A period drama about chess is an unlikely contender for Netflix’s release of the year, or possibly the television series of the year. Yet, that might be exactly what it is.
The Queen’s Gambit, based on the novel by Walter Tevis, is an unexpected and satisfying rags-to-riches story about success, addiction and everything in between. It follows budding chess prodigy, Beth Harmon, who goes from playing chess matches with the janitor in the basement of her Kentucky orphanage, to entering elite tournaments in Paris and Moscow.
From the very first episode, 8-year-old Beth is forced to take tranquiliser pills at the orphanage. This is where her dependency on pills begins; an addiction later paired with alcohol that threatens to be her undoing.
But Beth wasn’t given the opportunity to enjoy a normal, sober life. After getting adopted as a teenager by the equally tragic and endearing Alma and her distant husband, addiction takes on a new role.
Addiction isn’t just 27-year-old rock stars overdosing on heroin in a hotel room. It’s bored, middle-aged women like Alma trying to seek joy and comfort in their mundane, miserable lives. For Beth, her addiction extends not only to precarious substances, but to chess and to winning.
While The Queen’s Gambit poses questions of whether Beth’s madness and genius are merely two sides of the same coin, it avoids devolving into cliched, depressing plotlines. In any other series, Beth’s drug-fueled downward spiral would lead to her demise. But Beth’s addiction remains manageable.
Her unexpected platonic (and romantic) relationships with men don’t result in the obvious storylines about abuse that tend to arise when a character has a tragic backstory. A good television series shouldn’t need to have every character suffer beyond measure to warrant critical acclaim.
Despite featuring a young woman in a male-dominated game during the 1960s, this isn’t a story about female empowerment. Beth brushes off initial snarky remarks about her chess capability as a girl and simply proves her doubters wrong. No fuss, just victory.
As her male counterparts gawk at her brilliance, Beth pays no mind. She balances her chess domination with frequent trips to department stores and fashion boutiques, with her sartorial sense evolving with her success. She doesn’t shy away from femininity, and instead embraces it.
While entirely competent, Beth wasn’t the perfect Mary Sue character either - she won; she lost; she faced consequences for her actions and emotional detachment. Yet, she was still entirely likeable.
Beth’s magnetic personality can be attributed to Anya Taylor-Joy’s star-making portrayal. She oozes screen presence and succeeds in capturing the audience’s attention with her enthralling gaze - even in scenes with no dialogue.
Perhaps one of the most striking aspects of the series, differentiating it from other American Cold War-era period dramas, was the humanisation of its Russian characters. Beth’s Russian opponents weren’t cold, detached villains; they are cordial and collaborative, as normal people are.
And the crowds that greeted her after her matches in Moscow didn’t fit the melancholy, depressed Soviet image that America would have wanted its people to believe at the time. They were intrigued by this gifted, gorgeous American woman and celebrated her success, even when that meant the defeat of their own.
The independent style of American chess was a stark contrast to the Russian collaborative way, but it mirrored Beth’s independence formed by her traumatic life. Beth was taught not to rely on anyone, but once she started embracing the community she had, she finally learned fulfillment.
As Beth concludes her time in Moscow, she has the support of her American friends and the respect of a country she was supposed to view as the enemy.