Netflix’s new miniseries The Queen’s Gambit takes on classic themes like coming of age, grief and addiction against the unique backdrop of competitive chess. The show will delight chess experts and newcomers alike, as it blends the culture and language of the chess world with strong, relatable characters.
What Is The Queen’s Gambit About?
The Queen’s Gambit follows Beth Harmon from the time she is eight years old until she is twenty. She starts the story as a young orphan in the 1950’s who has just lost her mother and never truly had a father. From there, viewers are introduced to the cast of characters at Methuen House, a Catholic orphanage in Kentucky. Beth’s time at Methuen House shapes the rest of her life. It is there that she is introduced to chess and to tranquilizers. The orphanage’s sinister policy of drugging the young girls into submission follows Beth for the rest of her life, as does her love of chess. Beth grows throughout the show from a quiet, strong-willed orphan into a young woman who must navigate her way through the complications of growing up. She is always highly independent, and her competitive personality pushes her to the top of the chess world. Beth goes from playing rookies and small town champions to having her eye on beating the best in the world: the Soviets.
Although chess plays an integral role in the story, the series is primarily character driven. Beth is tested in every way possible throughout the seven episodes. Other principal characters include Beth’s friend from the orphanage, Jolene, her adopted mother Alma Wheatley, and chess adversaries Harry Beltik, Benny Watts and D.L. Townes. Beth’s journey finds these characters breaking down her callous exterior and burrowing into her heart.
The new miniseries was created by Scott Frank and Allan Scott. Frank is a well-known screenwriter, with credits like Get Shorty, Minority Report and Logan. Allan Scott is a screenwriter as well, but Frank is credited with writing most of The Queen’s Gambit. Their star actress, 25 year old Anya Taylor-Joy, brings Beth to life with confidence and just a hint of warmth. Taylor-Joy has also starred in Netflix’s Peaky Blinders, and the 2020 adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic, Emma. She plays Beth with nuance and grace, giving her the right amounts of elegance and awkwardness as she grows up. Other notable cast members include Thomas Brodie-Sangster as chess champion Benny Watts, Bill Camp as Beth’s mentor Mr. Schaibel, Harry Melling as Beth’s first adversary Harry Beltik and Jacob Fortune-Lloyd as Beth’s love interest, Townes. Most viewers will recognize Brodie-Sangster as Liam Neeson’s son from Love Actually, or more recently as Jojen Reed on Game of Thrones. Harry Melling also started acting as a child; he was Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter movies. Fortune-Lloyd has starred in two of the newest Star Wars movies. All three give excellent performances as supporting characters in Beth’s life without ever outshining her.
Is The Chess Play Accurate?
Although Beth Harmon is a fictional character, all of the chess in The Queen’s Gambit is meticulous. Chess coaches Bruce Pandolfini and Garry Kasparov designed all of the matches played in the series, of which there are many. Pandolfini and Kasparov are decorated chess players in their own right; Pandolfini is a USCF national master, and Kasparov is Russian grandmaster and former world champion. The two made sure that the games in The Queen’s Gambit would make sense to chess fans. Viewers who aren’t from a chess background need not to worry, however. The actors put an enormous amount of tension into every important scene with a match. Whether its stress over whether Beth can play hungover, or sexual tension between her and any of her love interests, the chess scenes are far from boring.
The world of competitive chess is not often seen on screen. The Queen’s Gambit gives viewers a nuanced introduction to this complex and intellectual sport. The audience learns with Beth at first, when she is taught by the janitor at Methuen House how to play the game. After Beth becomes a master, the tension comes from the world built within the show instead of the particulars of the game. The miniseries uses visual effects to explain Beth’s thought processes during her games. A chess board is often projected onto the ceiling of the room she is in, where the pieces move themselves and give the audience a better idea of what she’s thinking.
The visuals in The Queen’s Gambit take the quality of the series to the next level. In typical Netflix miniseries fashion, the show is beautifully shot and takes pride in the overall look of the show. What Stranger Things is to the 1980’s, The Queen’s Gambit is to the 1960’s. The costumes and set decoration throughout are impeccable. Whether it’s Beth’s terrible uniform from the orphanage or her stunning final outfit – an all white ensemble including a Jackie O style coat, tailored trousers and patent leather high-heeled boots – the styling choices elevate the sense of where the viewer is in Beth’s story. The darkness and shabbiness of Methuen House contrasts sharply to the all-pastel aesthetic of Beth’s adopted family’s house, shifting her into the light. The series’ visuals compliment and accentuate the story in a powerful way.
It’s no surprise that The Queen’s Gambit is Netflix’s number one show at the moment. Beth’s journey, flaws and strong-will make her an irresistible character, and the competitiveness of elite chess only adds more suspense to the story.