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The grueling world of competitive chess isn’t the most obvious backdrop for an escapist story, however The Queen’s Gambit is an often-transporting series, filled with elaborate set pieces, beautiful costumes and all the pop needle drops of the 1960s that Netflix money can buy. His more straightforward joys are offset by producer / writer / director Scott Frank’s meditative – and equally meticulously detailed – approach to period drama. Bridging those two worlds is a masterly feat by Anya Taylor-Joy, who leads the cast as Beth Harmon, a child prodigy fueled by both her innate talent and trauma.
The novel of the same name by Walter Tevis from 1983 serves as the starting material for the series, however The Queen’s Gambit also seems to be inspired by sports underdog stories and biopics of tortured geniuses. As such, the series is as easy to follow as it is captivating, and features only the smoothest of curves in its narrative. Our introduction to adult Beth is a classic one: she’s late for a fateful match with Vasily Borgov (Marcin Dorocinski). As Beth takes a seat across from the Russian grandmaster, she is confronted with the memory of her 9-year-old self (played by Isla Johnston) who stands defiantly on a bridge. It’s an early sign that Beth will have to deal with herself just as much as her competitors, a standard opening move for this type of Bildungsroman.
The Queen’s Gambit Then it goes back to the 1950s at the orphanage in Kentucky, where a young Beth is taken in by suicide after her mother dies. The staff provides only the most practical care and uses drugs to calm the children and teenagers, much to Beth’s future detriment. Here, thanks to Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp, in an understated but crucial role), the caretaker of the orphanage, Beth finds refuge in the game of chess for the first time. Johnston’s portrayal is more closed off than Taylor-Joy’s, as her Beth is still in shock at losing her home and parents, but it offers flashes of scrutinizing spirit and ingenuity of the older iteration. Beth is frustrated with the prospect of losing to Mr. Shaibel and calls her chess mentor a “cocksucker”. She has no idea what the word means – that is, until she asks her friend and roommate Jolene (Moses Ingram) – but she rightly believes it will offend Mr. Shaibel and potentially knock him out of the game. The moment is humorous, but it also hints at the “game to win” strategy that both drives and torments Beth as she moves through the ranks of unrated international grandmasters.
Frank, who wrote and directed most of the episodes, guides us through Beth’s youth with great insight and sensitivity, from the orphanage to the house of her adoptive mother Alma (Marielle Heller, who appears in front of the camera). Taylor-Joy and Heller play well together during the phase in which mother and daughter navigate the world together. They are aware of the limitations placed on them by social norms, while often resisting them. The prescribed gender roles of the era are among the many time-specific details that the series summarizes, along with pinpoint, impotent ensembles – it gives it a velvety look die for in the final – by costume designer Gabriele Binder (In the land of blood and honey) and production designer Uli Hanisch’s (Babylon Berlin, Sense8) Riffs across suffocating mid-century parlor rooms and more psychedelic rumpus rooms.
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The series also manages to bring the cerebral chess game to life, even for viewers who are not familiar with a pawn rook. Editor Michelle Tesoro ensures that every game is played with great flair and tension, even if most of the action is Beth staring intently at her sweaty opponent. The original score by Carlos Rafael Rivera, who won an Emmy for his previous collaboration with Scott Frank, Godless, reflects Beth’s inner turmoil – the higher she rises in the rankings, the higher she has to get – and highlights the twists and turns the gameplay is taking. Truly this is as expertly a contemporary drama as possible.
But as hard-working as The Queen’s Gambit In recreating mid-century homes and competing for high stakes, the series stumbles when it comes to beyond aesthetics to establish its setting for the late 50s / early 60s. Beth is constantly faced with what her life could have been if she hadn’t been exceptionally gifted. That sobering knowledge of what it was like to be a woman 40 or 50 years ago, even a middle-class white woman. When Beth comes to Alma’s (and Alma’s soon-to-be-estranged husband) for the first time, her living room is a veritable ocean of blues, from valance to pillow toss. The choice of design (along with a healthy dose of anti-anxiety medication) is supposed to calm Alma’s frayed nerves, but it actually mirrors the medical profession’s history of infantilizing (and, in turn, harming) women. Frank’s observations are once again accurate, but when he tries to acknowledge changing social mores, his perception falters, along with the show’s attempts to be inclusive. The plot related to a queer character is more “exclusively gay momentAs character development. Jolene, the only black figure named, represents the southern freedom fighters who are responsible for much of the social progress in this country – but only in their style. Other than that, she only exists to help Beth.
You can actually say that for most characters, including Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), which looks like a cosplay to him Godless Rolle) and Harry Beltik (Harry Melling), who are virtuosos themselves. After being easily defeated by Beth, they join their group of happy chess players and pick her from the sidelines (and, once in Russia, from New York). Their support is lovely, even encouraging, and contrasts with the indifference or disabled characters from Beth’s early years (let alone the entire canon of stories about successful women). But it also underscores the show’s unwillingness to explore Beth’s lows and highs. Her drug problems are known early on, but her drunk and pill moments are portrayed too shabbily to ever see rock bottom. Beth’s success is never really threatened.
Narrative bumper rails aside, The Queen’s Gambit is still a haunting experience. Carrying the drama of competition and Beth’s coming-of-age story, Taylor-Joy exudes an unbridled confidence born of adolescence and the knowledge that she is the best at what she does. If history deems it appropriate to overthrow her (if only briefly), Taylor-Joy handles disillusionment and grief as gracefully as Beth’s more radiant moments. She’s just as good at Spiky Genius mode and gets on the minds of older gamers and young hotshots. In this sense, The Queen’s Gambit is like a more introspective The wonderful Mrs. Maisel:: Both series are sumptuous period dramas that follow the rise of a woman in a male dominated field. But The Queen’s Gambit is actually aware that his protagonist can be an idiot at times. With all the insured directions and exotic locations – including a side trip to Paris – Beth’s internal journey is the most intriguing element of T.The Queen’s Gambit. The series may sometimes border on the fulfillment of wishes, but at least it enchants.
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