I read that it took Scott Frank, the writer and director of The Queen’s Gambit, several decades to get backing for the series because studios worried chess was too boring. Really?!? Because I can think of two chess movies without trying. Plus, watching people play chess isn’t that different from watching a sportsball you don’t understand, and there are umpteen billion sportsball movies and series. Perhaps they were concerned that a female chess prodigy wouldn’t sell? That seems more likely. But, of course, The Queen’s Gambit isn’t just seven episodes of people playing endless games of chess (though the games are engaging); it’s seven episodes about the characters and about how their relationship to chess and each other affects their lives. And that, it turns out, is pretty mesmerizing, even if I do have slight hesitations about one or two aspects of the series.
In 1957, when her mother (Chloe Pirrie) dies, nine-year-old Beth Harmon (Isla Johnston) is sent to a Christian orphanage.
On her first day there, the director, Mrs. Deardorff (Christiane Seidel), tells her with a too-wide smile that “after grief brings you low, prayer and faith will lift you high.” Then she has Beth’s long red hair chopped into a blunt bob and burns her lovingly embroidered dress. So a friendly start. The grey echoing rooms, the obedient girls with almost uniformly bobbed haircuts, and the seemingly kind, but dead-eyed and impatient adults, make the place feel like something out of a psychological thriller. Or a horror movie.
And if that weren’t enough, the girls line up daily for their ration of “vitamins.” Beth is told the “green’s for evening your disposition; orange and brown’s for building a strong body.” The green pills are a tranquilizer, probably a benzodiazepine, which were liberally prescribed to women in this era because it’s way easier to drug a lady than to give her freedom, rights, or a proper medical diagnosis. So why not feed them to young girls as well?!? A girl named Jolene (Moses Ingram), who becomes Beth’s closest friend, shows her how to secretly stash the green pills to take at night when they’re most useful. (You know what confuses me? Why wouldn’t they give them two doses a day to make sure they sleep at night. No one wants kids to be awake a night. Especially a dormitory full of them. I mean, if you’re gonna drug children, at least do a thorough job of it.)
It’s clear from the start that wan, stern-faced, and quiet Beth is somehow different from the other children. (Jolene, who is one of the few Black girls and appears to be the oldest girl in the orphanage, is also different in possibly more problematic ways that we’ll talk about later.) On a trip to the basement to clap the erasers, Beth sees the janitor, Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp), playing a game of chess against himself. She watches for a few moments, seemingly transfixed by the movement of the pieces. She bluntly asks him to teach her to play, but he refuses because girls don’t play chess. Of course, she wins him over. At night, aided by the tranquilizer-induced hallucinations, she replays their games on the ceiling of the dormitory. Before long she can beat him easily and is hungry to know everything about chess. Eventually, though, access to the tranquilizers, to chess, and to Mr. Shaibel is cut off, though nothing can stop her from thinking about all of them.
Time skips forward to when Beth (now played by Anya Taylor-Joy) is fifteen and adopted by Alma (Marielle Heller) and Allston Wheatley (Patrick Kennedy), a childless couple with a horribly dysfunctional marriage. Alma suffers from severe depression and, as it so happens, her doctor prescribes her the same green tranquilizers. (Thank you patriarchy for your consistency.) With each refill, Beth siphons off a handful to feed her own habit, which allows her to spend nights deep in her imaginary world of chess where she controls the outcomes. Alma doesn’t take much interest in Beth’s chess playing until she easily blows away the all-male competition at a local chess tournament and wins $100. Allston has recently abandoned them, and Alma is quick to realize that Beth’s odd obsession and skill could help support them. Soon they are traveling to tournaments where Alma sees financial gain, while Beth focuses on piling up defeated opponents until she can reach the Russian grandmaster. In the process, Alma and Beth forge a delicate kind of friendship that provides them both with emotional support while also sinking them both deeper into addiction.
A lot has been said about how riveting Beth is to watch, and it’s entirely true. From the moment she comes on screen as a traumatized nine-year-old, there is something magnetic about the way she silently watches the world around her, as if waiting for things to fall apart. She zeroes in on chess with a singular intensity, as if it can provide her with salvation and control. (Both actresses who play Beth convey her intensity, intelligence, trauma, and curiosity.) There’s something very compelling about how instinctually genius Beth is on the chess board compared with how naive she is about the outside world. After an angry outburst when she calls Mr. Shaibel a cocksucker, she has to ask Jolene to explain what the word means. When she goes to her first chess tournament, where she obliterates all the players, she has no idea how anything except the game itself works. She needs everything, from the ranking system to the time clocks, explained to her.
But Beth isn’t the only mesmerizing character to watch. The portrayal of Alma—an intelligent woman and talented piano player who is trapped by fear, society’s expectations, and a crushing addiction to pills and alcohol—is heartbreakingly vivid. The contrast of her perfectly clipped diction and bustling capability in public, her rare moments of giddy joy, and her slumping figure and exhausted slurring in private feels so intensely personal that it verges on voyeuristic to watch. There were times when I watched her glance up from the television, glassy-eyed and beer in hand, that I thought my chest would crack open from the loss and sadness she conveyed.
