Released in October of 2020 while many were at home in lockdown, Netflix’s THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT is a thrilling, absorbing, and stylish series about Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy), an orphaned chess prodigy who takes the world by storm while struggling with alcohol and drug addiction. Based on a novel by Walter Tevis, the limited series follows Beth for around a decade as she grows from a lonely but talented child to an elegant young woman with enormous skill, a mind of steel, and a loyal band of friends.
THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT is Netflix’s most watched scripted limited series ever released and for good reason. A story of a competitive chess player may not seem that engaging, yet this series manages to create a truly captivating world that’s somehow more exciting than a detective story. While the series is about chess, it is more about a woman thinking. The majority of the audience doesn’t really understand the rules of chess so we spend much of the time watching Beth and her opponents think out their moves, which has proven to be extremely entertaining.
While many elements are at work in this series to create such a successful story, a favorite has to be the editing. Because there are so many chess games throughout the series, the editor had to find a way to make them each as interesting as the last. To do this, editor Michelle Tesoro employs a variety of techniques such as playing with fast and slow motion, segmenting the screen in a mosaic like fashion to show many games at the same time, and focusing on the characters little movements and glances to allow an audience without any chess knowledge to understand what is happening.
The design team of THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT is also an integral part of this series. Everything from the deep-toned lighting design to the autumnal production color scheme is carefully crafted to reflect Beth’s world and the character herself. The costumes and the makeup also stick out as key storytelling techniques. Most notably, they are used to reflect Beth’s mental state. In one scene, for example, dramatic eyeliner is used to reflect how frantic and borderline unhinged Beth is feeling at that moment.
While generally I consider THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT to be a triumph, there are a few conventions that I was not pleased to see. Most glaringly, the black friend trope. Jolene, Beth’s best friend at the orphanage, falls into almost every black friend cliché; she is a character with little dimension whose only purpose in the plot is to appear when Beth needs help (despite a half assed effort by the writers in the last episode to assure the audience that she is not there to ‘save’ Beth). This sort of trope not only demonstrates a lack of creativity from the creators but also a certain disregard for the growing awareness of race representation in media. The character of Jolene is not herself offensive but rather indicative of Netflix’s superficial efforts to be inclusive. This is particularly evident when we look at her character as part of a larger community of black characters on television. Rarely do we see a black woman as the protagonist in a series, yet they appear disproportionately as a sort of sidekick to the white heroes. Despite this, Moses Ingram, the actress who plays Jolene, provides a beautiful performance that displays a talent that is sadly underused.
Along with Moses, one of my favorite performances in the series is that of Beth’s adopted mother, Alma, played by director Marielle Heller. While on paper her character of a depressed alcoholic housewife may seem trite, Heller brings new dimensions to her character. When Beth begins to gain fame and quite a bit of money for her chess playing, one would expect Alma to become overbearing and greedy. Yet the character surprises the audience by becoming a truly caring and supportive mother who does not expect too much of Beth and consistently shows up to watch her play. This relationship is a surprising one and a truly heartwarming pleasure to watch. The two characters have a lot in common. One has lost a mother, the other has lost a child. They both feel broken in some ways yet together, they find a way to heal from their traumas.
Finally the most impressive part of THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT is 24 year-old Anya Taylor- Joy. Known previously for her captivating roles in THE WITCH (2015), SPLIT (2016), and THOROUGHBREDS (2017), Taylor-Joy stars in the series in arguably her best role yet. She is a bewitching performer who is sure to rise now that she’s had the opportunity to elegantly display her talents in this show. Much like Beth’s control of the game, Anya Taylor-Joy’s performance controls the screen. Her glances and slight shifts are as calculated, precise, and effective as her characters moves on the chess board. She is definitely one of the most accomplished aspects of this series along with director and writer Scott Frank. This series is utterly enchanting and by the end, even the toughest viewer will sit back, knock over their king, and resign to loving this show.