Queen’s Gambit checks and mates

WRITTEN BY: Mo Juenger, World News Editor

Photo courtesy of creative commons

The Queen’s Gambit, named after one of the most complex and well-respected openings in chess, astonishes and delights with its raw portrait of an artist at battle. 

Beth Harmon, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, is a chess genius who is orphaned at an early age. The show follows her through her childhood into young adulthood, watching her develop as a player and a woman. 

Set in the 1960s, the show is a familiar story told in an unfamiliar way. Reminiscent of Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls, it parallels a beautiful woman’s downward spiral but replaces that external beauty with unadulterated talent. 

After traumatic experiences at the orphanage, Beth grows into a troubled adult. She is, after all, an artist, and with that artistry comes the mental weight associated with the creation of art. 

As Beth struggles with addiction, she casts aside the people she loves and the people who love her. With age, her life deteriorates, but her chess talent remains unmatched. 

Ancillary characters Benny Watts (played by Maze Runner’s Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and Harry Beltik (played by Harry Potters’ Harry Melling) illuminate the cast, providing depth and sharpness to Taylor-Joy’s fragile character. Their unmatched friendliness is met with equal anger and disregard from Beth. 

The show’s mystique stems from Beth’s core unlikeability. Though she plays dozens of high-risk chess matches throughout the show, none of her opponents are portrayed as “the bad guy.” 

Her ultimate opponent, the USSR’s World Champion Vasily Borgov, is simply stoic. He rarely speaks, and never changes expression. He is a mold for Harmon to display her own insecurities. 

Though Borgov plays the antagonist, Beth Harmon is truly her own worst enemy. When she loses, it is to her own struggles with addiction and trauma. Her alcoholic self-harm makes the audience strangely empathize, as viewers both sympathize with and resent her own hatred for herself. 

The Queen’s Gambit is not for the faint of heart. It is a show where you feed your own self-doubt into the characters; with time, you see your own worst attributes in her and vicariously root for her to overcome them. 

Direction by Scott Frank also adds an eerie beauty to the movement of the series. Though the series covers only her time in the orphanage to her late twenties, it is filled to the brim with flashbacks to the broken home she once lived in. 

These leaps in time provide much-needed departure from the stress and anxiety that Harmon’s games create. As we watch her childhood unfold, we learn about the factors that have led to  Beth’s  very precarious lifestyle. 

Educational and shocking, The Queen’s Gambit allows viewers to delve into the world of competitive chess in a time when chess meant glamour. It’s nearly like watching the biography of a fallen movie star, but one with the raw intellectualism never found in such portrayals. 

Even for those unfamiliar with chess, the show provides a look directly into a supernova found in few other contained series. As someone with no experience with the game, I found bliss and terror in watching Beth’s character burst and slowly fade.