Creator Scott Frank’s second Netflix original after Godless, The Queen’s Gambit is based on American author Walter Tevis’ book of the same name. The series is set during the Cold War. Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) is found in a car crash that kills her mother. Seeming unharmed, she finds herself in a state-run home for girls where the custodian, Mr Shiabel, essayed by Bill Camp, reluctantly teaches her chess and recognises her talent.
A story of talent and trauma
It’s rare to see a story about a woman player in a game dominated by men. The story of the seven-part series is complicated by themes of addiction and obsession. While in the orphanage, Beth has early exposure to tranquilisers, to which she gets addicted. She’s adopted by the Wheatlys. Beth’s adoptive father, Allston (Patrick Kennedy) abandons her and her adoptive mother, Alma (Marille Heller), an alcoholic housewife. Beth often thinks about the car car crash and seems unencumbered by her loss because she has internalised it. To flee her unresolved trauma, she takes to alcohol and tranquilisers. It’s only as an adult that she confronts her past.
A gambit that pays off
The show expertly navigates the technicalities of chess while keeping up the pacy tempo of the drama deeply rooted in Beth’s struggle to be a grandmaster. Veterans of the game, The United States Chess Federation national master Bruce Pandolfini and chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov worked as the consultants on the show. The beautifully played expositions intertwined with Beth’s narratives help the audience comprehend what every match means to her..
It takes equal parts of self-sabotaging behaviour, sharp wit and vulnerability to be Beth; Anya Taylor-Joy’s performance only better with every episode. Marielle Heller’s Alma is heartbreakingly fragile. It’s heartwarming to see the mother-daughter duo make the most of their time together when they travel the country for Beth’s chess tournaments.
WATCH OR NOT
The show is a superbly written and acted profile of a chess prodigy battling personal demons. Those with an interest in chess will recall the many geniuses who were also tinged with madness.
Creators: Scott Frank, Scott Allan, Allan Scott
Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Chloe Pirrie, Bill Camp
Season: 1 (2020)
Streaming on: Netflix