On October 23, Netflix released The Queen’s Gambit, a seven episode miniseries about fictional chess whiz Beth Harmon. I will be honest and tell you I had no interest in watching this because I thought the premise sounded boring. I was inundated with recommendations and people telling me I’m missing out, so I decided to cave to peer pressure and watch it. However, caving to peer pressure in this situation was an unequivocally good move.
In Kentucky in the late 1950s, Beth Harmon, a nine-year-old girl, is sent to an orphanage after her her mother dies. There she befriends a custodian who teaches her the game of chess, which she quickly masters. As she gets older she begins competing at chess tournaments, gradually garnering more notoriety, eventually facing off with fictional Soviet grandmaster Vasily Borgov. Through all of that Beth copes with chemical dependency in herself and others, and is exposed to ideas of feminism, patriotism, and interpersonal relationships.
The first thing you need to know is that you don’t have to know anything about chess to enjoy this show. That was part of my hesitation because though I know generally how to play, I don’t know deep strategy, I don’t know many famous chess players besides Bobby Fischer, and I don’t know how to spot talent. However, The Queen’s Gambit does a phenomenal job of portraying the chess world in a way that is understandable to folks who don’t know anything about the game.
My second hesitation was that it would be a subtle drama à la Downton Abbey. Now, I LOVED Downton Abbey. Maggie Smith shines, the drama is perfect, and it’s compelling in a way I still don’t fully understand. What scared me about The Queen’s Gambit is that I don’t think Americans do subtle drama as well as the British.* I was afraid The Queen’s Gambit would attempt and fail to match the nuanced relationships and sublime drama of a British show. Once again, my assumptions and reservations were unfounded.
The Queen’s Gambit draws viewers in with a sympathetic little girl who is treated poorly at her orphanage. An unlikely friendship with the orphanage’s custodian and a consistent dose of tranquilizers from the orphanage’s headmistress set the table for Beth’s professional and personal future. Anya Taylor-Joy, who plays adult Beth, perfectly portrays someone with an unconventional upbringing in a male-dominated world who umpires the internal conflict raging between her own ambition and a growing dependency on drugs and alcohol.
Supporting actors who play Beth’s friends Harry, Benny, and Jolene also perform commendably as their characters have to be influencers and occasionally victims of Beth’s sometimes uncontrollable actions. Marielle Heller portrays Alma Wheatley, Beth’s adoptive mother, and does so superbly.** Watching a mother-daughter relationship bloom from Beth’s adoption is bittersweet as a story, but perfectly executed as a plot-driver.
As dramatic as the show is on the whole, there are bits of comedy that temper the seriousness. The show is also scored beautifully, with pensive music providing a great audio backdrop for scenes both dramatic and comedic. Add to that the period-true set dressings, costumes, and soundtrack, and you have yourself one very compelling, well-executed, beautiful show.
* I hate giving the British credit for anything, but they are much better at subtle drama than Americans.
**Fun fact: Marielle Heller is married to former SNL writer and Lonely Islander Jorma Taccone who was famously left behind when the Lonely Island was on a boat (friendly heads-up that this video contains some NSFW lyrics).
I’ve never reviewed a television show before, so I’m trying to figure out how I want to do it. Stars? Points? Thumbs up? Maybe something topical like chess pieces? I think I’ll go with points.
But then you get to how many points to use. Three? Five? Twenty? One hundred? Or maybe I could pull a page from Buzzfeed’s book and use some odd number to draw attention. I think I’ll go with ten.
But then there’s the issue of having nothing to compare it to. So, I will provide some bonus reviews to other shows I like and hate for your comparative convenience. So, without further ado, I give my official review of The Queen’s Gambit: I give it 8.2 points out of a possible 10. Here’s how that stacks up to some other shows:
Breaking Bad: 9.7
The Wire: 9.6
Downton Abbey: 8.8
The Office (US): 8.4
Scrubs: 8.0 (which would be higher but that last season was so bad)
Parks and Recreation: 7.8
The Newsroom: 7.0
John Adams: 6.8
Last Man Standing: 5.0
How I Met Your Mother: 4.0
Two and a Half Men: 2.5
The Big Bang Theory: 0.3