‘The Queen’s Gambit’ Captivates
Ever since Netflix released its new limited series “The Queen’s Gambit” on Oct. 23, viewers everywhere have been going crazy over it. The seven-episode series is based on Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel, following the story of chess prodigy Elizabeth (Beth) Harmon, played by Anya Taylor-Joy. The story follows her quest to become the best chess player in the world as she struggles with loss, emotional problems, and drug and alcohol dependency.
If you have not watched the limited series, I highly recommend it, as it is captivating and highly entertaining. I would also tell prospective audiences to not be discouraged if you are not a chess fan, as it is not the primary focus of the series. My review is below, but caution – there are major spoilers ahead.
People always say that a strong first impression is important and “The Queen’s Gambit” definitely did that with the first episode, “Openings.” The series opens with Beth in Paris in 1967, waking up in a messy hotel suite littered with pills and empty bottles of alcohol. Having overslept, she scrambles to rush off to a chess match. She is surrounded by paparazzi as she races to the match and the director, Scott Frank, uses the flashes of old fashioned cameras to pan to a flashback. The technique Frank utilizes here immediately puts the viewer on the edge of their seat, reeling them in before delving into her past.
The viewer learns that Beth’s mother died in a car crash when she was young, leaving her in an orphanage for her childhood. The subsequent scenes reveal what life at the orphanage was like. The two most important aspects were that Beth becomes addicted to the tranquilizers that were commonly given to orphans during this time (1950s), and the fact that she becomes fascinated with a game she sees the janitor, Mr. Shaibel, playing while she’s cleaning blackboard erasers in the basement.
Jolene, portrayed by Moses Ingram, is Beth’s older friend who helps Beth through life at the orphanage. She has a subtle humor that carries the quietness of young Beth’s character. The relationship between young Beth and her first ever chess mentor, Mr. Shaibel, is also inspiring. Young actress Isla Johnston does an excellent job playing the curious and determined character of child Beth Harmon and Bill Camp plays the tough yet loving mentor to her as she seeks to learn the game.
Smartly, the series waste no time showing her prodigal talent which keeps the audience interested. Beth is eventually invited to a local high school where she easily beats all the players. Did I mention she played 12 of the high schoolers all at once? The last scene is probably the most memorable of the whole episode. The image of young Beth fainting as she shoves pills down her throat is something the audiences will remember for a long time. Some viewers claim that they did not need a whole episode dedicated to her young life, but later these claims are disproved as these scenes play a crucial role in the final episodes.
An important yet slower paced and less action packed episode, “Exchanges,” delivers important information but lacks the flair that the first episode had. During the first part of the episode, Beth’s orphanage life is wrapped up as she is adopted by a couple, Alma and Austin Wheatley. Although somewhat drawn out, this episode does an excellent job of portraying the internal struggles Beth has to face in her young life. While being adopted by the Wheatley’s seems good initially, it is revealed that they have marital issues, with Austin never being home and always leaving Alma behind. Another issue is the fact Beth has not played chess since her pill incident, as the local high school she now attends has no chess club.
The family is struggling for money as well, so the Wheatley’s refuse to buy her a chess set or pay for the entry fee to a local chess tournament. Luckily, Beth is gifted with five dollars from her old mentor, Mr. Shaibel, which allows her to enter a local tournament. Beth’s drug and alcohol dependency is subtly shown as she sneaks her mother’s pills, something the viewer comes to realize will be a major problem later. In Beth’s first ever tournament, she sweeps her way in competition, destroying her opponents and ultimately beating aspiring Grandmaster Harry Beltik. With the win, she’s granted a cash prize. Marielle Heller playing Beth’s mother does an excellent job in the concluding scenes as she portrays her moment of realization that this is the way out of poverty for her and Beth.
“Doubled Pawns” is a personal favorite, as it gives us insight into the fact that Beth’s arrogance will come back to haunt her. The beginning of the episode is fast paced and very enjoyable to watch. It depicts Beth and her mother as they navigate the chess arena, showing Beth’s ultimate rise in fame. Early in the episode Beth shows her arrogance as she says she sees no fault in her own game. We are also given the first allusion to Russian chess players as Beth and her mother overhear conversations about how the Soviets are supposedly unbeatable. Another subtle allusion Frank makes is how all of the fame Beth is receiving seems to highlight the fact she is a woman more than her actual chess talent, as being a female chess player was highly uncommon at the time.
Frank highlights how Beth breaks gender norms as she is not interested in hobbies that other girls her age care for. Instead, Beth focuses exclusively on becoming the best chess player. She and a reporter (and former chess player) named Townes, share an intimate moment in his room before being interrupted by one of his friends, giving us the first introduction to Beth’s feelings for Townes, who she begins to fall in love with.
The ending of this episode is what makes it special. We are introduced to Benny Watts, the former “child genius,” who plays a key role in the series. Watts is my favorite character as he is snippy yet lovable, with Thomas Brodie-Sangster as the perfect actor to play him. The first introduction we get to him is when he tells Beth about an incorrect move she made many years ago when she was playing Beltik. This is the perfect window into his character. Beth can not get over this; Benny is officially in her head. When they meet in the finals, Watts beats Beth, showing that Beth needs to learn to play mind games if she wants to keep winning. That moment is why I love this episode: it both introduces us to Benny Watts and shows that Beth is still naive and has lots to learn before she can take on the Soviets.