As she moves through the chess ranks, Beth collects what I came to think of as a gaggle of chess men. (Sometimes I like to imagine them obediently duck-walking in a line behind her.) She collects guys like Harry Beltik (Harry Melling), who is so sure she’s an unworthy opponent that he shows up late to their first match, only to be soundly trounced by Beth. And D.L. Townes (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) to whom Beth is instantly and flusteredly attracted.
And Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), the swaggering, knife-carrying chess master who commands crowds wherever he goes and who, for a time, is Beth’s biggest adversary.
All of them are clearly smitten with her beauty and awed by her talents, while also being eventually, at least temporarily, repulsed by her ego, her addiction, and her stoicism. Sooner or later, they all willingly cede her their glory for the privilege of basking in her glow. The show suggests that her genius skill would be enough to quell everyone’s sexism and mostly protect her from predatory advances. Honestly, that felt more romanticized than Beth not losing a single match until almost halfway through the series. (I will say, it is nice to watch a show without having to constantly brace yourself for incoming lechery.)
The only aspect of the show that really bothered me was Jolene, who is the solitary Black character in a sea of white faces. Unlike Beth, who is played by three different actresses as she ages, Jolene is only played by one who, don’t misunderstand me, plays her very well and makes every scene she’s in crackle with energy. But here’s the thing, Black girls are consistently overly sexualized and disciplined like adults more than white girls, which makes it more problematic that she’s played exclusively by an older actress.
The series explains that she’s older than Beth and never adopted because she’s Black, which only kind of addresses the issue. Add to that, while we’re led to believe that Jolene is Beth’s closest confidant at the orphanage, she mostly seems to exist for rebellious outbursts, making Beth’s life easier, and comedic cracks, which only makes her character more stereotyped and problematic. Then, toward the end, she reappears in Beth’s life to pull her out of a dark hole and set her back on the right path. It’s important to note that Jolene has had own rise to success in life, which she’s worked hard to earn, and she has goals unrelated to Beth. She is also the only character who really knows Beth outside of chess, though you could argue there is no outside of chess for Beth. They are, in many senses, each other’s only family, so I could see where you could argue I’m seeing problematic tropes where they don’t exist. Jolene herself assures Beth (and I presume the viewers) that she’s not “here to save you. Hell, I can barely save myself.” But, at the same time, she willingly risks everything she has on Beth, a woman who has done nothing to reach out to her since leaving the orphanage. And yes, you could argue that Beth’s gaggle of chess men also largely serve to help Beth, but they at least have their own arcs that we see over the course of the series. In a show that otherwise entirely ignores race, Jolene just feels more like a token pawn in Beth’s life.
And while I’m kvetching, let me say that sometimes I felt like the whole thing could have been shorter. I didn’t get bored, but there were times when it felt like there was a lot of padding here and there. It’s a small complaint, but I didn’t feel right not telling you.
One thing I did not mind, though, was watching the chess games. It was utterly enthralling to watch Beth play. Of course, there is the element that it’s always somewhat gripping to watch someone do something at which they’re particularly gifted, but conveying that onscreen is something very different. A lot of the tension is conveyed through Beth’s and her opponent’s facial expressions and movements. Sometimes, in the glances back and forth, a kind of sexual tension builds, as if they are performing some wordless mating ritual via the chess pieces. (Though I guess it would be the mating ritual of a praying mantis, because she’s definitely going to eat them alive.) As she moves from watching the board to her opponent, Beth’s head sometimes swivels like a predator sizing up its prey. It’s particularly gratifying to watch when she levels her gaze on her opponent and rests her chin lightly on her interlaced fingers, as if she’s taking great joy in seeing the exact moment her imminent victory registers on his face.
Her hands, too, delicate with perfectly shaped nails, are fun to watch as she picks up a piece and moves it assuredly across the board, or as they flutter indecisively over another. But it’s also the sounds of the chess matches that are hypnotizing. The satisfying clunk of the button being pressed to initiate the opponent’s timer. The way the ticking clock is just audible above the soundtrack. The click of the chess pieces as the players move them across the board, and the way the hushed sounds of feet on a carpet contrasts against them.
And let me talk about the set design! When Beth is released from the grey, timeless prison of the orphanage with its shapeless dresses and identical haircuts, she is plunged into the world of the sixties. Alma’s house is saturated in color, from the deep teal velvet furniture in the living room, to the floral wallpaper, to Beth’s carefully appointed pale pink room, complete with a canopy bed. Beth slowly graduates from sack dresses to fashionable full skirts that are nipped at the waist, paired with a sweater, winged eyeliner, and painted nails. Just like any period piece, so much of the joy in watching is being transported to another time, and The Queen’s Gambit does this exceptionally well. Seriously, by the end I almost yearned as much as Beth did for a pair of saddle shoes.
When I first started watching the series, I worried it would be too depressing. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to be sucked down into the mire of someone’s addiction and obsession, but I didn’t need to worry. If anything, The Queen’s Gambit is in danger of being too much of an easy rags-to-riches tale where a lot of innate talent, some grit, a heaping portion of trauma, lots of pluck, and a brood of brainy admirers can catapult you into greatness. But Beth’s (and to a large degree, Alma’s) messy, flawed, sometimes hard-to-like character keeps it from veering too far into treacly platitudes. Or, at least that’s the way it feels when you’re caught up in the moment, which is all that really matters.