One of the greatest measures of time is pop culture. Years are meted out in franchise releases, months are marked by the beginnings and endings of beloved TV shows. Even societal change – be it global pandemics that reimagine the modern workplace or civil rights protests that usher in needed structural reform – are often filtered through the lens of entertainment; through memes and social media trends, through mini-series and documentaries.
If we’re the moving hands, pop culture is the numbered tics we oscillate between, collective moments that bring connection or shared escapism. Despite the singularity of this year and the strange lives we all lead now — face-masked and isolated and virtually-present — 2020 didn’t devalue pop culture’s ability to gauge and qualify the passage of time. If anything, it made it more vital.
After all, it’s tough to remember what you were doing 11 months ago or where you were when the lockdowns began in March. It’s easier to orient your memory by referencing Parasite’s historic Oscar win, or Netflix’s surprise Tiger King hit. And in a year that gave us chaos – impeachments and elections, wildfires, the deaths of Kobe Bryant and George Floyd – it seemed pop culture would follow suit; that we’d be destined to remember 2020 with the help of Carole Baskin Tik-Tok dances and Baby Yoda’s flirtation with genocide.
And yet, the show that became something of a phenomenon this year had nary a frog egg or Joe Exotic in sight. In fact, compared to the rest of the TV landscape – from anti-superhero romps like The Boys to genre-bending sci-fi blasts like Umbrella Academy and dizzyingly-layered prestige dramas like I May Destroy You – Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit was comparatively boring. At least, on paper.
The period drama from Godless creator Scott Frank (adapted from a Walter Tevis best-selling novel), is a fairly straight-forward underdog story. Anya Taylor-Joy plays a chess prodigy named Beth Harmon who loses her mother to suicide and spends her childhood in an orphanage for young girls. It’s there that she’s introduced to the two greatest influencers in her life: a chessboard and a crippling addiction. The first is a steadying presence, a neatly-defined place of belonging for a girl whose life is constantly in flux – she is eventually adopted by an unhappily-married couple before being orphaned once more later in the series.
The second takes the form of tranquilizers first, fed to her by orderlies at her all-girls school, before quickly growing to include booze and stimulants to keep her gameplay sharp and her mind quiet. Beth is presented as uncommonly special, with an ability so rare and exceptional, she’s schooling men three times her age before she even fully grasps the mechanics of the game she’s playing. When she greets sleep with green pills she’s stashed in her toothbrush holder, she drifts off to giant gameboards hosting a flurry of pawns and queens and rooks on the ceiling above her. But as gifted as Beth is, she’s also severely emotionally stunted, incapable of making connections that last longer than the few minutes it takes her to checkmate her opponents. She struggles with companionship – from her childhood friend Jolene to her adoptive mother Mrs. Wheatley – preferring to confine herself to the checkered boxes she can control.
She’s a compelling heroine – flawed and self-centered and yearning to be better – which no doubt contributes to the show’s success. Netflix recently labeled The Queen’s Gambit as its most-watched scripted limited-series to date with 62 million views in the show’s first week. But there’s more to the story’s winning formula than just Taylor-Joy’s hypnotic stare and Beth’s intelligent command of a classic board game.
You wouldn’t have described chess as “sexy” before watching this series. Now, people are streaming games on Twitch and buying up boards faster than manufacturers can make them. You wouldn’t have labeled the 1960s, with its blunt micro-fringes and over-lined cat-eyes, as particularly revolutionary in terms of fashion. Yet now, people are restocking their wardrobes with Mod patterns and A-line shapes and head scarfs. The Queen’s Gambit, a period piece about a boardgame that conjures up old men in public parks, has somehow become the mecca of the pop culture zeitgeist.
Like its lead, the show defies convention at every turn, refusing to be neatly summarized by modernizing classic tropes and playing to the strengths of its traditionalist story format. The Queen’s Gambit knows we love an underdog story, but we also romanticize the notion of genius, of possessing exceptional qualities that elevates someone to something more God-like than human. (We’ve written about this form of binge-watching capital with The Last Dance.) We like to be reminded of the potential for greatness, and Beth, with all of her quirks, her oddities, her traits that make her both other and other-worldly, fits that bill. That she’s misunderstood because of her brilliance only makes her more interesting and easily idolized.
And Frank, who’s immersed us in lush landscapes and bygone eras before with his criminally underrated feminist Western Godless, has a sixth sense for mining tension from the most ordinary wells. With the help of former world champion Garry Kasparov and New York City chess coach Bruce Pandolfini as consultants, Frank has managed to craft the show’s gameplay by channeling the same element of suspense that makes some of the most nail-biting sporting events so mesmerizingly watchable. His camera flits between Taylor-Joy’s penetrating stare and a burst of lightly-defined moves on the board. A knight jumps a pawn and she smirks. A Sicilian countermove comes with closed hands and a pensive gaze. A bishop’s mistake is met with a glower and a clenched jaw. Each measured route is accentuated with the kind of wordless acting Joy has mastered in her short career, adding an element of storytelling that convinces us we understand the game and how it’s going for Beth.
But it’s not just the refreshing realization that chess can be exciting that makes this show so addictive – though the fact that we’ve all be forced to pick up odd hobbies during self-isolation probably shouldn’t be overlooked.
No, there’s a form of escapism that The Queen’s Gambit trades in that feels especially tempting right now. The show’s not asking us to imagine magic-infused alternate realities or intricate planetary systems in deep space, but it is gently nudging us to exist in a different time. A more simple time, some might say. Admittedly, it does this quite deceptively. The 60s were a time of upheaval, one that signaled revolution, especially in the light of the Civil Rights Movement, but the show foregoes any critical look at the time period and what it meant for society as a whole in favor of focusing on Beth’s absorbing quest for greatness. She’s able to block out the world, and so are we, focusing instead on the slick, stylish portrait of a bygone era. Sure, Cold War subplots are teased – at one point Beth is even recruited to spy when competing in a tournament in Russia – but Frank doesn’t treat any of the political implications of his heroine’s talent as anything more than dramatic fodder for her greater destiny.
She is a woman dominating a traditionally male field during a time when her gender was unfairly marginalized. She is young and beautiful, obtusely apathetic to how desired her talent is by the men around her. She is troubled and traumatized, happy to drink herself into oblivion rather than confront the hurts she’s suffered and she often is remorseless when she inflicts those same pains on others. It’s rare, in any series much less one that’s set in a period filled with rampant sexism, centered around a sport that was historically barred to women, that a character like Beth is allowed to exist, to struggle, to fail, and to triumph. We’d like to think that it’s this element of Frank’s story – not just his attention to detail, the glossed-over reimagining of the past, the adrenaline-packed embellishments he’s added to an old board game – that’s catapulted The Queen’s Gambit to the top of every “Best Of” list this year.
Maybe the success of this show and others like it – Hulu’s The Great, Netflix’s The Crown, – signals a new era for period dramas, one that inventively tackles a decade or comedically narrates the fall of an empire or affords the spotlight to people who wouldn’t normally warrant a seven-episode series. One that takes risks and approaches history from refreshing new angles and teaches us something while gifting us the kind of escapism we so clearly crave right now.
Whatever amalgam made The Queen’s Gambit a pop culture phenomenon this year, here’s hoping other shows can replicate its magic.