On a checkered board of 64 squares, you need strategy and instinct to survive in the game of chess, which is exactly what Beth Harmon has. Beth is the protagonist in The Queen’s Gambit, Netflix’s newest limited series that’s putting the craze back into chess and even making strangers fall in love with the game. With over 62 million household views just a month after its release, The Queen’s Gambit has skyrocketed to become Netflix’s most-watched limited series of all time.
Based on the Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel of the same name, the story follows Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) from orphan to professional chess player. After the death of her mother, Beth is placed in the Methuen Home for Girls—an orphanage and the birthplace of her love for chess. Learning the rules of the game from the orphanage’s janitor, we discover Beth is a prodigy. But being a prodigy is not always glamourous, as the pressure fuels Beth’s bubbling addiction to tranquilizer pills. As a teenager, Beth gets adopted by a couple with a dwindling marriage. Now, she must learn to navigate the severe world outside the orphanage walls.
In this stunning coming-of-age story set in the 1960s, Beth makes a name for herself in the chess world with the support of her adoptive mother, Alma Wheatley (Marielle Heller), and friendly rivals Harry Beltik (Harry Melling) and Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), as she sets targets beating the formidable world champion from Russia, Vasily Borgov (Marcin Dorociński).
Although many of us are stuck at home, The Queen’s Gambit has been a boon for chess business. The show has led to an overwhelming increase in sign-ups for online chess sites and Google searches for “how to play chess.” Its popularity even thrusted the original novel onto The New York Times bestseller list, 37 years after its release.
While many people aren’t interested in chess—I’m guilty of being one of them—it is difficult to deny the show’s remarkable production quality. Creators Scott Frank and Allan Scott depict how beautifully complex chess can be and contrast it against Beth’s dark trauma and spiraling addiction, exploring how the two intertwine. While venturing into the harsh reality of these topics, The Queen’s Gambit also includes subtle and not-so-subtle hints of grander themes such as feminism and racial inequality that portray our reality for what it is.
These ideas are skillfully executed by the well-constructed cast. Anya Taylor-Joy, known for her breakout performances in The Witch and Split, is unrecognizable as she dons Beth’s beautiful red micro bangs. While Taylor-Joy looks incredible from her makeup to her costume design, her talent shines above all else. She captures Beth’s fragility and confidence, often switching between the two, as she’s trapped to wrestle her trauma and sudden fame. Beth’s character change is noteworthy but natural. We believe it’s still her, but we’re shocked when we look back on how much she has grown.
Other supporting roles, like Ingram, Heller, Melling, and Brodie-Sangster were impressive additions. They each highlighted the chemistry between Beth and their characters, showing the strength of these relationships and their impacts on Beth’s life.
While the story and cast are deserving of praise, there’s no doubt that the show captivated audiences through its cinematography. In a game with minimal movements and half-hour long turns, chess doesn’t leave much room for intense action. And yet, the way the sweeping camera places a heavy burden on the movement of each piece, on the rows of chess tables, and on each piercing glare between opponents. There is an element of unpredictability and a tense aura surrounding each game. Beyond the board, the show’s depiction of the 60s aesthetic is mesmerizing and a treat for the eye.
Even though chess is well known, a show revolving around the game defied all expectations to become one of Netflix’s most popular titles. The Queen’s Gambit delivered an unlikely, but intriguing, mixture of chess and personal drama. It also gave us a heart-breaking and heart-warming performance from its lead actress. As Beth Harmon says, “Chess isn’t always competitive. It can also be beautiful.”