Review: Netflix’s “The Queen’s Gambit”

“The Queen’s Gambit,” written and directed by Scott Frank, became Netflix’s most watched scripted miniseries in just four weeks following its release onto the streaming platform on Oct. 24, 2020. The script was created based off the 1983 book of the same name by Walter Trevis. On a surface level, the show’s premise is a coming-of-age story that follows the young orphan Beth Harmon — played by Anya Taylor-Joy — as she learns the game of chess. The storyline proceeds as Harmon improves her skills after she is adopted and eventually into her adult life. The seven episodes, each around an hour long, make it bingeable in a short amount of time. It is formatted just the way Netflix continually sets up their original series — widely marketable, digestible and easy to create a hype about online. Each episode is aptly titled after slang terms from the game of chess itself; the first, for example, named “Openings” and the last, “End Game.”  

At its core, “The Queen’s Gambit” is a story about Harmon dealing with addiction and trauma after her mother dies in a car crash, putting her under the care of an orphanage. At the beginning of episodes especially, the audience is presented with flashbacks of Harmon’s life with her mother. Many of these interactions trace forward to the way that Beth deals with her life. Her mother is depicted as hyper-focused and solitary through her obsession with embroidery, and, ultimately, she takes her own life in an attempt to provide a better one for Harmon. 

Clad in the most fashionable clothing styles and haircuts of the 1950’s and 60’s, Harmon uses drugs and alcohol in a self-sabotaging cycle, until a conversation with her childhood best friend Jolene — played by Moses Ingram — clears her mind. Jolene bluntly points out that Harmon appears to be in a hole she has dug herself. Harmon then breaks, confiding in her friend that she is afraid she is just like her mother. “Maybe it’s in my blood. My mother went crazy,” she says. To which Jolene replies, “Went crazy or always was? My advice? Stop digging.” Harmon’s lesson to be learned is that she is not prescribed a fate just because of the way she was raised.  

Also prevalent in the show is a theme of human connection. The show takes an individualistic game of chess and turns it into an avenue for Harmon to find community. In an interview for a magazine, Harmon says she likes the control she has within the world of the chess board. It is this lack of control in her real life that makes her so preoccupied with being the best chess player in the world. 

However, before her long-awaited game in Russia, a fellow chess player mentions that the Russians are so successful because they work as a collective to strategize wins. This exchange hints at what there is to know about a world outside of the chess board. Her arc is such that she must eventually learn that the short-lived high of being the “best” at something like chess is a high that all winners must eventually come down from, and it is lonely unless someone is there to celebrate with you. 

The series is tied up nicely in a bow by the end and leaves audience members more interested in chess than they may have ever found themselves before. 

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