“The Middle Game” was by far the most jarring episode emotionally and does an excellent job priming us for the final stretch of the limited series. The opening scene serves to show us two important things. The first is that, ever since her loss to Benny, Beth is more determined than ever to be the best. She has even begun taking Russian classes at night at the local college. The second thing is that Beth is diving deeper and deeper into the world of drugs and alcohol. The excellent montage of Beth enjoying her first ever true “freedom” shows her let loose as she drinks and smokes in a lighthearted way. The rest of the episode is action-packed and critical for the finale.
Beth and Alma travel to Mexico for a large tournament where Beth has the opportunity to play a Russian. While they are there Alma meets up with her pen pal and local resident Manuel, and enjoys her time with him as Beth focuses on chess. The match that follows between Georgi Girev, a child prodigy, and Beth is a fun scene. After an overnight delay due to the length of the match, Beth is able to fox her way past him through mind games. The two share several childlike moments to lighten the mood before the jarring ending. Their lighthearted, yet competitive spirits remind the audience that both of these well-renowned chess players are still just children in an accelerated world.
After losing to professional chess competitor Vasily Borgov, Beth returns to her room where she finds Alma who was not at the match. In a sad sequence, Beth realizes her mother is not breathing and has died, most likely from hepatitis. Emotions run high during this scene, as Beth and her adoptive mother, Alma, had just recently bonded and become a dynamic duo that cared for each other very deeply. As she sits on the flight home, Beth swigs two martinis before takeoff, signaling the mental and emotional deterioration that is to come.
While “Fork” does not move the plot along quite as much as other episodes, it does set up the final two episodes well and offers the audience fun scenes with two of Beth’s best friends, Harry Beltik and Benny Watts. The beginning of the episode sees the return of Beltik, the man who Beth had beaten long ago to win her first ever chess tournament. Harry Melling was the perfect person to cast to play a character who had a major glow up from his younger days as he returns with his teeth fixed. While I really enjoyed the scenes of Beltik and Beth studying Borgov’s moves to try and gain an advantage, I found the romantic side of Beth and Beltik’s time together to be a little forced and were not necessary.
Once Beltik leaves, Frank cleverly uses him as one of the first people to warn Beth about her developing drug problem. The following scenes showing the U.S. Open Chess Tournament are excellent; from the montage of Beth and Benny running through their opponents to the speed chess scenes, this part of the episode absolutely killed it. The episode ends with Beth beating Benny and heading off to Moscow in style.
“Adjournment” does a great job of portraying the ultimate decline of Beth that has been building up since the beginning of the series. I enjoyed the opening scenes of Beth, Benny and Benny’s friends as they all prepare Beth to take on the Russian. This scene also finally gave the fans what they wanted as Benny and Beth get together romantically for the first time. I also liked the way Frank uses Benny’s friend Cleo to reveal to us that Beth is still in love with Townes, the reporter from earlier.
Something I did not like is that this is when we are caught up to the earlier scene of Beth in a dramatic rush to get to her match. I would like that to have been for her final match against Borgov, but I can see why Frank might have chosen to use her second to last match to do this. Beth, clearly distracted by her hangover, loses to Borgov once again. The next scene does an excellent job showing Beth’s decline. We are visited by her old friend Beltik who is the first to tell her she needs to get her act together. However, Beth simply shrugs off her old friend. It takes a visit from her oldest friend from the orphanage, Jolene, to jar her back to reality. I love the way it comes full circle here as the first one to help Beth in the orphanage is also the last one to save her.
“End Game” wraps up an incredible series. Jolene tells Beth the unfortunate news that Mr. Shaibel has passed away. Beth, confronted with this truth and seeing that Jolene has made the most of her life since the orphanage, realizes it is time for her to do the same. Some people claimed the first episode was too long of a set up and that there did not need to be a full episode dedicated to her orphanage days. The following scenes where Beth revisits the old orphanage and we see how emotional Beth becomes makes it all worth it.
It is a very sentimental scene as Beth returns to the basement where she learned to play from Mr. Shaibel. This was a great setup leading us into the final scene taking place in Moscow 1967. The visuals of this scene are amazing; the dark lighting of the competition hall gives the audience the feeling that this is a very different place than the U.S. Open which was well lit and had bright colors.
Another highlight of this episode for me was the call Beth received from all her old friends (Beltik, Watts, the twins and a couple of Benny’s friends) who helped coach her to play against Borgov over the years. There is another connection to the earlier episodes when Beth is able to see the chessboard on the ceiling without utilizing drugs. She both overcomes her addictions and inability to beat Borgov in one swoop as she forces him to resign. The ending is very beautiful as Beth is all dressed in white, representing the fact she has overcome her demons. On the way to the airport to fly back to the U.S., she makes a stop at a Russian park where elderly men sit at outdoor tables and play chess. She is happily greeted by the crowd of men who recognize her as the world champion.
Overall, “The Queen’s Gambit” was a delightful series. Director Scott Frank did an excellent job of developing many character arcs in such a short period of time and depicting a girl’s journey to beat not just her opponents but her own inner demons as she masters the chess world.