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Illustration by Tonia Zhang

The Queen’s Gambit: Part Coming-of-Age Story, Part Character Study

Complex characters, a rock-solid script, 60s music and to top it all, Anya Taylor-Joy’s tour de force performance — The Queen’s Gambit pushes the boundaries of television. It is tragic that it is a miniseries, but that is probably for the best.

Nov 21, 2020

Disclaimer: This article contains spoilers for The Queen’s Gambit.
Rook takes rook. Knight takes Queen’s pawn. Pawn to KB4. And that’s a check.
A young girl, barely fourteen, lays in her bed in an orphanage’s cramped dormitory in Kentucky as she hallucinates towering shadows of black and grey on the ceiling in the middle of the night. It’s an eight-by-eight chessboard; she takes the rook with surprising self-assurance, nudges the knight forward and gracefully finishes with the pawn. Every night, she plays through hundreds, if not thousands, of scenarios and possibilities on that ceiling. The darkness, the ceiling, the green pills and her own razor sharp mind are her only company. This is how we enter the life of Beth Harmon, the orphaned chess prodigy and the female-lead — played marvelously by Anya-Taylor Joy — of The Queen’s Gambit, Netflix’s latest miniseries, adapted from Walter Tevis’ 1983 eponymous novel and created by Scott Frank, which has been constantly topping the charts since its release.
Set in the 1950s in Methuen Home, a Christian girls’ orphanage, the series’ start is positively Dickensian. Beth’s time at Methuen — when the character is played by Isla Johnstone — has a captivating, fantasy novel-like feel to it. On one of her early days, she stumbles onto Mr. Shaibel’s — the custodian; another stellar performance by Bill Camp — lair in the basement. Before we know it, Shaibel is teaching Harmon chess, and, a little while later, being bested at his own game. Chess becomes Harmon’s escape, and in a world where little gives her a sense of control and comfort, the game and the custodian provide her with a little of both. It is also here that Beth develops a life-long fondness for the tranquilizer Librium.
Beth’s rise hereon is nothing short of meteoric, as she casually plays a simultaneous with the local chess club, then moves to regional tournaments and the U.S. Open soon afterward. Amid all this, she’s adopted by Alma and Allston, a middle-aged local Kentucky couple. Her new home and “family,” though comfortable and objectively superior by Methuen standards, are far from idyllic: Allston is aloof and indifferent to Beth’s existence and Alma, while good natured and kind, is a pill-popping, adrift alcoholic. Matters are made worse when the adoptive father abandons them, leaving them to fend for themselves.
From there on, chess takes Beth, alongside her mother, from Kentucky to Las Vegas and from Paris to Moscow. Throughout these journeys, we see more than a dozen games; each matched with a distinct subplot — from sexual tension to inner reckoning — of its own. Steven Miezler, the cinematographer, does a remarkable job: the games are beautifully shot, dramatic and absorbing. Miezler, throughout the series, succeeds in breathing life into a stoic board game such that even the disinterested layman is left inspired and itching to play a game or two. I write this after losing my sixth game in the last three days on, and I’d rather not admit the number I have played.
The Queen’s Gambit is part character study and part coming-of-age story. Each game, each victory or loss, each friend or lover pushes Beth to grow. After each loss, Beth drowns herself in gallons of booze. Those periods are where we see more of Beth herself, and less of the chess prodigy on the cover of glossy magazines. It is in those intermissions that Beth’s single-minded focus momentarily shifts from the chessboard. Chess rivals, friends, romantic interests slip in and out, often pushing Beth both personally and professionally, all the while keeping her worst instincts at bay. Always on a steady diet of alcohol and pills, each game that she plays, she’s playing against herself: her impulses, her anger and her addictions.
Then there’s the underdog narrative. Time and again, the show and Harmon’s world reminds the audience of what being a woman — even if supremely gifted — feels like in a field dominated by men. Quite pleasantly, this narrative, though always in the backdrop, can never truly flourish: Harmon remains remarkably unfazed by her positionality as a woman. Harmon carries herself with unapologetic femininity, often donning bold geometric patterns with the elegance of a British-royal-cum-style-icon.
Quite ironically, this is partly where The Queen’s Gambit falls short. Harmon’s rise to the top is met by little challenge. It is crucial to consider that Beth’s rise is almost frictionless and fantastical: at best, it is met by well-intentioned surprise, and at its worst, by casual sexism and her male opponents’ frowns. Her positionality as a woman in a man’s game remains unexplored, her struggles unseen and her stories untold. Gambit sacrifices the underdog narrative as well as potential moments of realism and unpredictability.
The series, however, does a commendable job at not succumbing to Hollywood tropes. Despite the single-minded focus on Beth, throughout the seven episode saga, other characters — from Alma to Jolene, Beth’s friend and confidante at Methuen Home — are constructed with a complexity that leaves the audience second guessing their next move.
Even for someone who remains ignorant of how the knights move or what the Sicilian Defense is, The Queen’s Gambit is a delight to watch. Complex characters, a rock-solid script, 60s music and to top it all, Anya Taylor-Joy’s tour de force performance — The Queen’s Gambit pushes the boundaries of television. It is tragic that it is a miniseries, but that is probably for the best. And as Harmon would probably agree, it is better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all.
Vatsa Singh is Opinion Editor. Email him at
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