‘The Queen’s Gambit’ is a brilliant, visually stunning success

“The Queen’s Gambit,” directed by  Scott Frank, based on the novel of the same name, is an eight-part limited series that premiered on Netflix on Oct. 23. Enthralled by the “world in 64-spaces,” orphan Beth Hardon, portrayed by Anya Taylor-Joy, enters the world of competitive chess, eventually becoming world champion. But Beth’s rise is not an easy one, as she experiences addiction and loss on her journey from the orphanage Methuen House to the world’s  chess championships.

The cadence of “The Queen’s Gambit” is thrillingly intense, much like that of a sports movie. Yet, just like the best sports movies, the most interesting storyline is not the game itself, but  Beth’s coming of age. “The Queen’s Gambit” shines most brightly during its scenes of ordinary adolescence. The costuming designed by Gabriele Binder  is cut from the cloth of “Mad Men,” not in the era as much as the way that Beth’s clothing choices illustrate her evolving class status and maturity through the series. Both Taylor-Joy and Moses Ingram, who plays fellow Methuen House orphan Jolene, achieve the difficult task of playing the same character from early adolescence to adulthood without cloying affect (Ingram portrays Jolene from pre-teenhood, no small feat). 

The assumed incongruity between adolescent girlhood and chess mastery creates friction for Beth; one embarrassing moment involves an interaction with an early competitor, who years later tells Beth that she “tells everyone [she] was there for two of [Beth’s] firsts,” referring to Beth’s first chess win and first menstrual period. Thankfully, the series does not lean into the implication that Beth’s brilliance bars her from experiencing life as a teenage girl. More interestingly, her particular set of experiences as a child-displaced make the trappings of teenage girlhood inaccessible to her. She doesn’t find saddle shoes beneath her, she simply can’t afford them.

Taylor-Joy also skillfully portrays the distinct loneliness of teenagehood. Even in solitary scenes, Taylor-Joy communicates her quiet emotional strain. It is a deeply relatable portrayal because Beth, like all teenagers, carries the acute pain of incongruity with her surroundings. Yet Beth doesn’t have to despise other teenage girls in order to be prodigious. Neither does she earn the right to her success by championing other women. The result is that Beth is refreshingly unlikable; too often do stories of talented girls focus more on their martyrdom than their achievements.

Classic coming-of-age stories with female leads tend to execute this period of growth less gracefully. In “Mean Girls,” Cady Heron’s experiments in femininity and sexuality lay waste to her mathematical prowess. Or take the case of Cher from “Clueless,” whose self-actualization comes in the form of a relationship. Even in Greta Gerwig’s lauded “Ladybird,” Ladybird’s adolescent sexual exploration is marked by experiences of heartbreak with deceptive partners. Beth’s experiments with sexuality are not part of her self-destruction. Rather, in a warming final episode, all of her love interests come together to help her win her world championship match. Beth discovers her own sexuality with refreshingly little dramatic embellishment. She is self-possessed about her sexuality in ways that are customary for teenage boys in coming of age stories. Yet her development is not sidelined by her skill; tense moments alone with Beth’s various lovers are almost as intense as the chess matches.

Part of adolescence is reckoning with the very real trauma imparted by family life, and Beth has this in abundance. Her mother (Chloe Pirrie) dies by suicide while crashing her car with young Beth (played by Isla Johnson) inside, and she later loses her second maternal figure, Alma (Marielle Heller). She grapples with addiction to “Xanzolam,” which appears to be a fictional benzodiazepine, and, later, alcohol. The viewer is meant to believe that this is the price Beth pays for her chess prowess. Even Beth herself buys into this theory, popping Xanzolam before matches in order to visualize her moves. Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp), the janitor who teaches Beth how to play chess, tells young Beth, “You’ve got your gift. And you’ve got what it costs.” Beth’s “cost,” which seems to mostly take the form of solitary intoxication in various hotel rooms, seems to be more a consequence of being drugged with tranquilizers as a child at Methuen House and a great deal of trauma and loss than an inherent quality.

Beth is ultimately able to win against her greatest rival, Borgov (Marcin Dorociński), sober. There is no evidence of Borgov having his own “madness,” nor any of Beth’s male competitors (with the exception of Benny Watts, played by Thomas Brodie-Sangster, whose gambling is alluded to once in the seventh episode). This discrepancy makes it difficult to believe that Beth’s addiction is a prerequisite for her success. Beth’s genius is portrayed as an inheritance from her mother, whose dissertation from Cornell is featured in a particularly poignant scene in which a young Beth watches her burning all of the pair’s worldly possessions in an oil drum fire. But the source of Beth’s addiction isn’t inheritance. She confides in Jolene that her mother never drank, and Jolene suggests that she might have been “just crazy.” The viewer is left wondering why Beth’s struggles with addiction are presented as a necessary part of her achievements while they appear to be hindering her success.

Another aspect of “The Queen’s Gambit” that will likely puzzle viewers is the handling of race, which it does by largely avoiding it. There are attempts made to address the indelibly racialized atmosphere of the period, almost all provided by Jolene. There are moments that feel stereotypical and canned (what Black person uses “cracker” as a term of endearment?). But there are also moments of poignancy and even hilarity in Jolene’s observations that Ingram delivers with apolmb; In an especially delicious moment, Jolene responds to Beth’s suggestion that Jolene is compromising her ability to be part of a radical Black movement while maintaining a relationship with her white boss, responding, dryly, “Fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke.” It is unfortunate that Jolene’s coming-of-age occurs out of frame and her journey from orphan to paralegal to activist is left unexplored, especially considering Ingram’s skill.

Jolene is the relation who ultimately saves Beth from her addiction. And yet, it is not immediately apparent why Jolene wants to maintain a friendship with Beth. Throughout the series we see Jolene comforting Beth, even ultimately establishing a familial relationship between the two. Jolene is the first to welcome her to Methuen House and the one who holds her as she cries over the death of Mr. Shaibel. We see the two giggling and bonding together for brief moments, but the interactions between Young Beth and Young Jolene reflect the discrepancies between their circumstances. Beth is sometimes unkind towards Jolene, upon whom she depends for pills and street-smarts, and Beth is ultimately adopted while Jolene remains at Methuen House. So it is surprising when Jolene comes to rescue Beth from her addiction, doubly so when she offers Beth funds that she had saved for law school to fund Beth’s trip to Russia. The result is that the relationship feels more like an iteration of the “Magical Negro” trope than a mutually-fulfilling friendship.

Sticking-points aside, the series is brilliant and exhilarating, a visually-stunning portrait of humanity and genius and their sometimes-competing presences in a young woman’s body. It manages to make chess thrilling, an especially impressive achievement because the gameplay is largely unintelligible to the uninitiated. The series soars because “The Queen’s Gambit” isn’t really about chess, it’s about Beth. The considerable skill of the actors and Frank make “The Queen’s Gambit” an excellent watch.

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