By Sammie Purcell
BU News Service
“The Queen’s Gambit” banks on the hope that its audience will find long stretches of chess as thrilling as any “Fast & Furious,” seat-of-your-pants car chase. It’s a risky gamble that pays off, in large part due to the lead performance from Anya Taylor-Joy. Taylor-Joy, who plays chess prodigy Beth Harmon in the new Netflix miniseries, has eyes like laser beams. They’re enormous, taking up three-fourths of the screen as she leans over the chess board, chin in hand, zeroing in on her opponent, relishing in their defeat – or mourning her own.
It’s a sight to behold, but far from the only stunning visual in the series. “The Queen’s Gambit” relies heavily on titillation and aesthetic, often sacrificing plot details and character development for style. But, Taylor-Joy’s performance, daring visuals and chess matches that feel more like Greek tragedies make up for weakness in the story.
The show follows Beth Harmon, who, after her mother crashes their car on purpose and dies, is shipped off to Methuen Home orphanage. While there, things get worse for poor Beth – she develops an addiction to the tranquilizers the orphanage shells out to the girls, a dependency that will plague her for the rest of the show.
But it’s not all terrible. She also makes a friend, Jolene, played by the scene-stealing Moses Ingram, and discovers that the custodian, a quiet, surly man named Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp), likes to play chess.
Intrigued by the game, Beth convinces Mr. Shaibel to teach her how to play. He initially refuses – girls can’t play chess, he says – but gives in eventually, taken aback by Beth’s talent. After Beth is adopted, she becomes an international chess celebrity, playing matches across the nation and world while battling her addiction and deep-seated feelings of abandonment.
The show explores the interplay between genius and obsession, addiction and greatness. Taylor-Joy plays the role with a larger than life screen presence – and not just because of her massive eyes. Her ambitious attitude bursts off of the screen as she stalks into chess tournaments where no one knows her, demanding to play the best of the best. Her eyes flash with cockiness as she makes grown men who have been playing chess longer than she’s been alive look like fools.
Throughout the series, Beth’s often told she’s an “intuitive player” – she’s too aggressive, she shows her emotions too readily – all things that real-life female chess players say they’ve been told. Besides this being accurate to the experience of being a female chess player, it allows Taylor-Joy to show off her expressiveness. You don’t need to know a single thing about chess to understand what’s going on in any of these matches – just watch her face. Each moment reads clearly – every attack, every surprise, every downfall.
Besides Taylor-Joy’s invigorating performance, the show’s portrayal of addiction and genius also plays out quite pleasingly visually. The show’s most striking cinematic moments come when Beth is at her darkest. Addiction consumes Beth’s, along with the fear that the little green pill she depends on is the one thing that makes her great. When Beth begins taking the pills as a little girl, she lies in bed every night as the chess pieces become real, appearing on a massive chess board that’s made from the shadows that run across her ceiling. Watching her run through various moves, the different scenarios playing out on the ceiling above her at lightning speed is as impressive as the giant pieces are oppressive – looming over her in the dark of night, a menacing symbol of her ambition and addiction.
There’s a particular scene in the first episode that embodies the show’s mastery of mood, where young Beth (played by Isla Johnston) breaks into the medical room to try and steal tranquilizers while the rest of the girls watch a movie. The movie, 1953’s biblical epic “The Robe,” scores Beth’s thievery and subsequent dosing. The triumphant chorus of “Alleluia” that plays while Marcellus and Diana climb the staircase towards Heaven, also plays while 9-year-old Beth shovels pills into her mouth and descends deeper into her self-destructive habits. The contrast is stark and mesmerizing.
But while the show’s tone and aesthetic are mesmerizing to watch, its plot has weaker moments, in particular with its characterization and development. There are many men in Beth’s life, but they all come and go at strange intervals that often leave the viewer confused or wanting more. In particular, there’s a strange storyline where a possible love interest for Beth is revealed to be gay – except no one ever says he is, he never says he is, and the person who the audience might assume to be his partner seems perfectly fine with the idea of his boyfriend hooking up with a woman. This storyline is then completely abandoned until the final episode. The character returns and quickly makes up with Beth, but still never explicitly says anything about his sexuality. It could have been an interesting plot point, but instead, it’s shuttered to the side.
That same sidelining of possibly interesting characters also affects Beth’s friend Jolene. Jolene is a young Black girl that Beth meets at the orphanage, and the two become fast friends. In the first two episodes, it’s obvious how strong the bond between the two is, but after Beth is adopted, Jolene disappears from Beth’s life until the final episode. We learn a little about what she’s been up to – working as a paralegal, saving for law school – but it seems she’s mainly brought back to help fund Beth’s trip to the Soviet Union for a chess match. This trope – a Black character swooping in to save the white protagonist in their time of need – is lazy storytelling.
The writers seem to be aware of the trope – after Beth calls Jolene her “guardian angel,” Jolene says, “I’m not here to save you. Hell, I can barely save me.” But saying something doesn’t make it true. Jolene acts as though she and Beth are family, yet they haven’t spoken in years. It seems Jolene has kept up with Beth’s chess career, but there’s no sense that Beth has thought of Jolene at all since she left the orphanage. It’s frustrating because the actresses share genuinely heartfelt moments, and Moses Ingram, who plays Jolene, is quite funny and warm in her portrayal. But the script just doesn’t give her enough to work with. Her lack of development and the lackluster attempt to trick the audience into thinking the trope isn’t present are representative of issues that inventive shots and scintillating visuals can’t hide.