The Queen’s Gambit is a Netflix period drama miniseries based on a novel of the same name written by Walter Tevis. Its screenplay was written by Scott Frank, who is also the miniseries’ director. The Queen’s Gambit became the most watched series on the day of its release on October 28, 2020 and went on to become Netflix’s most successful limited series to date.
The miniseries stars Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon, Isla Johnston as Young Beth Harmon, Bill Camp as Mr. Shaibel, Marcin Dorocinski as Vasily Borgov, Thomas Brodie-Sangster as Benny Watts, Harry Melling as Harry Beltik, Marielle Heller as Alma Wheatley and Moses Ingram as Jolene. The series has won two Golden Globe Awards in 2021, in the categories of Best Limited Series or Television Film and Best Actress – Limited Series or Television Film for Anya Taylor-Joy. It also won an award at the Hollywood Music in Media Awards for Best Original Score in a TV Show/Limited Series.
The show follows nine-year-old orphan Beth Harmon, a quiet and seemingly unremarkable girl who has a hard time making friends in the orphanage. The only thing that grasps her interest is a game she sees Mr. Shaibel playing, who is a janitor at the orphanage. He is unwilling to teach her to play at first, but her persistence eventually wins him over. She also develops a serious addiction to the sedatives given out by the orphanage at this young age, but this otherwise horrible addiction has an unexpected side effect – she’s able to analyze every game played against Mr. Shaibel before going to sleep, making her a better player in the process. Shaibel isn’t a patient teacher, but he is a good chess player, and Beth learns the game very quickly.
Despite showing incredible skill, her chess career doesn’t start until years later when she is adopted into a fairly troubled family. Her struggles in the orphanage pale in comparison with her absent adopted father and traditionalistic mother who doesn’t think she should be playing chess. Life in suburbia isn’t turning out to be all she had hoped it to be. She has to resort to taking a loan from Mr. Shaibel in order to pay the entry fee to her first real chess tournament. Her career in chess takes off afterward as she starts to travel the country to attend more tournaments, but her struggles with addiction and family issues continue. After hitting rock bottom, her love for the game is reinvigorated once more and her friends help her prepare for a journey to Russia, to attend the world championship tournament.
Needless to say, this show is a chess player’s wet dream. After all, the show’s title is the name of a popular chess opening. Even the individual episodes are all named after chess terminology: Openings, Exchanges, Doubled Pawns, Fork, etc. With that in mind, it may come to you as a surprise when I say that this miniseries isn’t really about chess. Yes, much of the screen time is spent over chess boards, but if you pay close attention, the focus is always on the characters’ faces. The actual movement of the chess pieces and the state of the board take a sideline as the players’ brilliantly acted reactions are put on full display. Every shy glance and nervous tap tells a story of its own. You can sense the mood shift as you get deeply invested into the game, even without knowing a thing about chess, and this begins to reveal the true core of the show. It’s a coming-of-age drama first, and a story about chess second.
And Beth Harmon’s story of personal development doesn’t disappoint. Having followed her from childhood to adulthood in the short span of seven episodes, I was completely enthralled in it and wanting for more! Anya Taylor-Joy’s performance is truly spectacular, and I think the casting team couldn’t have picked anyone better for the part if they tried. There’s something about her demeanor that fits with the period drama’s 1950s setting perfectly. At the same time, her struggles as a teenager pursuing happiness and getting lost on her path are universal, transcending the show’s time period.
There’s a lot of reasons to love this show, but the most impactful part of it for me was its ending. Everything that’s happened over the course of the series is paid off in one of the most memorable and satisfying finales I’ve ever experienced in a TV show. And while I certainly yearn for more, I also believe that it’s perfect as it is. If you’re interested in chess, or like the aesthetics of the 1950s, or are just looking for a great new show to watch, I highly recommend diving into this The Queen’s Gambit. It won’t take up too much of your time with its seven one-hour episodes, but by the end of it, it will feel as though you’ve experienced the adventure of a lifetime. This show truly is of the rare kind that will keep you thinking about it for months after you’ve finished it.
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