To be clear, I do not like chess. No, not even a little bit. So, when I passively clicked on the pilot episode of The Queen’s Gambit, a new Netflix original based on Walter Tevis’s novel of the same name, I braced myself for a reaction somewhere barely north of boredom. To my pleasant surprise, I would come to experience anything but.
The Queen’s Gambit stars the formidable Anya Taylor-Joy. She plays a troubled young chess prodigy, Beth Harmon, who self-medicates with a combination of booze, sedatives and 64 black and white squares. Traversing from her humble beginnings as an orphan in Kentucky to the glamourous, high-stakes world of professional chess in just seven episodes, the miniseries pulls no punches. It leans into heartbreak, greed, lust, languor, jubilation, fear and just about every other measure on the spectrum of human emotion. Still, somehow, it spares its audience of whiplash. It stands its ground against melodrama and subsequently delivers a story that, above all else, feels unabashedly real.
We see Harmon, at just nine years old, learn to numb herself to her luckless circumstances. We see her years later as a young woman dancing around her house intoxicated while listening to “Venus” by Shocking Blue, losing herself in a spin only to vomit into one of her chess trophies. The progression of Beth’s addiction is tragic, yes, but it is also endemic to her circumstances. As the up-and-coming star of the chess world, Harmon’s compatriots identify that she is destined to burn too bright too fast. For every victory on the board, she still takes a pained step backward in her personal life. That said, despite her status as a prodigy, Harmon’s wins (both in chess and in life) are never guaranteed. The result? Stakes underscore every episode of The Queen’s Gambit. Even after watching Harmon enjoy a string of victories, I found myself wondering, “Can she really do it this time?” before each subsequent match.
Also, the costumes? Unlike other episodic flicks like Maniac, The Politician and Euphoria (blasphemous, I know), the aesthetic of The Queen’s Gambit dazzles without pulling focus from the centerpiece of the series: character. The characters appear enmeshed in the fabrics that contain them. A plurality of plaids and checkered prints, cinched waists and striking collars — every scene is a feast for the eyes. (No wonder that Danielle Braff of The New York Times wrote, “‘Queen’s Gambit’ Costumes Make Us Want to Toss Our Leggings.”)
Of course, no series is without its fault. I could have done without so much time spent in the Kentucky group home, where a young Beth Harmon (Isla Johnston) stares expressionlessly down the lens for one too many scenes. At such interludes, I remained transfixed thanks to the promise of more Anya Taylor-Joy around the next corner.
In every sense, Taylor-Joy’s performance is remarkable. She stuns at every turn, both with her expression and her restraint. She forces us to fall head over kitten heels for a hero like Beth Harmon, whose self-righteousness, ambition and icy demeanor might otherwise put off an audience. But Taylor-Joy is not the only actor who impresses. Marielle Heller provides a moving performance as Alma Wheatley, Harmon’s adoptive mother. And the men who flock to Harmon’s side likewise rise to the occasion of her company. Jacob Fortune-Lloyd charms as D.L. Townes, Harry Melling warms hearts as Harry Beltik and Thomas Brodie-Sangster turns heads as the “sexy string bean” of every teenager’s misguided dreams.
My point is this: Even if you too could not care less for chess, please give The Queen’s Gambit a try. It may not make you fall for the game, but its rich assortment of characters (all of whom you will come to love) will make you respect it. And who knows? Altogether, the miniseries may just dazzle you. Despite my harsh expectations, it certainly dazzled me.