IMDB Link: The Queen’s Gambit (TV Mini-Series 2020)
Creators: Scott Frank, Allan Scott
Stars: Anya Taylor-Joy, Bill Camp, Marielle Heller
Synopsis: Orphaned at the tender age of nine, prodigious introvert Beth Harmon discovers and masters the game of chess in 1960s USA. But child stardom comes at a price.
If there is something I want to get back into with this site, it is reviewing TV shows. I dedicate so much of my free time to films that I simply struggle to find the time to watch more than two seasons of a show. That is the main reason why this year, the three shows I have reviewed so far are the final season of BoJack Horseman (which was split into two parts and only consisted of eight episodes in 2020), Supernatural (a show I have loved for nearly nine years and aired weekly), and The Boys (which Amazon aired weekly after an incredible season one last year). In an age where shows are dropped in one and a real commitment is needed to avoid spoilers, I have fallen out of love with the binge formula and need to be heavily invested to watch an entire season of TV within a week. The Queen’s Gambit may just be the first show this year that I watched in the space of four days, and even then I wanted to get through it quicker than that.
Let’s start with the performances, particularly from lead Anya Taylor-Joy. I am not sure if there is an actress who is as hard-working as Taylor-Joy is right now, with this being the fourth project I have seen her in this year alone. Even if I haven’t liked every project that I have seen her in, she has always been a strong point of what does work. This series is no different, as she shines as child prodigy turned Chessmaster Beth Harmon. It is something to portray a character like this in a film, but to deliver that character progression over six episodes like Taylor-Joy does is what keeps you fully engaged with the show. Isla Johnston, who plays young Beth Harmon in the first episode and in flashbacks later on, also does a fantastic job selling the role. She carries a lot of the pressure opening the show, in the moments that the audience need to be gripped by to get to the moments that Anya Taylor-Joy takes over, and she did extremely well.
For a TV mini-series, the supporting case is one of the strongest I have seen in years. Marielle Heller is a wonderful director (having done A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and Can You Ever Forgive Me? in the past few years), but she proves here that she is just as wonderful on-screen, playing Beth’s adopted mother Alma Wheatley. After time off from the Harry Potter franchise, Harry Melling has had an incredible year on Netflix: The Old Guard, The Devil All The Time, and now this. I also cannot leave out Thomas Brodie-Sangster, who still doesn’t look like he is older than 21 but gives a wonderful performance as one of Beth’s competitors and love interests, Benny Watts.
A lot of pressure is placed on the first episode of any new TV series to hook the audience into watching what the rest has to offer. A lot is set-up with this initial episode, primarily focusing on the main storylines that will continue throughout the rest of the show. Yet, it does not feel completely weighed down in exposition. The progression of the story feels natural, presenting the first episode through the eyes of an ophaned child who is just as confused in her new surroundings as the audience would be.
From the stills alone going through social media, it is clear that this TV series is visually stunning. It is not just the obvious technical elements that work though, such as the production and costume design to bring this world to life and set up the tone and style of the series. It is the surprising amount of visual effects work, bringing the chessboard to life both as a physical object, and as a part of Beth Harmon’s headspace above on the ceiling.
The pacing of the mini-series can fluctuate, and there are periods of time that do feel like they drag on unnecessarily. However, I am impressed at the general pacing of each episode, and how each one is split up to tell as much of the story as possible. Each individual story arc is never rushed, and the ones that go by quicker feel like they have a narrative reason to feel like fleeting moments, such as each relationship that Beth develops. Other storylines, like the one with Alma Wheatley, earn the three-episode arc that they get and build up gradually to give the audience the emotional connection needed to push the series forward.
It is clear that this is a show about chess, and yet it never feels necessary to learn about the game itself to fully enjoy the show. We, as audience members, are never made to feel dumb if we do not understand what is going on technically in the games. Instead, we are placed in the shoes of people like Alma Wheatley, who has no knowledge of the game until she attends games with Beth Harmon, that we are spectators like her amazed at how the game works and how competitive it can really be.
It is, however, not just a show about chess. It is a story with much darker themes, as can be guessed from the plot synopsis. From the first episode alone, there are moments of exposition that show the start of drug use and dealing with being an orphan. That drug use spirals throughout the first few episodes, as well as alcohol use that particularly comes into play in the latter half of the show. The show is able to balance all of these storylines, giving us moments of high with the chess matches and creating a compelling yet darker story behind the glamour of the chessboard.
The Queen’s Gambit is able to set-up these darker storylines within the opening few minutes of the first episode, which is a flash-forward sequence. The audience knows instantly that before what appears to be an important chess match for Beth Harmon, that something will happen to leave her in this situation. When we do get that reveal, it hits incredibly hard and is so well done to subvert our expectations for how the scene would eventually play out.
What I really appreciated about this show was the relationships, and how natural they felt. This is not a Hollywood movie in which Beth Harmon magically finds her one true love and stays with them no matter what. In fact, the show almost makes fun of that exact notion with Alma Wheatley and her fun romance within an episode. Instead, there are several men who come and go within Beth’s life, some as fleeting moments and some that go between competitor and romantic. The individual romances feel real, because they are not just glamourised for the sake of the show.
The final episode of the series, fittingly titled ‘End Game’, has so many loose ends that need tying up. However, the show does a wonderful job in wrapping up the stories concisely and leaving the audience satisfied. The final episode brings back characters from the first few episodes, making the entire series feel coherent and necessary towards the final product, whilst also making sure that the more recent storylines also drew to a nice conclusion. It may be the most-watched limited series to ever be on Netflix, but this is not a story that needs to be renewed for another season.
This may be the most I have written for a review in a long time, and I barely scratched the surface on what makes this show work so well. It is so easy to fall into the world, both in terms of the visuals and the storytelling, because everything is just so enticing. Each character is complex and fully developed, and so many individual stories are told to their full extent within what is a seven-hour period of time. Whilst television is dominated by long-running series, the quality of the mini-series has been growing and more people are rightfully starting to pay attention to them. This is no exception.