbelief just a little and agreeing to the idea that chess is an extremely brainy game. And so we get a thrill from that, as well as from a kind of voyeuristic view to the world of prodigies and seasoned pros.
What The Queen’s Gambit is especially good at is setting a mood. Composter Rafael Rivera makes strings swell and surge, and every piece on board seems to move with life or death urgency. (Tip: don’t turn on the subtitles—Netflix has a strange habit of describing whether the music is “pensive” or “exciting” and the scoring is better appreciated without its tone being spoon-fed.) The show also has a hell of a lot of tracking shots, which not only build pensiveness but also serve to showcase how Taylor-Joy’s acting prowess comes through, even if she’s moving through a scene with a straight face. And the fashion? Goodness. Emily in Paris, pack your bags.
“I don’t know why my body is so intent on sabotaging my brain,
when my brain is perfectly capable of sabotaging itself.”
More than that though, The Queen’s Gambit is an example of excellent writing, no doubt thanks to the quality of the source material. I’m a sucker for the trope of the tortured, substance-abusing genius, as dated as it is—think Bukowski or Spider Jerusalem or the more contemporary Rick Sanchez. Those characters tend to be male, and that’s part of why it’s so refreshing to see this beat play out with Elizabeth Harmon. The beats we expect go a little differently with her. The downward spiral into drugs and alcohol is normally spurred on by the trappings of fame and power—Beth’s dependency on substance is instigated by an actual practice of orphanages at the time of giving tranquillisers to kids and Beth’s adoptive mother’s raging alcoholism.
Speaking of which, perhaps my favorite thing about the miniseries is Alma Wheatley (played Marielle Heller), who gets to deliver maybe the most literary lines in the script. “I don’t know why my body is so intent on sabotaging my brain, when my brain is perfectly capable of sabotaging itself.” God, that’s good writing.
Take stock of all those things, and it’s the reason The Queen’s Gambit became a smash, despite such little promotion. It does pretty much everything right. This is a tight miniseries, clocking in at seven episodes and yet it crams so much triumph and wit in its run time, the show culminating in an incredibly satisfying climax. For the past couple of days, I’ve literally been looking up chess matches and tutorials to get a better understanding of the game. I guarantee you’ll be doing the same, reacting to pawns moving up a single square, like an announcer on the edge of their seat.
You can watch The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix.
Words Jam Pascual
Art Alexandra Lara