The Queen’s Gambit: Electric, Gripping, and Emotion-Evoking

Frances Bobbitt, Online Staff Writer

Trigger Warning: Discussion of Substance Abuse and Addiction

To many, chess is a rather boring activity, but Scott Frank’s adaptation of Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel is anything but. Released on October 23, The Queen’s Gambit, a Netflix period drama miniseries about a female chess player, has garnered rave reviews these past weeks, from chess-lovers and non chess-enthusiasts alike. The seven episode show captured viewers’ attention so much that many watched the entire series in one day. On the Rotten Tomato Tomatometer, it has received a 100%, along with a 96% audience rating. Allison Shoemaker of Roger Ebert described the miniseries as “anchored by a magnetic lead performance and bolstered by world-class acting, marvelous visual language, a teleplay that’s never less than gripping, and an admirable willingness to embrace contradiction and ambiguity, it’s one of the year’s best series.” 

The Queen’s Gambit, set in the mid 1950s to the early 1960’s follows Beth Harmon, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, on her quest to become the most accomplished chess player in the world. When we first meet Beth, she is in Paris in 1967, waking up in a bathtub, hurriedly putting herself together in a trashed hotel suite, swallowing a few pills with some vodka and racing to her chess match. Once she sits down, we are transported into the past as her memories start racing. The audience is then face-to-face with the 8-year-old version of the woman we just saw, as she has been left an orphan from a devastating car crash. She is placed into Christian school for orphans, and this is where her chess journey begins. The reserved and private custodian Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp) teaches Beth the rules after experiencing her stubborn curiosity. Though he doesn’t have many lines, the great Bill Camp is arguably one of the three most prominent characters in the entire mini-series. Beth soon learns she has a natural talent for the game and walks away from the orphanage with a passion for chess, along with an addiction to tranquilizer pills that were being administered by the orphanage, after being adopted by Mrs. Alma Wheatly (Marielle Heller). These two aspects of Beth’s journey will go on to constantly butt heads, even destroying her at times, as she rises to chess fame. 

From age fifteen onward Anya Taylor-Joy plays Beth Harmon. A favorite of critics and youths alike, she has been in horror hits like “The Witch” and “Split” but in The Queen’s Gambit she cements herself as a great actress further adding to her young career already full of praise. Much of the miniseries hinges on Beth alone and the people surrounding her constantly change as she grows up. It is in these moments that Taylor-Joy shines; alone in a house, in a strangers apartment, on a plane, in bed at night, there is a hum, a kind of energy that she captures that only arises when one is truly away from the gaze of another human. She manages to do this all while being filmed by countless cameras in a room filled with crew members. The level of depth and connection we feel to Beth is not only because of Taylor-Joy, though, but can also be attributed to Frank’s writing and the casting director. However, Taylor-Joy does take it a step further, as she finds the intelligence and the humanity that lie beneath the tics, frostiness, and introverted personality of Beth Harmon.

The production of The Queen’s Gambit fully pulls the viewer into the mid 20th century setting and creates an atmosphere that is undeniably sumptuous, different, and eye catching. Uli Hanisch, the production designer captures the feel of this time period in both the United States scenes as well as abroad. The Rat Pack feeling in both decor and music choices along with the creamy texture of the clothes, sets, and other design elements are stunning. 

Moreover, clothing plays a large role in the portrayal of Beth Harmon. Not only do we see the change in common trends over the twelve years the series takes place, but we also experience the ways in which Beth chooses to show herself to the world, as she gains traction through her chess genius. At the orphanage, everyone is dressed the same, in a school girl dress and a pinafore. When she goes to high school, however, most of the girls don circle skirts, tailored shirts and saddle shoes. Beth sticks out like a sore thumb in her monochrome, stuffy getup. As she begins to rise to fame and her capital grows, though, Beth buys new clothes and begins wearing circle skirts, full dresses, boat necklines and button ups. She also obtains the saddle shoes her peers had worn previously, indicating her awareness of the fashion world around her and her desire to blend in. This hyper-feminine look creates a striking visual juxtaposition with her actions, as she dominates a majority-male sport, while wearing what is stereotypically thought of as 1950s housewife attire. The body-conscious clothing she wears further highlights that she is still doing all of this as a woman. When Beth’s adopted mother dies, she goes through another notable fashion transformation, as costume designer Gabriele Binder puts Taylor-Joy in a look reminiscent of the sleek, off-duty, old Hollywood style. She does not wear pants until Alma dies, and in doing so, indicates that she has become more sure of herself. As Beth travels to major cities, her looks become more on trend. Gabriele Binder also uses several motifs, such as geometric patterns, to highlight her role as a chess player.

When it comes down to it, though, The Queen’s Gambit is about chess, and a great deal of the storyline revolves around this fact. The portrayal of the matches Bath Harmon plays are elevated by the editing. Film Editor Michelle Tesoro did great work in this regard, as the sequences feel electric and filled with energy. The viewer feels the weight of each emotion-evoking move, some making us hold our breath, while others playing an infuriating or almost funny role. To be able to take the feeling that real life chess players experience and display it in a way that captivates an everyday person, as many people do not know much about the game, is truly noteworthy. 

On the sideline of the game is Beth Harmon’s life, her coming of age story which—in part—is also a story about addiction. While at the orphanage she becomes hooked on tranquilizer pills, and they follow her throughout her rise to fame. At times, she is able to reel in her addiction and be sober, but as we see in the first couple minutes of the show, this is not always the case. Part of this dependency could be because of emotional issues caused by being an orphan as well as the weight of her status in the chess world. In this light, the miniseries is very reminiscent of one depicting a rockstar. The production comes into play here yet again as it gives a visceral energy to Beth’s struggles and highlights addiction in a way that many struggle to capture. Her story almost feels like a race against time. Will she get a satisfying conclusion and beat the Russian champion chess player, or will she flame out and succumb to the addiction and the pressure she feels?