Plenty of debate exists about whether chess should be classified as a sport. Dozens of countries have hopped aboard the “yes” train. A few countries are even attempting to push chess into the 2024 Olympics, and good for them. I’m not here to die on either side of that hill, but I will insist upon one point: while chess is certainly not a contact sport, Anya Taylor-Joy’s piercing gaze could qualify as a lethal weapon against opponents. As fictional chess prodigy Beth Harmon in Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit, Taylor-Joy is every bit of the powerhouse that one would expect from an actress who landed the Furiosa prequel role. Every steely stare and turn of her head, and each lowering of her eyes and crossing of arms — it’s all in the furtherance of battle. And she’s good, damn good.
Little doubt existed, for anyone who’s watched Taylor-Joy in The Witch, Split, or any of her rapidly accumulating credits, that she’s got presence, but The Queen’s Gambit makes exquisite and methodical use of her talents. And like any chess grandmaster, Taylor-Joy’s biggest strengths lie not within the moves themselves but in transitions between game stages, including calculations that no one can see. Her performance here is like a choreographed (yet grueling) dance, even when she’s sitting perfectly still or reclining upon various pieces of furniture. She does that a great deal over the course of the season, but somehow, she’s utterly riveting during every onscreen moment.
Somehow, as well, this chess-drama is a lot more interesting than it has any right to be.
Much of the series’ success has to do with the “chess” aspect of the story acting as a sumptuous cloak for multiple universal themes. Chief among those elements would be the underdog tale, which we don’t often see outside of the contact-sport context. Speaking of which, it feels necessary to point out the common ground between The Queen’s Gambit and another recent Netflix arrival, Cobra Kai. Not only are both the best at making us root for the underdog characters, but each show made me root for projects that weren’t necessarily expected to ride high. Be honest — how many people really believed a The Karate Kid revival would fare so much better than most revivals or reboots? The same question could be asked for a story about chess.
Look at me, mentioning a karate-focused franchise in the same breath as one that revolves around a strategy-focused board game. Yet both stories appeal to a similar audience. Both shows carry the same level of emotional gravity, and The Queen’s Gambit steps up as a dramatic and suspenseful and, yes, unexpectedly intense show.
Beth Harmon lives and dies by the fall of the pawns (and rooks and queens) on her opponents’ boards. Even more telling is the presence of Godless director Scott Frank, who’s co-creating, showrunning, directing, writing, and executive producing. If that wasn’t promising enough, consider that The Queen’s Gambit novel, which was published in 1983, was committed to the page by Walter Tevis, who also happened to pen 1959’s The Hustler novel, which led to the 1961 movie (starring Paul Newman) of the same name. What’s truly sobering is that The Queen’s Gambit has been destined for adaptation for over a decade, including a version meant to star Ellen Page and Heath Ledger.
Ledger’s posthumous-Oscar-winning clout lends gravity to anything that he was even tangentially attached to when he died, and even moreso considering the tragic dynamics of The Queen’s Gambit. Beth’s orphan-plight sources from a great trauma, in which her mathematically-inclined mother perished. As a child, she’s stuck in a tranquilizer-fueled orphanage and finds purpose and drive from chess when an orderly (Bill Camp) recognizes her budding genius. She’s adopted by a fellow lost soul, a 1950s housewife played by Marielle Heller with tragic alcoholism on the side but genuine love and respect at the center of the relationship. Yet Beth comes by her own addictive tendencies honestly, and the show’s lush set pieces and glamorous wardrobe turns (both of which are often Mad Men-esque) dovetail seamlessly with the debauchery of it all.
You never thought chess could be steamy, right? Well, it is, but not gratuitously so. The show resists labels, and furthermore, this is Taylor-Joy’s vehicle, and she commands it, but there are other actor-ly attractions on display. It’s tempting to say that Beth is aided in her journey by multiple influential players in her life. That would be incorrect. Rather, she’s enriched by them. That would include Moses Ingram as Jolene, one of Beth’s companions from her orphanage days. And she’s periodically surrounded by fellow chess prodigies who, one by one, end up falling to her prowess while also doing double-duty as potential suitors. Among them are Harry Melling’s Harry and, most delightfully, Thomas Brodie-Sangster as Benny, whose costumed affectations come closest to matching up to Beth’s eccentricities. Their speed-chess scene is a standout one.
There’s plenty else going on in this series, of course, including Beth’s adventures from Kentucky to Mexico and Vegas and Russia, with a smorgasbord of wander-junkie visuals on hand. One could also be persuaded to call this a coming-of-age tale, but that’s only the framing of Beth’s travels. Or you can consider this a meditation upon addiction and danger. More than any of those labels, however, The Queen’s Gambit zeroes in on what it costs to become a champion. Sacrifices must be made, and tragedy and trauma prevail during moments, but it’s ultimately an invigorating and thrilling story.
Besides those creature comforts, The Queen’s Gambit manages to nail its tight pacing for a strategically planned seven episodes. The odd number there is telling. It’s always 8, 10, or 12 episodes on streaming, you know? Seven is weird, but it’s spot-on for this story. No more and no less than necessary, and that’s a rarity in the digital age.
Everyone here — Scott Frank, the screenwriters, the costume and set designers, and (obviously) the talent — is on their game, quite like (and at the service of) Beth. She’s irrevocably and, at the same time, admirably and terrifyingly, focused upon winning a world title. That singular goal comes at the expense of relationships and relaxing downtime that most people covet and cherish. Along the way, she experiences fleeting connections and meaningful ones, and some do stick. Yet her focus, for better or worse, is to overcome being known as a standout for being a female champion amid a male-dominated, competitive subculture. She’d rather become a flat-out champion without mention of gender. The show, in reaching that goal, is a success. More than that, The Queen’s Gambit is a remarkably intense bingewatch.
Netflix’s ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ streams on Friday, October 23rd.