If someone had told me that Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit had a gritty, rock ‘n’ roll feel (but based on chess instead of music), I would probably have watched it sooner.
Now, first and foremost, I have to applaud the performance of Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon. She is absolutely mesmerising in this role from her bright red hair to her doe-like eyes to the way she moves with such elegance and grace that she, herself, is like a calculated chess piece. The ’60s fashion certainly suits her too as she looks stunning in every single shot. I was completely awe-struck!
Primarily set in the ’60s, the show starts by teasing us with a flash forward to 1967 in Paris, a red-headed girl emerging fully-clothed from a bath tub in the dark, make-up smeared around her eyes and looking a little worse for wear. She glances at someone in her bed but we don’t know who it is, allowing us to continuously guess which character it may be as we journey through the 7-part series with her. Finally, in haste, this red-headed girl pops a couple of green-grey pills, washes them down with what is perhaps vodka, races downstairs, enters a room with paparazzi and then joins an older man for a game of chess. A thrilling start!
We are then transported back in time to a young girl who has become orphaned. She is taken to a grim orphanage where the girls are given tranquillisers every day and the young Beth befriends another girl, Jolene, who has a rich deep-south accent and acts as a mentor to Beth; Jolene advises Beth to take the green pills before bed as they cause hallucinations and will help her to sleep.
We soon come to realise that Beth is very intelligent for her age as she is dismissed from her Maths lesson for quickly calculating difficult equations and is asked to ‘clean the erasers’. Down in the basement, Beth observes an older man (who we learn to be Mr Shaibel, the caretaker of the orphanage) playing a curious game on his own; Beth emerges from the shadows, inquisitive about this game that she has never seen before. Immediately, Beth is hooked… and so are we!
Beth’s time at the orphanage continues to be relatively dull and, just like Beth, we anticipate her secret meetings with Mr Shaibel, eager to learn the next moves of this complex game. Also, due to the strong effects of the tranquillisers, Beth is able to visualise large chess pieces on the ceiling of the dormitory and, with this ability, she rapidly becomes a very gifted chess player; much to the delight of the very stoic Mr Shaibel.
It’s clear from the start that Beth becomes dependent on the drugs being given to her at the orphanage and we know that they will play a big part in her character development.
The Queen’s Gambit is a rollercoaster of fortunes and misfortunes for Beth Harmon. Her true joy is playing chess and it’s wonderful to see this young lady climb the ranks in a very male-orientated game. She enters competitions and wipes the floor with men who are considered to be “champions” in their leagues. However, she is very reliant on the tranquilliser pills that help her to focus and plan her next move.
It’s thrilling to see Beth dominating the chess board but as we are reminded through flashbacks, her childhood was bleak as she came from a broken home and her mother took her own life. It’s this dark past that impacts her addictive nature; not only is she still hooked on those little, green-grey pills but her adoptive mother also introduces her to alcohol. There are times when Beth seems more like she is living a rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle (rook ‘n’ roll, anyone? Sorry, bad chess pun!), utilising the escapism of drugs and alcohol that allow her to wallow on her own in a cloud of dense cigarette smoke.
However, we are introduced to several characters throughout the series who challenge Beth’s personal and professional nature, paving the way to victory but making her earn her stripes in the chess world.
Harry Beltik (played by the very much grown up Harry Melling who played Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter movies – was it just me who started fan-girling over this?) is very demure and is a very caring friend. He wants to be more but recognises that he doesn’t quite live in the fast lane like Beth does; he quickly realises that he just can’t keep up and leaves her to it. He’s a kind soul though and truly cares about Beth.
Benny Watts (Love Actually’s Thomas Brodie-Sangster) is the character that challenges Beth’s chess ability the most. He remains her biggest competitor for quite some time and even introduces her to speed chess. It’s all very exciting and, even though there are some very fraught times between the pair, he has her best interests at heart.
Alma Wheatley (Marielle Heller) is joyous as Beth’s melancholic adoptive mother. She enjoys a good wallow which is teamed with anti-depressants and alcohol, as well as those little green-grey pills that Beth quickly has her eye on. She develops a keen interest in Beth’s chess playing and, indeed, the money that she earns from winning competitions. It is Alma who gives Beth her first taste of alcohol and, although she means well by trying to be a companion rather than a mother, she essentially paves the way for Beth to spiral out of control.
Lovely Jolene (Moses Ingram) acts as a guardian angel for Beth. She guides her at the start of the series and then appears when Beth is at her lowest ebb, helping her get back on track and re-focus her life. She provides Beth with closure for her time at the orphanage and helps her to grieve the death of Mr Shaibel.
Alongside these characters, The Queen’s Gambit is brimming with tension and excitement, all based around a game that many would have deemed ‘boring’. Understanding chess is not necessary for watching the show either but it certainly sparks an interest to learn that you never thought was buried within you. It could be the thrill of feeling strategical or it could be the sound of the wooden chess pieces clacking together; whatever it is, your interest will certainly be piqued.
Now, the most breath-taking moment comes at the end. It’s not the winning of Beth’s most challenging chess game that makes time stand still, it’s the moment she exits her taxi and walks through the streets of Russia, dressed as the most powerful piece on the chess board: the queen! I absolutely love a metaphor and this one has to be one of my all-time favourites. Beth has become as powerful as she can be – in the chess world, she started as a mere pawn and worked her way to the top in a very male-dominated world and, in her own world, she conquered her addictions and is in control of the life ahead of her.
Beth is, in every sense of the word, a Queen!
A wonderful show and a wonderful cast.
The Queen’s Gambit is one that I would certainly recommend. With only seven episodes, it’s definitely binge-worthy.
What are your thoughts? Did you enjoy this show?