You would be forgiven for thinking The Queen’s Gambit is based on a real chess player, perhaps introducing us to a forgotten but pivotal name in the game. Thankfully it is not, freeing it from the confines of what could be stodgy biopic traps. Instead, the seven-episode limited series, based off Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel of the same name, positively soars.
Gorgeously shot and lovingly crafted, The Queen’s Gambit takes place in the late 1950s and ‘60s, and focuses on a young chess prodigy, Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy). Tragedy and fantasy engage in a complicated dance in Scott Frank’s scripts, as Beth is fed (and quickly develops an addiction to) tranquilizers as an eight-year-old child, something that opens her mind up but (obviously) plagues her throughout her young adult life.
The story beats as described might seem familiar or even oversized, but The Queen’s Gambit is a quiet, elegant story that charts Beth’s chance introduction to chess by a janitor (Bill Camp) at a Kentucky orphanage through to her playing grandmasters on the world’s biggest stage. Initially portrayed as sullen and blank, Beth’s story really opens up once the talented Taylor-Joy comes on the scene. She’s still matter-of-fact, but Taylor-Joy (who is something of a young prodigy herself) gives her more dimension. With huge eyes and careful mannerisms—her thin, exaggerated cupid bow lips curling up just enough to suggest more happening than her calm veneer betrays— Taylor-Joy often gives one the unnerving feeling of watching a glamorous alien who finds humans somewhat interesting as she picks up on our mannerisms. Her Beth is mesmerizing to watch, perfectly coiffed in a wardrobe of fantastically mid-century color palettes.
Initially, the series appears to be bookended by a key Parisian match where we meet Beth at what seems like her lowest point: hungover in a bath, fully clothed, asleep in the dark when she should be matching wits with a Russian grandmaster. But what we come to learn over the course of the season is that this isn’t Beth’s or the show’s endgame. Rather, it’s a moment of transition and of choice, one that plays out beautifully.
Speaking of play, The Queen’s Gambit is secretly a sports story. Chess has never been more kinetically riveting. Deftly edited and full of stylish montages, the moves that come so easily to Beth are not easily explained to viewers. There is a depth of knowledge that defies casual understanding, but it is also never a barrier. Beth is almost supernaturally gifted, brilliant at chess yet hindered by a mind that also finds solace in addictions of various kinds. It’s a story usually told about a man, but part of what’s so refreshing about The Queen’s Gambit is that, despite one or two quick comments, this is really not about Beth being a woman (or more accurately, a girl). The show doesn’t need to make a statement. The bias against her, initially, mostly comes from her age and casual hubris. But once she starts playing, her exceptionalism speaks for itself. The men who surround her respect her and bring her in as one of their own—sex doesn’t come into it.
Well, some sex comes into it. Beth may be single-minded when it comes to chess (she is naturally gifted, but she also studies constantly, reading every book and magazine on past games that she can), but she’s still interested in boys and curious about the world with its lush fashions and pretty things. Again, the dance of fantasy and tragedy: she is young, rich, and has total freedom. But that has consequences.
Early in the season, Beth is adopted by a couple who fail to understand her interest in chess, but are willing to let her do what she wants with it. Ultimately, her relationship with her adopted mother, Alma (who also has a dependency on pills) is deeper and more fascinating than any man she meets throughout the series. Acting almost as pleasant roommates, Beth and Alma (a quietly excellent Marielle Heller) are more partners than mother-daughter, but the potent loneliness of outcasts creates a certain bond. It’s one of the many practical relationships Beth finds herself in throughout the story, including her friendship with charming fellow orphan Jolene (Moses Ingram), soon-to-be-former Kentucky State Champion Harry Beltik (Harry Melling), and a kind of “cowboy” of chess, Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), with whom she spars. (Despite its Kentucky setting, the series also blesses us by only including the faintest hint of accents, if at all).
The relationship that is the most constant throughout Beth’s chess career, however, is a one-sided fascination with the Russian player Vasily Borgov (Marcin Dorocinski). As as is so wonderfully and comedically detailed in Vsevolod Pudovkin’s 1925 short film Chess Fever (which features real stock footage of World Champion player José Raúl Capablanca, referenced many times in the series), the Soviets were crazy for chess. While American tournaments had minimal attendance and low-budget boards and pieces, Moscow had gothic, imposing chess halls and a clamoring crowd outside desperately tracking each move. The game belongs to them, with Borgov here as the best. For Beth, beating him is her white whale—if she doesn’t go mad first. (And truly, what would a classic sports story be without a good ole fashioned USA vs USSR finale?)
But Borgov is no villain—he, like the others Beth plays against, truly embodies the sentiment of game-recognize-game. The chess sequences that Beth plays are riveting, but none more so than against this grandmaster. You cannot help but anxiously sink into the couch both when Beth is working out her strategies in her mind and when she’s ready to relapse into old bad habits. It is stressful, proving just how easy it is to get emotionally caught up in the stakes of this incredible world.
Because The Queen’s Gambit is a work of fiction (that title, by the way, is mentioned 33 minutes into the first episode and then dispatched with), it tells exactly the engrossing character story it wants to, and how. That might sound obvious, but it’s no small thing. With excellent pacing and a sure sense of itself out of the gate, The Queen’s Gambit is a work of art—riveting, radiant, and simply spellbinding. Like Beth, it triumphs through its devotion to a love of the game.
The Queen’s Gambit premieres Friday, October 23rd on Netflix.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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