You'd think that chess is a pretty weak source of on–screen entertainment, but Netflix’s latest original series flips that notion on its head. The Queen’s Gambit, a fictional story based on the 1983 novel by Walter Tevis, was released on Oct. 23rd. Written and directed by Scott Frank, an Academy Award nominated screenwriter known for films like Out of Sight (1998) and Logan (2017), the show has remained #1 on Netflix’s US Top 10 list since Oct. 25th. The seven–episode limited series tells the life story of Elizabeth Harmon, a young orphan who escapes from her everyday struggles in Cold War era Midwestern America through her natural gift for chess. The drama is Netflix’s newest masterpiece, and it absolutely amazes in just seven episodes. Through the attention to detail within production and the character development of the series’ lead character, The Queen’s Gambit keeps viewers engaged and entertained with the young prodigy's inspiring story.
The production quality captivates viewers in this story. The Queen’s Gambit pays extreme attention to detail with their set designs, truly immersing the viewer into the world of chess. This series takes place during the 1960s and creates a world where chess reigns supreme as the largest sporting event across the globe.
Beth’s chess adventures take her across the world, from Russia to Las Vegas to Mexico City, and even to the dark janitorial basement that she played her first game in. Through the wide range of settings, one element remains consistent: the fashion that comes with them. The Queen’s Gambit stylishly dresses each of their characters, creating a diverse cast of personalities that are visually pleasing in their own unique ways. This is especially highlighted in Beth and her adopted mother (Marielle Heller) through the high fashion sense that they accumulate once Beth’s career really takes off.
On a superficial level, this show is about chess, and it definitely makes that clear to the viewer. Initially, I thought that seeing match after match of chess would get very boring very quickly. However, The Queen’s Gambit avoids this through its cinematography and sound design. With diverse camera angles and soundtracks, no two matches are the same and audiences can be equally captivated by every opponent that Beth faces. Dramatic lighting illuminates Beth’s most important matches, bringing the pressure she’s facing to the forefront.
Additionally, the characters within the story demonstrate the series’ knowledge of chess. Beth Harmon is a female prodigy within a field completely dominated by men, and she’s forced to constantly prove herself with each match she faces. However, many of the players that Beth meets along the way end up offering their support, as well as their extensive knowledge on strategies for her to use later in her career.
Where this show really shines is in the character development of the chess queen herself, Elizabeth Harmon. Anya Taylor–Joy does a great job in the starring role, deftly capturing the range of emotions that Harmon goes through over the seven episodes of this limited series. While Beth is an outstanding chess player, her journey to the top is not without its roadblocks and personal struggles, and she frequently displays self–destructive tendencies.
The series has classic elements of a coming–of–age tale. For example, Beth is an orphan that longs to be adopted, and she is a social outcast during a majority of high school. However, Beth’s greatest struggle in the series is one within herself—her struggle with substance abuse. This begins at a very young age when she abuses the tranquilizer pills that she’s given at her orphanage, and remains prevalent throughout her entire life. Initially, Beth uses these pills as a way to clear her mind and focus on chess, regularly taking them before an important match. The substances that Beth uses diversify and intensify as she grows up in typical coming–of–age fashion.
However, her growing substance abuse challenges Beth’s character in the latter half of the series. Without going into spoiler territory, obstacles in her personal life and career are exacerbated by Beth’s substance abuse, warranting heavy reflection of personal priorities by the final episode. Despite her unbounded success displayed to the outside world, Beth is extremely vulnerable to her self–destructive behavior. This internal struggle shapes her into a fascinating character. The final episode encapsulates all of her internal struggles in a way that is truly tear–jerking.
The Queen’s Gambit is the best show Netflix has made in awhile. The series concludes with a pretty concrete ending, and given that it was marketed as a limited series, there’s no way of knowing if it will be renewed for a second season. However, because of its immense popularity, it’s likely that Netflix will try to find a way to extend Beth’s story beyond the narrative boundaries of the original novel. Ultimately, this series is a must–see, and was so entertaining that it made me want to return to the chess board myself.