The Queen's Gambit Review: Netflix's New Mini-Series is Among the Best Shows of the Year
Before I dive into The Queen’s Gambit, there is something I need to say. Anya Taylor-Joy is a superstar. I will not debate, listen to slander, or consider contradictions. Ever since her breakout role in The Witch at the age of 18—one of the greatest horror movies of the modern age—she has been on a steady rise to becoming the best young actress in the biz. In addition to The Witch, she has garnered critical acclaim for roles in Split, Emma, and Peaky Blinders, and this is just the beginning. She has an elusive, adaptable, and constantly morphing on-screen presence. It’s superiority grounded in reality, serenity mixed with an aura of intense intelligence, grace that’s tossed away in the blink of an eye for moments of relatable emotional vulnerability, and her ability to control the atmosphere of a scene with only her eyes and expressions is astounding. With The Queen’s Gambit, Taylor-Joy has once again proved her worth as an actress, and climbed another rung towards joining the club of Hollywood’s most prestigious practitioners.
Whew. Not that I’ve got that off my chest, let’s talk about The Queen’s Gambit—the newest Netflix original seven-part miniseries based on the acclaimed novel by Walter Tevis. The show follows Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon, a chess prodigy with a checkered past who struggles with loss, addiction, and obsession as she goes from a young orphan to the greatest chess player in the world. Directed and written by Scott Frank—known for writing the screenplays of Logan, Godless, and Minority Report—Taylor-Joy’s performance is augmented by stellar supporting characters, creative cinematography techniques, and 60s-saturated sets and soundtracks.
The Queen’s Gambit is many things. It’s a series about chess, substance abuse, loss, the cost of genius, and the downfall of obsession, but above all, it's a coming of age story. Beth’s journey starts at an orphanage where she first encounters drugs and chess, the latter introduced to her by Mr. Shaibel—the haughty, stoic janitor who spends his days drinking whiskey and playing chess in the basement. While the young actress who plays Beth (Isla Johnson) can’t hold a flame to Taylor-Joy, the opening episode allows us to see into the brain of Beth Harmon, whose mind operates in a clashing mix of constant strategy and irrational behavior.
Upon Beth’s adoption, the story takes off, and we follow her as she grows through adolescence, garnering more fame and renown with each major chess tournament she wins. With her success comes more opportunities to indulge in alcohol and drugs, and the show juggles a focus on chess with an intense look at Beth’s relationships, both with the people around her and the ever looming threat of addiction. Like any good sport, coming-of-age, or addiction movie, there are wins and losses, skyrocketing highs and rock bottoms lows, successful relationships and ones that crash and burn. There are some points where the plot threatens to fall into the clichés of these genres, like a scene where Beth is relegated to the back of the cafeteria by a “you can’t sit here” stare from the “popular” girls, but for the most part, the journey is done creatively and with exuberant style.
Besides Anya Taylor-Joy, the stars of the show are the supporting characters that surround her throughout the story. There’s her best friend at the orphanage, Jolene; the janitor, Mr. Shaibel; multiple chess opponents turned friends; and best of all, her foster mother Alma Wheatley (Marie Heller). Heller’s performance matches Taylor-Joy’s, and as Beth and Alma are tearing up the circuit of high prestige chess tournaments, the two play off each other so well that sometimes it feels like watching a buddy-cop movie. These supporting characters help to define Beth by acting as foils, and also make her moments of loneliness hurt a thousand times more; despite her often obstinate, closed off personality, we’ve seen how happy her relationships make her.
The 60s are also an omnipresent force throughout The Queen’s Gambit. The series has many great music-over scenes, my personal favorite being when The Vogues’ 1965 song “You’re the One” starts to play as Beth stares at a shelf full of glowing, pristine liquor bottles and glasses. When it comes to the spectacular sets and wardrobe—in a style reminiscent of Wes Anderson—the show matches the colors of the truly groovy 60s outfits with the palette of the vibrant sets behind them, making the show a visual treat.
Despite my praise for Taylor-Joy and my love for the plot’s success at making chess an addictive spectacle, The Queen’s Gambit isn’t perfect. There are some corny lines, one especially cringey moment between Beth and a young Russian player, and sometimes, the characters feel inconsistently written, like Scott Frank couldn’t decide who he wanted them to be. The show also would have been better off aging up the early years of Beth’s character, because even though she gives a great performance, having Taylor-Joy play the ages 14-19 is a bit of a stretch for the 24-year-old actress. Lastly (light spoiler ahead), the ending is a little too picture perfect and Disney-esque, especially for a show that largely deals with heavy subjects like addiction and grief.
The more that Netflix grows, the more inconsistent their original series become. While some fit right into the golden age of television, others remind me that it’s coming to an end. The Queen’s Gambit is, without a doubt, amongst the former. The show exhibits exquisite performances along with a high level of creativity in the plot and writing. I mean, any show that can make chess exciting is most definitely doing something right. However, possibly the show's greatest triumph is the way it balances out the heavy themes with moments of happiness, triumph, and love. The Queen’s Gambit is never a drag. It never stops being fun to watch. No matter how dark it got, I never wanted to turn it off and walk away. I love my depressing, heavy dramas as much as the next guy, but The Queen’s Gambit approaches dark subjects without ever including disturbing moments gratuitously or for shock value—making it a breath of fresh air, and definitely worth the watch.