As the temperatures get colder, the days get shorter, and the COVID-19 pandemic continues on, people will surely be looking to television to provide them comfort in the weeks and months ahead. Those circumstances could -- and should -- serve as a blessing in disguise for The Queen's Gambit, a seven-part miniseries that is set to debut on Netflix later this month. The series, which is based on Walter Tevis' 1983 novel of the same name, takes a poignant story of identity, trauma, and competitive chess, and elevates it into something incredibly captivating and accessible to watch. Equal parts an emotional coming-of-age story, a brilliantly-constructed period piece, and a perfect aesthetic escape for our current moment, The Queen's Gambit is a fascinating and essential bright spot.
The Queen's Gambit follows Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy), a young girl in the 1950s, who is sent to a Kentucky orphanage following a family tragedy. While there, young Beth's life is changed in two ways -- she begins to develop a fondness for two things: the game of chess and the tranquilizers being given out by the orphanage's orderlies. The series proceeds to follow Beth through her teenage years and into young adulthood, as she sets out to be one of the premier players in the male-dominated competitive chess circuit. Along the way, Beth must grapple with how chess factors into her sense of identity, her relationship with addiction, and the trauma she has endured at nearly every stage of her life.
The Queen's Gambit has been at the center of several attempts at adaptation ever since Tevis' novel was first published in 1983, with Heath Ledger even signed on to direct and co-star in a film adaptation shortly before his death in 2008. While it might have taken decades to bring The Queen's Gambit into live-action, it's abundantly clear that the wait was well worth it, as there are elements of Beth's story that only feel more relevant and resonant today, despite being set over half a century in the past. While the crux of the series is obviously Beth's journey as a chess prodigy, it's the quieter and more human moments that will keep viewers enthralled with her story. As the series goes along, it's a genuine thrill watching Beth discover herself, as filtered through the culture she's living in, her own past, and through the various relationships in her life. With the series being co-created, written, and directed by Logan co-writer Scott Frank, that depth is both unsurprising and refreshing to see unfold.
The series uses its retro setting to subtly touch on progressive themes with hindsight and nuance that could only be achieved today, especially when it comes to elements like Beth navigating her sexuality or the external circumstances that can influence addiction. At the same time, the series deals with Beth's reputation in the chess circuit in an eloquent and almost timeless way, to which any woman in a male-dominated sphere will surely relate to it, without having to lean into the modern trappings of "#girlboss" feminism. Instead, there's an exploration -- for both Beth and the other female characters in her orbit -- of how women have historically sacrificed part of themselves to make it in a man's world, and how they try to regain their sense of agency within that.
Given its prominence in the series, The Queen's Gambit could be doomed by how it represents chess itself, especially since the game has traditionally been associated with a sort of stoic, intellectual crowd. While the series definitely acknowledges that bougie sensibility, it balances that out with the inherently human side of the game in a worthwhile way. The Queen's Gambit also goes to some inspired lengths to visually represent the excitement of chess, whether through variations of editing or cinematography, to where viewers can understand how the game can be so captivating. One recurring motif, of Beth literally visualizing a chessboard out of shadows on the ceiling, is visually striking every single time. You probably won't leave the series with tips and tricks on how to be better at chess, as the terminology and craft of the games fly by with a casual urgency. But the series makes the games so consistently dynamic and awe-inspiring -- and the characters playing them so easy to root for and against -- that the end result feels similar to watching Rocky in the boxing ring.
That awe that viewers are sure to feel watching The Queen's Gambit is also largely thanks to its ensemble cast, the majority of which are magnetic in practically every scene they're in. While Taylor-Joy has already become a fan-favorite in the film world thanks to her performances in The Witch, Split, and The New Mutants, The Queen's Gambit is undoubtedly the most electrifying showcase of her acting abilities yet. Taylor-Joy valiantly rises to the task of playing Beth across a decade of her life, bringing a profound gravitas to her as both the plucky, shy teenager and the complicated, glamorous adult. Whether Beth is processing some major repressed trauma or dancing around a room to New Wave music, she becomes the kind of authentic protagonist that audiences can't help but want to follow.
That sentiment is especially true when coupled with The Queen's Gambit's supporting cast of characters, each of whom compliments Taylor-Joy's performance beautifully. One of the definite standouts among the cast is Marielle Heller, who is best known for her work behind the camera on films like Can You Ever Forgive Me? and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. As Alma, Beth's adopted mother/manager on the chess circuit, Heller is truly unforgettable, condensing the larger ennui of 1950s housewives into a soulful and affectionately relatable package. Newcomer Moses Ingram, who portrays Beth's childhood friend Jolene, is also a genuine marvel to watch and brings much-needed energy to every scene she's in. And, surprisingly, the three main male contemporaries of Beth prove to be earnest and essential complements to her story, particularly when it comes to fellow chess pros Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and Harry Beltik (Harry Melling).
It would be criminal not to mention the technical elements of The Queen's Gambit, which transform the series from forgettable to elevated. Again, the series feels like a perfect aesthetic fit for the fall and winter months, with the cinematography from Steven Meizler turning a color palette of greys, browns, and blushes into something lush and almost comforting. The costume work from Gabriele Binder and hair and makeup work from Daniel Parker are both a huge component of that, with a sartorial flair that feels both timely and timeless, even in muted tones. Almost every outfit Beth wears in the series -- including an array of chic overcoats, knitwear, and cocktail dresses -- is both practical and envy-inducing, while still looking like something a millennial woman would wear while walking down a busy city street corner today.
Even in the uncharted waters of this year's fall TV landscape, The Queen's Gambit stands out from the pack with beautiful ease. Sure, the idea of watching seven-plus hours about competitive chess might seem mundane to some, but the miniseries uses its premise to tell a story about identity, passion, and companionship that's both escapist and profoundly relevant. When coupled with its earnest and talented cast and its lush and stunning aesthetics, The Queen's Gambit is easily one of the strongest binge-worthy shows of the fall season.
Rating: 5 out of 5
The Queen's Gambit will premiere on Friday, October 23rd on Netflix.