The Queen’s Gambit follows Beth Harmon’s (Anya Taylor-Joy) chess career from 8-year-old orphan to international superstar as she battles problems with addiction.
Anya Taylor-Joy’s acting was one of the best parts of the show. I had high expectations after seeing her as Emma Woodhouse in Emma, but she managed to sweep the board.
The plot has an intense focus on Beth, and she conveys just the right emotion in every scene. So much of the chess matches we see are about Beth’s internal conflict, and another actor may not have been able to pull it off.
From Beth’s triumphs against unlikely odds to her unexpected losses, Taylor-Joy portrays her perfectly.
The brilliance of her acting in these scenes is its subtlety. Beth is never very expressive during her games. The way she folds her hands under her chin or furrows her brow set the tone for the scene without drawing attention.
Another piece of the show I enjoyed was the production design — they both were absolutely gorgeous. Beth’s colorful, stylish coats and dresses caught your attention as soon as she entered.
The show concludes with Beth and an elderly man sitting at a chessboard, ready to play. She’s dressed in a bright white coat and hat, and she looks like the queen piece. It’s obvious how different she is from the parkgoers wearing brown and black coats, clearly showing how special she is.
Her costume pieces were especially striking when compared to her opponents. Her matches against renowned male masters are already impossible to look away from, but the contrast her outfits add makes them even sharper.
On the first day of her last match against Russian grandmaster Vasily Borgov, she enters wearing a black and white dress that reminded me of a chessboard. Compared to the dull colors of Borgov’s coat, her already striking dress draws attention. It’s impossible to look away.
Beth’s matches and chess genius have another side to them; she develops a dependency on tranquilizer pills and alcohol that she believes fuel her genius.
However, the show doesn’t do a good enough job of criticizing her addiction. It simply presents it and almost seems to glorify it. A more critical depiction would have been a much better fit for both the show and the narrative.
I also was unsatisfied with the cast of supporting characters. Beth’s chess journey is an isolated one, and she often ignores the people who surround her.
Beth’s friend from the orphanage, Jolene (Moses Ingram), was someone I wished had more screen time. She was a compelling character in the scenes she appeared in and should have had a lot more depth.
I particularly liked seeing her during Beth’s departure from the orphanage. Jolene has depth in this scene, where she is both betrayed, lonely and jealous of an adoption she’ll never have. While Beth packs, she can’t find her favorite chess book. Jolene provides no hints as to where it is.
In the last episode, Jolene returns the chess book she hid from her friend after years. They’re both adults, and Jolene has changed in the many years off-screen. She tells us she’s been following Beth’s chess career since the beginning, but it feels false when she’s been dropped into the narrative only when she’s absolutely needed.
It’s the same story for a young Beth’s (Isla Johnston) chess teacher, Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp). Shaibel was Beth’s chess teacher and mentor in the orphanage’s basement and the person to kickstart an eight-year-old Beth’s career.
Instead of keeping these people in the forefront of Beth’s journey and adding to their characters, they get little to no screen time after Beth leaves the orphanage behind.
However, the show’s focus on Beth’s chess matches and its depiction of chess were ultimately what I loved most about it. Although I’ve barely played chess in my life, it made me want to dust off a chess set and learn how.
I became invested in every move that Beth made and in the result of every game. Even though I couldn’t follow the chess notation for moves or the mechanics of the Sicilian Defense, none of that mattered. It was about the understanding of strategy and the calculated precision with which Beth and her opponents made their moves.
Chess became a sport in its own right and a fiercely intellectual battle. Every echoing click of the chess clock’s button brought its own tension, and the call for a postponement with its envelope to note down a move felt electric.
That’s the brilliance of the show. Chess, the most esoteric and unintelligible game, becomes something both mysterious and magical.