A chess-playing orphan in 20th century Louisiana transcends her means to become a champion in her game. This would be a fair summary of Netflix’s new Anya Taylor-Joy-led miniseries The Queen’s Gambit — it’s also (objectively, come on) boring as hell. On paper, there is nothing I’d be less inclined to watch. Well, football, maybe? At least that poses a good excuse to make nachos and (in better times) have friends over. Anyway, I have a point: The Queen’s Gambit is not what meets the eye.
The series, based on Walter Tevis’s novel of the same name, begins in an orphanage, a setting that, at this point, is basically its own Hollywood cliché. We meet Beth Harmon when she’s 8 years old, orphaned after her mother dies in a car accident. Rather than sugar-coating the narrative Annie-style (Daddy Warbucks to the rescue!) or turning the series into the sort of PG-rated study in “overcoming adversity” that language arts teachers will play for their eighth-graders before a holiday break for years to come, Gambit takes a gritty approach to an all-too-common trope.
Beth develops a drug dependency at the orphanage — an addiction that lurks in the periphery of every frame, threatening to tank her prodigious chess career. Admittedly, bringing addiction to the (chess) table isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel, but it adds tension and heft to material that could otherwise skew as twee. It’s not the manipulative kind of edge-of-your-seat baiting you see in dramatic, but otherwise poorly-executed shows like What/If or Pretty Little Liars. It’s a tension that sustains — a tension that propels you to the next episode the way Breaking Bad or Killing Eve would. You’re waiting for the inevitable fall, but, coming to know Beth as intimately as you do, you pray it won’t come.
The singularity of Gambit’s scope, too, makes it more engaging than expected. Beth and her journey (from the age of 8 to 22) dominates the narrative. Supporting characters come and go — most notably in arcs from Marielle Heller, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, and Moses Ingram — but the focus is always squarely on Taylor-Joy, whose performance is quietly masterful in its own right. I could write a dissertation on the subtextual power of her eyes, but Taylor-Joy’s strength as Beth runs deeper than that. It’s not an easily categorized role. Beth presents herself as a professional, a prodigy years ahead of her age in skill and composure, but the internal strife brewing within, fostered with each drink or pill, is always one wrong move away from spilling over. Though Beth tries to keep it hidden, Taylor-Joy subtly reveals the hairline fractures in her visage.
And while I would no longer classify Gambit as boring, it’s certainly not the easy scroll-through-Twitter-practice-Duolingo multitasking-friendly series Netflix tends to favor (see: Emily in Paris, Tiger King). You have to focus, which is easier said than done these days — but for a chronic phone-in-hand viewer like myself, I found that the show commanded my attention better than anything I’ve seen in months. So go ahead, log off, remind yourself of the rules of chess, and spend 7 hours watching The Queen’s Gambit. You know you have the time.
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