Despite ample evidence as to the pitfalls in praying at the altar of the flawed genius people remain perennially swayed by this exact notion. Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit provides the audience exactly that, drip-feeding us potential bursting at the seams with such desire to be let out that our mind jumps a few objectives down the line, just as the protagonist’s own mind does when the need to satiate her own desires becomes a bit too bogged down in short-term task completion.
The Queen’s Gambit, named after the novel of the same name, itself borrowing its title from an opening move in chess, is at its core a coming of age story, although its source material divides opinion in this regard, seeing as it combines thriller and sports elements. In the opening scene of the first episode, we are allowed a quick peek at what’s to come for Beth Harmon, although the foreshadowing and symbolism can be a little bit on the overt side.
Besides the two capsules, the type of which we will become quite familiar with as the series progresses, and them subsequently being washed down with vodka, we also see a chessboard populated not with pawns, but rather with miniature alcohol bottles of various types.
Anya Taylor-Joy impresses as the teenage and adult versions of Beth, oftentimes with how serenely uncomfortable she is and how proficient she is at projecting loud emotions in such an understated way. For those familiar with her earlier work, the young actress is as assured and unnerving as she was as playing the role of Thomasin in The Witch five whole years ago. Just like the prodigy she plays in the series, there is plenty of potential here and it will be intriguing to see her develop in the future.
At seven hour-long episodes, The Queen’s Gambit is perfectly tailored to convey the patient plot progression and little nuances of the novel. It has often been said that books rarely translate to film in quite the same way but a limited series seems perfect for a novel, allowing the story to breathe and enabling the audience to absorb the minutiae of the chess world and its intricacies.
A welcome touch and one undoubtedly drawn unfiltered from Walter Tevis’ material is that the competitive environment of a chess tournament does not ooze with clearly defined, cartoonish villainy. Of course, this is 1960s America and it would be ludicrous to portray it without the discriminatory attitudes of the time and the show does a fine job at showing the range of patriarchal attitudes, from the more crass and unashamed, to the seemingly polite and ignorant, to self-limiting biases ingrained in some of the women at the time.
However, even bitter and freshly-defeated foes can offer a respectful hand in this universe.
The series also deals with misleading images. The young girl “without a scratch on her” has just experienced the gruesome death of her mother while riding in the back seat of the same vehicle. She will then put up a front to become more appealing to anyone interested in adopting her. The adopting couple seem picture-perfect, as if extracted from a period-appropriate poster promoting the latest family-friendly product, but they are also cracking under their own problems.
The Queen’s Gambit is an excellent series, able to quickly render the viewer invested in the future of its protagonist without resorting to an excessively reverential portrayal of young Beth and her behaviour. Indeed, where many fictional works of art tend to neglect the first half of the flawed genius moniker, The Queen’s Gambit manages to hit the right notes in conveying the full spectrum of this rarest of designations.