By: Alyssa Victorino, SFU Student
I have not played a single game of chess in my life. However, after watching The Queen’s Gambit, I am suddenly itching to play, eager to learn all the nuances of the game. Though an intellectually stimulating drama, this Netflix show does a remarkable job of balancing both comedy and emotion, making it clever and heartfelt all the same.
Earning a 100% rating from Rotten Tomatoes, the limited series tells the gripping tale of Elizabeth (Beth) Harmon (played by Anya Taylor-Joy), a gifted chess player, and her tumultuous journey to becoming a grandmaster of chess. Adapted from Walter Tevis’s 1983 novel, The Queen’s Gambit, the show follows nine-year-old Beth from a Kentucky orphanage in the 1950s as she comes of age. It is at the orphanage that her talent is realized, though it is also there that she develops a drug addiction that follows her into adulthood.
The cinematography, in addition to the screenplay, is exceptional in the way it fully immerses the audience into Beth’s life, throughout all her success and failure. The shots are beautifully framed and coloured, and with every close-up, Beth’s facial expressions and mannerisms are pronounced and consistent. Perhaps the most impressive way that this show was structured is how the pace of each episode mimics the essence of the chess term it is named after. These parallels between the narrative and the filmmaking are one of the reasons the series is so memorable.
Each episode is truly just as riveting as the last. Beth’s focus on winning is unwavering, and it is what keeps her paradoxically steady yet erratic. Her quiet demeanour is also strategically reflected on the board during times of suspense, making it hard not to be fully involved in the diegesis. Despite the palpable tension during games, there was a dedicated focus on the movement of the meek chess pieces, mirroring Beth’s contrived tranquility in the face of her inner turmoil.
Asked to provide commentary about the show, real-life chess champion Jennifer Shahade explained how the beauty of chess with its disinterest in traditional gender constructs is a theme that is persistently represented on-screen. Though the game does not rely on gender norms, the same cannot be said for chess culture, with Shahade noting that it remains a male-dominated sport. Despite Beth’s evident gift in logical reasoning, her stardom was predominantly built upon the novelty of being a good female chess player, a source of significant annoyance for the young protagonist. Shahade, however, expressed her excitement over the added publicity for women in chess and her hopes that it encourages young women to find a place in not just the game, but in other areas where they may feel they don’t belong.
As astounding as the show is, it is not without weakness. Critics have pointed out that Jolene, Beth’s primary confidant in childhood, was not given enough attention. Moses Ingram’s incredible portrayal of Jolene was a major talking point for the show, though it seems her role just marginally escaped the played-out trope of a Black woman only existing in the narrative to further the interests of white characters. Although an inherently feminist story, this raises a pertinent question: What is feminism if not intersectional?
While the representation of women of colour could have been improved, The Queen’s Gambit is a refreshing story about friendship, created families, womanhood, and the mess that is growing up, seamlessly woven into the pensive world of chess. It is enjoyable from start to finish, told with the help of a fantastic cast, purposeful camera work, fashionable costumes, and a genuine love for the game. Though it surely features hardship, the series deviates from feigned adversity for the sake of drama. There is no fuss — it is simply chess and it is simply life, and it is beautiful.