In yet another unexpected plot twist of 2020, Netflix has managed to make chess interesting.
Since its October 23 release, The Queen’s Gambit has quickly climbed Netflix’s ranks and has now held the #1 popularity spot for weeks. The show takes us through the life of Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy), an orphan struggling with addiction and loneliness on her journey to becoming the best chess player in the world.
Taylor-Joy’s magnetic performance stole the show. Her subtle mannerisms and unfiltered vulnerability draw the viewer in and truly bring Harmon to life. Even the way she studies a chess board conveys the distress, intensity and poise of her complex character impeccably.
Taylor-Joy, known for her work in Split in 2016 and Emma earlier this year, was supported by a stellar cast who gave similarly inspiring performances, from Thomas Brodie-Sangster’s Benny Watts to Harry Melling’s Harry Beltik (Melling makes a surprising comeback from his time as Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter franchise) and Marielle Heller’s Alma Wheatley. Each character not only supplemented Harmon’s narrative, but also took on a life of their own, creating a narrative that felt all the more nuanced and authentic.
Over the course of the seven-episode mini-series, Harmon undergoes immense character development, which is evident through Taylor-Joy’s acting as well as costuming and makeup. She goes from wearing shapeless clothes from her time at the orphanage to elegant, chic and feminine clothes that she chooses for herself as a teenager and young adult. Harmon was aimless and impressionable growing up but gains self-awareness and confidence, a change that visually plays out on-screen.
Gender is a theme central to the storyline, adding another layer that allows the mini-series to transcend the label of “just a sports show.” Harmon excels in a field dominated almost entirely by men, but she’s never intimidated or cowed. She’s shameless about her skill and appears almost flippant about her success as a woman in a “man’s world,” yet she also enjoys attracting the attention of many men, especially those who she beats. The men she faces in chess matches, including Beltik and Watts, seem to simultaneously want to beat her and be beaten by her: in their eyes, she’s a femme fatale figure who can bring them unique intellectual stimulation.
While The Queen’s Gambit was both moving and beautifully done, it wasn’t without flaws. Some plot choices seemed random, confusing and out of place with the rest of the story. For example, when Harmon travels to Paris, there’s a time jump between her meeting up with Cleo (Millie Brady) at night and the morning of her rematch against Borgov. This jump leaves so much to the viewer’s imagination that it becomes difficult to piece together and infer what happened. Similarly, Harmon’s dynamic with Townes (Jacob Fulton-Lloyd) was ambiguous and difficult to understand. Townes, based on Episode 3, is presumably gay as he lives with a male partner. Years later, Harmon tells Cleo that she’s in love with Townes, and he claims, out of nowhere, that she broke his heart. These declarations imply strong, possibly romantic sentiments, yet the conversations that we see play out between Townes and Harmon on screen are brief and lack depth.
The show also doesn’t address race much, despite ample opportunity to do so. Jolene (Moses Ingram) is the only Black character in the show with more than a handful of lines. The creators of the show heavily employed the Black best friend trope (also seen in movies like Clueless and I Am Not Okay With This) to define her character. She disappears for the entire middle part of the series, and Harmon doesn’t seem to keep in contact with her. She then reappears at the end to tell Harmon of the death of her first chess mentor, give her emotional support and loan her money to travel to Russia. In other words, she exists in the show only to help Harmon, and we don’t get to know her character nearly as well as Harmon’s white male friends.
The Queen’s Gambit might have its shortcomings, but it undeniably makes chess into a captivating tale of intrigue. It’s definitely worth adding to the top of your “to watch” list.
*Article thumbnail: "Chess queen 0994" by Petr Novák, is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.