by Allie Vasserman
February 22, 2021
The Queen’s Gambit is a 2020 Netflix limited series created by Scott Frank and Allan Scott and starring Anya Taylor-Joy as Elizabeth “Beth” Harmon, Isla Johnston as young Beth Harmon, Bill Camp as Mr. Shaibel, and Marielle Heller as Alma Wheatley. The series is an adaptation of the book The Queen’s Gambit (Random House, 1983) by Walter Tevis.
The term “Queen’s Gambit” is a popular chess opening, a clue to what the series is about. The series starts in a girls’ orphanage in the 1950s where young Beth Harmon discovers that she is a talented chess player after being taught by the orphanage’s janitor, Mr. Shaibel. Girls in the orphanage are given tranquilizers, a common practice in the mid-1900s to keep children calm, which Beth takes advantage of because she believes that the tranquilizers enhance her chess playing abilities and her ability to visualize the game. Beth leaves the orphanage when she is adopted by Mr. and Mrs. Wheatley. After realizing that Beth can earn money from winning chess competitions, Mrs. Wheatley becomes Beth’s manager. As Beth travels and wins at different chess competitions instead of attending school, she becomes addicted to the tranquilizers and eventually to alcohol. She befriends several other chess players after defeating them at various chess competitions. These friends later come to her aid when she needs them the most. By the end of the series, Beth learns that she does not need to rely on the tranquilizers to be a great chess player; instead, she needs to trust herself and her friends.
The series covers the serious theme of addiction by showing Beth’s struggle with substance and alcohol abuse. The series also shows the importance of family, which for Beth is not her biological family, but her adoptive mother and the friends she makes. The series makes many references to chess: for instance, each episode’s name relates to an aspect of chess, and in the first episode, young Beth’s outfit mimics a chess pawn, symbolizing that she is a beginner at the game.
When I first heard about this limited series, I was skeptical about it and wasn’t sure that it would be worth my time. I was completely wrong, and I enjoyed watching it a lot more than I thought I would. You do not need to be a chess player to enjoy this show. The script is well-written and constructs Beth’s story perfectly over the course of seven episodes. Since the actors don’t speak during the chess matches, they rely on their facial expressions and body language to convey to the audience what the characters are thinking, making the chess matches especially enjoyable for the viewer. I think that the last fifteen minutes of the final episode are incredibly powerful and that the musical score enhanced the ending. I have lost track of how many times I rewatched the final fifteen minutes because I enjoyed it so much. The creators of the show have announced that there will not be a second season; I agree with that decision. The seven episodes provide the perfect storyline with a satisfactory endgame. This is a series that I definitely recommend watching.