“Queen’s Gambit” Miniseries: Review

Malena Heineman, Editor-in-Chief

Power, fame and… chess? “The Queen’s Gambit” took Netflix by storm in October 2020, with the story of Beth Harmon, a child prodigy who erupts into the predominantly male realm of competitive chess in the 1960s. Told through a series of flashbacks, we watch the origins of her love of the game and watch as she struggles to balance her rising success with an addiction to prescription pills.

The show begins in a disheveled, darkened Paris hotel room, as a young woman wakes and rushes to pull on her designer dress and heels, running out of the door to play in what seems to be the ultimate match of her career. But director Scott Frank leaves the reader with little more, jumping years back to Beth’s childhood when she is placed in the Methuen home, an orphanage for young girls, after being the sole survivor in a car crash that killed her mother. With a suffocating, repressive atmosphere, the orphanage feeds the girls green tranquilizer pills that sedate the orphans rather than providing emotional support. Already an awkward loner, Beth finds one friend, Jolene, who shows her how to hide her pills and take them in the evening to help her sleep, setting the scene for Beth’s substance abuse in the episodes to come.

Beth finds the game of chess through an unconventional friendship with the standoffish janitor Mr. Shaibel, and he begins to teach her the rules of the game under the dim lights of the orphanage basement. Sneaking to play the game and bury herself in books on strategy, we witness the onset of her infatuation with the game and her shrewd natural instinct beginning to take her beyond the skill level of Shaibel and other players in the community. Under the safety of her covers, and with the aid of the green pills, she envisions shadowy chess boards on the ceiling of the orphanage’s bedroom and reenacts previous plays over and over again.

After being adopted, Beth begins to make her name in the world of chess and is followed by a glamorous yet turbulent legacy. Shot through varying staging and perspective, Frank is able to show Beth repeatedly and relentlessly defeat one man after another, while portraying her cool, frank nature that infuriates and engrosses her male counterparts. The hazy tint of the 1960s aesthetic, coupled with curated color schemes and elegant ’60s attire to match, sets the scene for Beth’s plunge into the high-stakes and lucrative world of professional chess.

It is incredibly satisfying to watch Beth’s exponential trajectory of success in this male-dominated competition. From the beginning, we see doubts of her talent and the misconception that Beth is defined not by her ability but by her identity as a woman — but her simple love of the game and desire to excel captivates the audience and proves all else false. 

Chess is a realm where she is completely in control, and there are set rules and regulations to follow. The game’s comforting predictability completely contrasts with the world around her, and, though she finds refuge in the game, she must find a way to balance her talent with her more obsessive, aggressive tendencies that the game brings out.

One especially poignant element of the show is Beth’s struggle with her addiction. From the beginning, we see that her substance abuse is dangerously entangled with her skill in the game, a misconstrued conception that she struggles to let go of. We witness her journey to understand that she doesn’t need drug enhancement to own her skills and herself. This trope that substance abuse “unlocks” a particular genius or skill is one that Hollywood frequently botches and romanticizes, and it thus needs to be addressed consciously and carefully. I enjoyed the film’s unflinching honesty when dealing with her addiction. It allows the audience, through emotive flashbacks of her past and present, to be increasingly invested in her ups and downs as she battles to overpower her substance abuse. Anya Taylor-Joy’s performance as Beth was sharp and believable — she was able to take on Beth’s eccentricities and struggles with a lens that matures as the show continues.

“The Queen’s Gambit” is a coming of age story with an adult twist. In this year of lonely quarantines and copious amounts of free time, the show’s popularity and ability to excite viewers has led to an uptick in popularity of both online chess and real chess boards as captivated fans discover the thrill of the game. The Queen’s Gambit will keep you on the edge of your seat as it brings the unseen glamour and suspense of chess to screens everywhere.