The Queen’s Gambit

4 out of 5

Created by: Scott Frank, Alan Scott

As a preface, Allison Shoemaker’s Roger Ebert review is pretty definitive, by my opinion, and I’ll likely just be restating things here, in my less definitive and well-written manner.

In it’s final episode of seven, Scott Frank’s / Alan Scott’s The Queen’s Gambit miniseries lays clear that it’s been an underdog sports hero story the entire time. It does all the cliche underdog sports hero story moves of character and narrative callbacks, and powerful we-will-overcome moments, and fist-pumping or tear-jerking resolutions that sweep you up in the moment despite maybe being rather unrealistically summary views of events… However, The Queen’s Gambit is one of the best justifications for long-form storytelling – not necessarily serialized storytelling, in which a longterm plot requires several seasons and subplots to explore – but something that could, theoretically, fit in to a 2-hour film, stretched out into several episodes: by doing so, these cliched conclusive moments feel appropriate, and earned. We’ve been dragged through the hero’s journey at length, and focused on it, to the extent that the show comes across as an intense character study before that 7th episode curtain drops and we get a classical-inspired take on the Rocky theme.

One of the most amazing and appreciable things about the show is how it brings in a lot of “distractions” to young chess player Beth Harmon’s (Anya Taylor-Joy from Beth at age 15 onward; Isla Johnston when younger) learning and mastering of the sport during the late 60s, starting from age 9 – family disharmony, romantic interests, drugs; things that would normally, even in a compressed film, be included as story padding and diversions – and uses them to inform her character, which then informs the directions the series takes us… Nothing feels wasted, or manipulative. Until it is, I guess, but again, by that point, the show has won: I have not binged a series so hard as this one since binging series became a possibility.

But it’s not exactly manipulative: as these things are happening – Beth being placed in an orphanage after her mother’s suicide; Beth forcing her way into chess lessons from the orphanage’s janitor (Bill Camp); being adopted as a teen by the Wheatley’s, only to wind up under the sole care of the often-tipsy matriarch, Alma (Marielle Heller); rising up through chess ranking in the almost exclusively male-dominated sport – they’re dealt to us with a rather bravely ambivalent hand. Beth’s reliance on pills to focus; her adoptive mother’s alcoholism – they absolutely affect things, but we are not handed black and white morals on them, or even one-line explanations stating that “this is why so-and-so drinks.” Apply this to Beth’s exploration of her feelings towards socialization, and love; toward her struggles between intuitive playing and the “need” to educate herself on her chosen profession… It’s an incredibly mature way to go about things – not judging, not giving us answers, and allowing for the episodes the break from some traditions in the way wins and losses are doled out – and it’s perhaps especially notable considering the overall genre, in which our heroes generally need to be easily understood as “flawed,” when no human being is really as simple as all that.

That being said, there is still a tradeoff: the character work is fantastic, but the social issues surrounding that character are only handled peripherally. The Queen’s Gambit moves with such momentum – and amazing editing, wonderful production, and stunning acting (especially from Taylor-Joy, doing the alone-in-a-crowd savant routine in such a way that allows us to see the human being ticking ‘neath that at all times) – that it’s easy for it to not be too noticeable, but it does still stack up along the way: Beth’s reliance on self-medication doesn’t seem to come with any real withdrawal effects; her navigation through a male-centric world is certainly nodded to at times, but zeroing in on the minutiae of the chess world allows the show to skirt by what would’ve likely been the more egregious reality; and Beth’s orphanage friend, Jolene (Moses Ingram) is really the only character of color of note, somewhat reducing her to magical negro status, despite Ingram’s humble and humanizing portrayal… All of these aspects do have counters, but again, they exist, and can be more troublesome after the show’s glow has worn off.

Ah, but what a damn glow. It might dim, sure, but it does not rub off: there’s a wealth of supreme talent and craftsmanship throughout all of The Queen’s Gambit, and at all levels, that realizing that I was watching an underdog chess sports hero story was actually a pleasant revelation, and now I’m just bummed that the greatness of the show means I shouldn’t be pleading for The Queen’s Gambit 2.