Published Nov. 24, 2020
By MJ APFEL
Chess is not usually a viewer-friendly game. Though the rules can be learned in a single sitting, the nearly infinite number of strategies and possible developments make chess difficult to fully enjoy by the average viewer. Yet “The Queen’s Gambit,” written by Scott Frank and Allan Scott and edited by Michelle Tesoro, is a rags-to-riches Netflix mini-series that succeeds in using visual effects and quality cinematography to make chess easily understandable, trapping the audience’s excitement from start to finish.
The show follows the ‘50s and ‘60s rise of professional chess player Beth Harmon, orphaned as a young child after surviving a car accident that took her mother’s life. Harmon is put in an all-girls Christian orphanage where she learns to play chess from the janitor but develops an addiction for tranquilizers. Fast forward six years, and Beth is adopted by a couple with questionable goals and moved into the Kentucky suburbs, where she seeks to outplay her mostly male counterparts and become the greatest player in the world, defying gender norms and overcoming addiction.
Its cinematography allows the audience to live vicariously through fictional grandmasters. A constant ticking of players’ timers accompanies the background of every match, creating constant tension and keeping the audience at the edge of their seats, while the shot selection and rhythm editing helps convey Harmon’s state of mind during her ups and downs in the professional chess scene. Visual effects cleverly give the audience a peek inside of Harmon’s brain, using computer generated imagery to display her thought process on an imaginary chess board on the ceiling as she plays.
The lead performances promote its high quality, with each character adding a distinct and authentic personality to the main storyline. Anya Taylor-Joy plays the perfect chess champion, demonstrating an interesting duality of a character with extreme confidence and a lack of basic social skills. The supporting characters have a balance between quirkiness and likeability. The back and forth between the supporting characters and Harmon add depth to her character, showcasing her strengths and weaknesses, while being interesting on their own.
The show’s many underlying themes and subplots add a level of complexity to the series, but they also take some of the impactfulness out of the finale.
The storyline of Beth’s birth mother Alice and the theme of the internal struggle between madness and genius never completely comes to fruition. She represents the dangers of letting addiction and obsession take over, but the writers fail to give her a clear motive. During Beth’s flashbacks of her youth, we see Alice vaguely gesture as to why the world doesn’t understand her, seeking to shelter herself and Beth from society and giving fortune-cookie-like advice to her daughter about the importance of bravery in the face of isolation, but there lacks a clear explanation for her madness.
The final episode showcasing the highly anticipated Russian invitational tournament is even more enticing than previous competitions, and her decision to use an opening designed to sacrifice her Queen’s pawn to gain an advantage cleverly mirrors her sacrifice of drug and alcohol for a clear mind more suited for chess and a more stable life.
“The Queen’s Gambit” is a binge-worthy show that qualifies its 393-minute runtime, but some of the underdeveloped storylines and themes may blunder its full potential.