Please keep in mind that this review contains spoilers!
The new American drama miniseries “The Queen’s Gambit” on Netflix, follows Elizabeth Harmon from her childhood in an orphanage in the mid-1950s to her adult life in the 60s, during her search to become a grandmaster chess player, while struggling with emotional issues and drug and alcohol dependency. The series is based on the book of the same name, written by Walter Tevis, and released in 1983.
Within the first act, Beth is an introverted 9 year old girl who lives in a caravan with her mother, a single woman who has some sort of mental disorder that triggers her to commit suicide in a crash car incident. Now orphaned, Beth is sent to an orphanage called ‘Methuen Home for Girls’. The place is not a perfect world, but it’s far from being a hell. In Beth’s new home, she meets Jolene (Moses Ingram), a smart and friendly girl, a little older than Beth, and who soon becomes her best friend. As was common during the 1950s, the girls in this orphanage receive tranquiliser pills daily. Beth starts taking the medicine and becomes addicted. One day, she heads to the orphanage basement, and she meets Mr Shaibel (Bill Camp), the orphanage janitor, who teaches Beth her first chess lessons. She falls in love with chess at first sight. Mr Shaibel notes her incredible ability with it, and he becomes her mentor and guardian angel.
A few years later, Beth (Anya-Taylor-Joy) is adopted by Alma Wheatley (Marielle Heller) and her husband from Lexington, Kentucky. They are a ‘model’ of a traditional American middle-class family, and she struggles to settle in. She gets along with Alma, but it doesn’t happen with her adopted father, who doesn’t feel comfortable with Beth in his family. She deals with the bullying that comes from her schoolmates because she doesn’t fit into their standards. In parallel, Beth enrols herself in chess tournaments even though she has no prior experience in tournaments. She wins many games and finally gets noticed by others and develops friendships with Harry Beltik (Harry Melling), Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), and Townes (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd).
The miniseries created by Scott Frank and Allan Scott and released on Netflix in October, presents us with Beth Harmon’s saga and the empowering of a young female prodigy, entering a man’s world, fighting for her place in it. Beth also faces her deep-rooted emotional trauma, and loneliness, factors that provoke her dependency on drugs and alcohol that make her lose control of her life. Beth is a witty, ambition, talented, and modern woman for her time. She confronts the social and cultural behaviours, and structures in the 60s when a woman’s place was in the kitchen. She did not follow those social protocols and stereotypes that women were raised into.
Beth’s life revolves around the game. She develops a dependence on drugs and alcohol to help her play and entertains herself with men whom she doesn’t love. Beth only loves chess, so the men she meets in her life are just distraction. They cannot compete with the mad passion she has for the game. Her intelligence and sharp tongue are what seduce them. She keeps herself lonely as price to be paid to become a chess grandmaster – but also leads to some self-mutilating behaviour.
The credits of the success of this series goes straight to Anya-Taylor-Joy’s performance. She is fantastic at playing Elizabeth Harmon, convincing with the shades that the character demands in such a realistic way.
It’s beautiful how the writers create the dramatic arc of Beth and Alma’s friendship, two women from different backgrounds and generations that share the feeling of loneliness and have the pressure of being women in the white man world. Beth brings to Alma a new reason for her life, including saving Alma from her failed marriage. Anya has a fantastic chemistry with the actress Marielle Heller who plays Alma. Their scenes are full of sorority and strength. It’s sad when she loses Alma and how it triggers her emotional issues and the dilemma with alcohol and drugs, however, it was a poetic and dramatic arch to increase Beth’s conflicts.
The last act of the series is predictable, but it’s still very fascinating! After she goes to hell and sees her life destroyed by the consumption of drugs and alcohol, and her traumas, she recovers her life like a ‘phoenix’. After all, as Beth believes “Losing isn’t an option” and she is back on the track, with her old friend Jolene’s support. So, she has a new gambit: to beat the Russian players, her biggest fear during her career. This match is a chance that she needs to re-emerge and rebuild her life. She counts on her chess’s friends and Jolene.
The narrative ends with Beth triumphant and showing us she has learned from her past to make her life better in her own way. Her last scene shows us Beth poetically back to the past when she meets an old man who reminds her of Mr Shaibel, and they play a game of chess together. The classic heroic journey of Queen’s Gambit is an ode to women’s freedom. It’s worth the watch!
Check the official trailer out below:
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