How do you deal with being the only girl in a man’s world? For Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) the answer never changes, although it takes different forms. Sometimes it’s in the tranquilising pills that she used to eat like candy at the orphanage where she spent most of her childhood; sometimes in a pack of cigarettes innocently bought along with a chess magazine; more and more often as the years go by, in the beers, the wine, the cocktails and the liquors she drinks to take the edge off.
Despite the negative effects that addiction has on its protagonist, The Queen’s Gambit never comes across as preachy. It gives us many reasons to root for Beth: she’s a one in a million, a clear prodigy who manages to find meaning in places where so few of us can. Although chess experts were involved in the making of the show to make it as realistic as possible, there is no need to know anything about the game to get absorbed in Scott Frank’s narrative.
Walter Tevis’ original novel had been published in 1983 to wide acclaim, especially from the chess community — since then, a few attempts had been made to turn the story into a film, but it isn’t until this year that Netflix finally managed to share Beth’s story on screens all around the world. The simple fact that the story remains just as accessible today as it did nearly forty years ago certainly speaks to the universality of its themes. Even if the world of competitive chess never struck you as worthy of interest or if you can’t differentiate between a knight and a pawn, the mature underdog story will charm anyone with its thoughtful depiction of the strange intersections of friendship, addiction, passion, and all the ways these things can disguise themselves as love.
The show couldn’t be half of what it is without its protagonist. Beth is the real heart of the show, supported by what might be Anya Taylor-Joy’s most magnetic performance to date. She may not be much of a talker, but every line of dialogue she speaks carries its share of significance — and that’s not even addressing the times her eyes, hands and body do the talking for her. Chess isn’t a world for great effusion and long speeches, but don’t be mistaken: this is still very much show business. Beth is criticised by her detractors for being too glamorous for the game, but her competitors put just as much attention to their appearance as she does: from US champion Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and his leather jacket and casual attitude to main antagonist Vasily Borgov (Marcin Dorociński) and his carefully pulled back hair and suit.
Set in a world so defined by appearances, it only makes sense that an exceptional amount of attention would be put towards the look of the show. Just like a great game of chess, every shot, every chapter of Beth’s story feels deeply intentional; but the real star of the show remains the increasingly impressive costume design. Where Beth’s words may lack in telling us what she feels, her make-up, expression, choice of outfit or hairstyle fill us in on what’s going on inside her mind — and it’s not always as pretty as the dresses she wears.
Although Beth can sometimes feel like a cliché prodigy character, one whose lack of social skills are excused by her extraordinary talent, her own flaws soon come back to haunt her. She may be easy to marvel over, but she remains far from perfect, and sometimes needs to learn from her mistakes the hard way. We may not always agree with the way she behaves, but these imperfections are what make her more human and a compelling subject to an in-depth character study.
Prodigy or not, whether we’re talking about today’s America or sixties Russia, some things never change. We all want to belong, find something we can love, something to be good at, and someone to root for us while we all figure it out. For Beth, and many more like her, it is tempting to fill voids left in our lives with other forms of addiction; to mistake feeling numb with feeling content, a lack of pain for joy. The Queen’s Gambit chronicles a particular story in a world that some of us may know nothing about, as well as a set of feelings that transcend places, time and themes. The only reason that we’re capable to care about things is because we can connect to other people through them; whether it’s an old janitor teaching a strange young girl how to play a game or a crowd of people gathered around a widow gently playing the piano. Through seven masterfully directed, written and paced episodes, Netflix’s latest hit proves again and again that it has much more to say about life than its subject matter makes it seem at first glance — and it’s an absolute pleasure to follow.
The Queen’s Gambit is available to stream exclusively on Netflix now
by Callie Hardy
Callie (she/her) is a Belgian New Media student currently living in Dublin. She enjoys female-fronted horror, nostalgic adaptations of childhood classics and every outfit Blake Lively wears in A Simple Favor. She’s usually pretty honest, but if you catch her saying that her favourite film is anything other than Lemony Snicket’s A Series Of Unfortunate Events, you should know that she’s lying. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram and Letterboxd.