The show that everyone has been talking about at the minute is a series that revolves around chess. The Queen’s Gambit follows female chess player, Beth Harmon, and her quest to become the world’s best chess player period. The show was created by Scott Frank and Allan Scott and based on the 1983 novel of the same name by Walter Tevis. A lot of people have commented that the show has made a boring subject amazing but I beg to differ. I think it’s a brilliant show enhanced by an interesting and unexpected topic. As someone who used to play chess when they were little, it is an understatement to say that the competitions were very much male-dominated and there was more anticipation for the male categories than the females. Beth is subject to much belittlement and astonishment from her male peers. Even when at the top of her game, she is looked down upon by the grandmasters and champions.
To assume that the show is just about chess is to undermine it completely. Beneath the surface, we encounter themes of gender inequality, gender roles, alcoholism, drug addiction and loss among many more. In a way, all of these issues are brought to the light through chess and specifically Beth’s journey in the game. From the very beginning, Beth is an outsider as she doesn’t enjoy the same activities to her counterparts. The moment she sees the orphanage custodian, Mr Shaibel (Bill Camp), playing chess in the basement, she is curious and eager to learn. This curiosity then turns into an obsession fueled by tranquilliser drugs the orphanage controversially gives its pupils. Beth becomes a product of a traumatic childhood and her inability to lose gracefully and overanalyse hinders her at important moments in her career. Because of her reluctance to conform to societal ideals, she is often reclusive and isolated but all the more determined to climb her way to the top. The shows structure does a great job at presenting her challenges and obstacles.
Anya Taylor-Joy’s performance as Beth is nothing short of revolutionary. She is so captivating that every expression and word leaves the audience waiting with anticipation. Beth is one of the most complex female characters that TV has seen in a while. Academically brilliant and naturally talented at chess, she also struggles with drug and drink addiction as well as an unhealthy obsession with the game. Chronicling her life from her time in an orphanage after her mother’s tragic suicide to her adulthood in which she travels the world playing grandmasters in a bid to become one herself, The Queen’s Gambit is the most exciting and riveting TV show to air this year. From a curious novice to a strategic professional, Beth’s story is one of aspiration and tragedy as her career’s incline also results in an inner downwards spiral. Despite her flaws, the audience still roots for Beth and that’s mainly due to Taylor-Joy’s ability to really dig deep in her characterisation.
In support, Marielle Heller does a stunning performance as Beth’s adoptive mother, Alma Wheatley. Alma is a sickly woman who quickly gages onto Beth’s potential as a chess prodigy and assists her in her first bout of tournaments. I am very familiar with Heller’s work as a director (you can read my previous post on her films here) but haven’t encountered her in an acting role before. An important character in the first half of the series, Alma is just as flawed as her daughter. Leaving Beth to her own devices most of the time as she succumbs to frequent sickness and alcoholism, Alma is both a friend and mother, although the latter comes later as Beth begins to succeed in professional chess. Watching the intense moments between Beth and Alma makes for some of the highlights in the show as well as Alma’s ability to bring out the more human side of Beth.
In a year full of unfortunate events piled on more unfortunate events, The Queen’s Gambit is the show we all need for a good dose of quality television. I predict that Taylor-Joy will be the one to beat at the Golden Globes and hopefully will even receive Emma recognition as well. The fact that it has received overwhelming praise from female chess players, including grandmaster Jennifer Shahade, is only proof of the impeccable details and emotion that has been poured into every second. Without a doubt, The Queen’s Gambit is my favourite new show of the year and I don’t think it will be beaten.
The Queen’s Gambit is available to watch on Netflix and I strongly recommend you catch it if you haven’t seen it yet.