I think I was destined to like this show. I have this strange weakness for coming of age movies and, since much of modern TV is structured like 8-12 hour movies, The Queen’s Gambit filled a little hole in my heart. What I mean by that is that I don’t often watch coming of age stuff, but when I do I always feel fussy inside. You always kind of know what’s going to happen in these types of stories, but there’s a warm optimism to them that makes me smile no matter what my mood.
Now that my inherent bias towards these stories has been established, let’s actually talk about the show itself.
The story follows Beth Harmon, and Orphan who gained a knack for chess after playing with the janitor at her orphanage. After becoming addicted to the sedative given to the children (this show’s set in the 50’s-60’s), she hallucinates and visualises her games at night, which only boosts her eagerness to play and her skill. We follow Beth all the way through to adult hood on her long journey to become a chess grandmaster, all the while struggling with relationships, addictions and being a leading female player in a male dominated space during, y’know, the 60’s.
A big aid to this show is the absolutely brilliant casting of Anya Taylor Joy who, from the very first time she appears, acts as though she’s been playing the character for years. She’s one of those actors who just has that screen presence, convincing you to keep watching all by herself. The only thing I might mark against the show is that she is supposed to be 13-16 in the first couple of episodes and she definetly doesn’t look that young, even remotely.
Despite that, I think one of Beth’s best character arcs takes place in the first few episodes when she is adopted from the orphanage. Her adoptive father, Mr Wheatly abandons her and her adoptive mother, Alma, soon after the adoption. Watching Beth and Alma grow closer and even hearing Beth refer to her as ‘mom‘ is nice and fulfilling.
The same could be applied to all of the arcs that go on. They’re pretty much all fulfilling. Even minor ones, like her complex relationship to one of the US state champions, Harry, is neat. He starts off as an obstacle Beth must overcome to not only be taken seriously in the competitive chess scene, but also as a female chess player. He remerges in her adult life and the two have a complex relationship when he offers to help her train to go up against the Russians in Moscow. She ends up inviting him to rent a room in her house, the two sleep together, Beth is too obsessed with chess to give Harry any acknowledgement about what they had done and it all falls apart. But Harry picks up on her relationship with drugs and alcohol and appears again, only to be immediately told to leave her the hell alone. Then, when she finally goes to Russia, Harry gives her a phone call to aid in the preparation of her final chess game of the series. And all that for a a relatively minor character. The others all get a similarly impressive treatment.
Speaking of the chess, it’s quite good. I say that because, as you can imagine, unless you yourself are one of the types of chess enthusiasts we see in the show, it’s not nearly as fun to watch chess as it is to play it. And even if you were, it’s not like the show even has the time to show you all the moves. But I think the way the show paces the games, builds the dramatic tension around them and confidently walks the fine line between giving you information you should know about the player’s moves and skipping over the fluff, makes most of the matches work well on TV. Don’t get me wrong, there were a couple where I was like ‘okay what is going on in this game?’, and I just had to take the shows word, I guess, about the games taking place. Commentators normally explain the importance of specific moves made, but I didn’t know a enough about chess terminology beyond the names of the pieces to appreciate some of it. But by no means is this a deal breaker. It’s necessary to keep audiences following the game, and is an issue relevant to any visual media pertaining to games like it rather than a problem specific to this show. The best way to describe the games would be to liken them to how poker games play out in movies; all characters have a recognisably good hand like a royal flush or full house. Similarly in this show, every move you hear about will be something big like trading queens, checks or castling.
Overall The Queen’s Gambit is a good watch. It’s excellent, in fact, and I haven’t enjoyed watching a show as much as I have this one for a long time. A slow burn for sure, though not as slow as the Crown or Better Call Saul, but one that earns its moments and doesn’t seek to pad itself with filler. I’d certainly give it a watch.