Is “The Queen’s Gambit” the grand-master of Netflix shows?


Courtesy of ChessBase

Avantika Pai, Contributing Writer

If you have been keeping up with the trendiest shows on Netflix, chances are you’ve either seen or at least heard of “The Queen’s Gambit.”

Despite the fact that it has been close to two months since its initial release, “The Queen’s Gambit” has maintained a spot on the United States trending list on Netflix. The show has also kept a fresh score of 99% on Rotten Tomatoes and earned the praise of many celebrities. The most surprising success is that it has become the most-watched scripted limited series on Netflix since 62 million households have viewed it within the first 28 days of its release. 

“The Queen’s Gambit,” based on Walter Tevis’s novel of the same name and created by Scott Frank and Alan Scott, tells the coming-of-age story of Beth Harmon, a young woman in the Cold-War era who climbs the ranks in chess as a prodigious player. We first see Beth (Isla Johnson) at eight years old when she is put into an orphanage after her mother dies in a car crash. During the seven years she spends at the orphanage, Beth develops a strong friendship, a dependence on the tranquilizers given to the children and a deep love for chess as she is taught by the orphanage’s janitor (Bill Camp). The rest of the series follows Beth as a teenager and young adult (Anya Taylor-Joy) as she competes in tournaments all around the world while forming relationships with her new family and friends and becoming addicted to pills and alcohol. 

I believe the show was good, but it definitely wasn’t as excellent as everyone puts it out to be. Also, warning: there are minor spoilers below. 

First, I did like how the show was an easy binge. There are seven episodes total, while each episode spans from 45 minutes to an hour and each episode connects easily. 

The best part of the series was that it was so visually striking. Every detail of every scene was beautifully done. The soundtrack, wardrobe and set design fit each episode’s mood and 1960’s theme perfectly. We see Beth’s fashion transform from childish schoolgirl to confident grownup. Each set, from Beth’s house to the different tournament locations, is so distinct with its colors, patterns and extravagance. 

But after the beautiful aesthetic, there is not much more to obsess over. The acting was okay, not great. Taylor-Joy’s portrayal of Beth was artificial, not natural. There wasn’t much emotional depth on Taylor-Joy’s part.  

There was also no other plot point other than chess. Sure, we see how Beth’s addiction grows, but it still goes hand in hand with her performance in chess. There were plenty of opportunities to expand on other parts of her life. 

When it came to the portrayal of drugs and alcohol in Beth’s life, I feel like it was romanticized. In the first couple of episodes, we see how a young Beth becomes dependent on the green pills that are given to the orphans and how she uses the pills to visualize the chessboard and pieces in order to study games in detail. Later in the show, Beth is shown carefree and independently happy while consuming alcohol. Of course, the consequences catch up with her and we see her getting through it, but the addiction is somewhat shown as a necessary part of her life since she is able to succeed in chess. 

Out of all the main characters in the series, there is only one person of color, Jolene (Moses Ingram). Jolene is Beth’s friend from the orphanage ,and that’s basically her only role.  We see Jolene at the very beginning of the show and then at the very end. As someone who was in the orphanage for a long time, Jolene helps the newly-orphaned Beth navigate life. When we see her later, the creators attempt to give Jolene a story but it doesn’t contribute much to the plot. If her story was continued throughout the show besides Beth, it could have been pulled off effectively. But, Jolene only serves to help Beth. 

Along the same lines, one of the most confusing things is why all of the characters in the show are constantly helping and supporting Beth, while putting aside their own struggles. Especially when Beth doesn’t reciprocate these actions towards them. 

The most frustrating part of the series was the lack of development. There were so many minor and major details that weren’t formed fully. 

Each episode begins with a peek into Beth’s life with her mother, Alice Harmon (Chloe Pirrie), before she died. Although there may be a couple of times in which Beth talks about her mother in the show, it is not apparent how her actions are a response to Alice’s role as her mother. 

Furthermore, the characterization in the show doesn’t do the show any justice. For example, there are two men (Matthew Dennis Lewis, Russel Dennis Lewis) that initially undermine Beth’s abilities as a female chess player and basically ridicule her for wanting to compete. The next we see them, they have completely opened up to Beth and help her with her performance. The change in character between the two of them was not gradual at all.

Also, a few of Beth’s former competitors (Harry Melling, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) are shown to be possible love interests for Beth, and we get glimpses into each relationship, but they aren’t fully evolved to mean anything in the end. 

Once Beth is adopted, her new father (Patrick Kennedy) abandons her and her adoptive mother, Alma (Marielle Heller). The father’s neglect of the family is something that isn’t completely gone into throughout the series. He does come back at later points, but it is another detail that could have been expanded on more. 

One part of Beth that I saw as good and bad is her complexity. We see her grow from a quiet, intellectual young girl to an independent, caring woman. What was well done about this was that Beth didn’t fit under the same traits throughout the series and we saw her act in many different ways. However, it was poorly done in some parts because her actions weren’t fully explained and watchers had to make guesses as to why she did what she did. 

All in all, “The Queen’s Gambit” was a good show, but it could have been much better. Did this show give me a sudden desire to play chess? Yes. But did this show inspire me to become a grand-master in chess? No.