The Queen's Gambit plays with your expectations of the "child prodigy" trope with gorgeous cinematography and 64-square drama.
Not many people know that I used to play in a chess club; admittedly me and five friends began it, but I was good. There was a beauty in the maths which blew me away. Twelve years later and I must admit I have fallen out of practice. So when I found out that a limited series of Walter Tevis’ novel was coming to Netflix, with Anya Taylor-Joy in the lead role as orphan and child chess prodigy Elizabeth Harmon, I was intrigued immediately. I watched it, and then re-watched it, and since then I’ve seen its seven episodes almost ten times. Each time through I notice something else, and another detail, relevant later, comes to light – a line which is reflected later.
The thing about The Queen’s Gambit is that it’s reintroducing chess – a game which most people would typically just dismiss as something to play when there’s nothing to do – back to us, in a way which has revitalised public interest. By the end of October when it was released, the series had become Netflix’s most popular scripted limited series. In the span of a week it has gripped the international audience. It has, dare I say it, made chess sexy again. People are flocking back to the board of 64 squares, with a rise in people purchasing their own sets and signing up for a local club to learn for themselves.
It’s not difficult to see why; while chess may be confusing for some, the fact that while Beth may overtake us with power and ability, in the first episode or two we learn the game with her. Mr. Shaibel’s influence extends far beyond the board, and you can see it extended throughout the following episodes, culminating in Beth herself realising this in ‘End Game’.
Beth’s path is not clear-cut. Like the queen piece she is compared to in magazine articles throughout the show, her journey moves forwards and back, diagonally around obstacles, and to overcome setbacks. Notably for Beth, this tale is about her addictions – first to the tranquillisers given to her in the orphanage, then other substances, and most importantly to winning. When she loses for the first time, and then struggles against world champion Borgov, we can see the threads which entangle her move forward from ‘Fork’ – stuck in one place deciding between two places to move forward.
Games themselves also hold meaning. Many of the chess matches we see on screen are, at poignant moments, replaying old games from international grandmasters. Beth’s first tournament and her match against Beltik replays a game which ends with the white queen beside the black king, symbolic of Beltik and Harmon themselves. Titles of each episode reflect more chess metaphors, an indication of the stages of Beth’s own personal match against love or responsibility, such as ‘Adjournment’ being about Beth’s lowest point and addiction.
But chess is just the framing device of The Queen’s Gambit. The story is not about the game but Beth, our player. Most of her outfits are black and white, with checked patterns. The symbolism culminates in a gorgeous ensemble in the final scene – a deliberate choice of both the creative team and the costuming department – that resembles the silhouette of the queen piece. A mention, of course, must go to those working behind the scenes on The Queen’s Gambit. The set design is stunning; from the little details in Beth’s room to the stunning array of places she goes to play, each has its own feel and gorgeous layout. A favourite of mine is the 1966 US Open held in Vegas, with the golden dice in the middle as a centrepiece to the design. The decision to have Beth as a redhead rather than the blonde counterpart in the novel visually cemented how different she is without having to say a word. The way matches are framed to show you who is winning even if you cannot tell a match from sight – it’s fantastic storytelling, and it’s no wonder that people are so enamoured with it.
All episodes of The Queen’s Gambit are available to watch on Netflix now. Watch the trailer below.