I can't remember the last time I played chess. I don't remember the rules and probably couldn't tell a rook from a pawn today. So when I saw "The Queen's Gambit" trending on Netflix, I didn't pay it much mind. 'Cold War-era orphan chess progidy battles issues' didn't exactly get me fired up. Not soley because it was about chess but also because Netflix has a lot of subpar shit on their site and some of it occasionally trends.
However, I kept hearing about the show and getting asked if I'd watched. So instead of watching maps get analyzed by talking heads all night, I fired up the streaming giant's original series based on a novel. Within a couple of minutes I was hooked, intrigued as hell. So I went from "I'll give it a whirl" to bingeing until the sun came up. Then I finished the last couple of eps yesterday.
"The Queen's Gambit" was a fantastic watch and I highly recommend it, especially if you want a nice distraction right now. The seven-part series is about traumatized young redhead named Beth Harmon who ends up in an orphanage (the kind that drugs children to control their behavior, "Cuckoo's Nest"-style). While cleaning chalkboard erasers one day, she notices the custodian Mr. Shaibel sitting alone and moving pieces around a board on a desk and becomes curious. Eventually, she works up the courage to approach the surly older man to ask what he's doing. He begrudgingly teaches the "angry" youngster the game. In short time, the 9-year-old girl dusts the crusty custy. It's not beginner's luck. Far from it. Shaibel realizes Harmon is a chess progidy. She's also a PTSD-ridden little girl who is hooked on the pills the orphanage makes the kids take.
From there, we follow Harmon's journey from the orphanage to her new (dysfunctional) family to the world of male-dominated, competitive chess. All the while, she's copes by boozing and taking the same tranquilizers that the orphanage got her hooked on. Though Harmon can be difficult and self-sabotaging at times, you never lose empathy for the character or get mad at her because, thanks to the early eps, you remember that she's the victim of childhood trauma who is then fed drugs by adults 'caring' for her.
The series isn't just about chess. It's also about addiction, trauma, and the emotional damage inflicted on a child and how it affects the child into adulthood. But the real miracle of the series is making chess exciting for people who don't give a shit about chess. I had no clue what the moves were or why they were made but was still on the edge of my seat during the tournament scenes.
The above paragraph may not sound like a barrel of monkeys and, for sure, the series goes to some dark places. However, it's incredibly well-acted and written. It's also worth watching for just the lead role alone. Anya Taylor-Joy does tremendous work as the teenage/adult Beth Harmon, a complex character that requires you keep rooting for her and Taylor-Joy ensures that happens. Bill Camp turns in his typically excellent work as her early, reluctant mentor.
But the revelation of "The Queen's Gambit" is Isla Johnston. She ropes you right in at the begining as the child Beth because of her performance. Johnston captures a damaged surliness without coming across as bratty kid, not an easy feat for a child actor. Not to mention, she goes head-to-head with Camp a handful of times and more than holds her own. My only complaint is that we didn't get more of her. I'm sure we'll be hearing her name plenty in the future though.
If you're looking for something to watch, make it "The Queen's Gambit".
"The Queen's Gambit" is currently streaming on Netflix.