I’m a bit late to the party on this one, by the time I finally got round to watching it Queen’s Gambit had already won a flock of awards, including the Golden Globe for best limited series. But if I’m late to the party, at least I’m showing up with enthusiasm. This is a great series, one of the best I’ve seen in a while, and one of the best crafted and presented characters I’ve seen in a very long time.
The first thing I will say, is that the series is overall a positive one and it ends well. That’s one of the key things I look for in a series at the moment, and although I guess it could be considered a spoiler, I think it’s more a part of the genre description. It’s no more a spoiler than saying something is “feel good”, or “gritty”, one gives away a happy ending, and the other means there’s going to be a lot of darkness (although something gritty can still have a positive ending, and something feel good might have darkness along the way). I wouldn’t describe Queen’s Gambit as light and fluffy, there are certainly dark moments along the way, but throughout there were more moments that had me smiling with happiness and satisfaction than there were that had me tensing for disaster.
The series tells the story of Beth Harmon – an orphan chess prodigy (or maybe a math prodigy who happens to get hooked on chess first). Give or take a couple of flash backs and flash forwards, the series tells her life story quite linearly from her arrival at the orphanage at age 9 in the mid 1950’s through the next 15 years or so. It’s not the most original or surprising of stories, but it’s well put together and well paced with ups and downs. Beth’s life is full of contrasts, she’s lucky and unlucky, smart and ignorant, aloof and needy, studious but rebellious, capable of planning ahead but also out of control. It would be easy for all that contradiction to come across as an incoherent, badly written character, but she’s in fact a brilliantly written and incredibly complex character where every seeming contradiction actually always makes complete sense.
That writing is brought to life by a completely mesmerising performance by Anya Taylor-Joy who is very deservingly picking up all the awards. She delivers so many layers in every scene that I frequently found myself rewinding just to focus on her word, or her face, or her body language and truly appreciate all the nuances. It would have been very easy for the series to get very dark and heavy under the weight of some of the stories, and even just the weight of chess, but Taylor-Joy brings the lightness to, delivering humour and vulnerability just as well as she delivers the dramatic moments, the controlled moments, and the quiet.
The only thing that slightly let down the series for me was actually the chess. I have absolutely no interest in chess (I haven’t the patience to play and watching makes no sense to me) and the series did not manage to change that. There were a couple of visual tricks to try and make it more engaging, but I was utterly unengaged for the most part in long recitations of different strategies and watching boards. The psychology elements of the game were interesting (the posturing, the confidence tricks etc) just like they are for any sport, but I’m not sure if the series could have lifted the game more, or if chess is just a completely lost cause for me.
Still, the subject of the story is just a means to an end and the character, writing, performance and story are easily enough to make this one of my favourite series of recent years.
The Queen’s Gambit is 7 roughly hour long episodes and available on Netflix.