WARNING: SPOILERS APLENTY AHEAD!
In all my years as a film critic, I’ve never had so many people ask me to share my thoughts on something that isn’t even a movie. I’m talking, of course, about Netflix’s wildly successful, compulsively bingeable miniseries, The Queen’s Gambit.
I’m just like everyone else. I loved the show—inhaled it and then tried to slacken my pace for the final two episodes, the way one might savor the final pages of a great novel. But that didn’t work—I inhaled them, too.
There have been plenty of fine reviews of the show—here’s one by the great Rachel Syme—but what I want to attempt to do here is figure out what makes the show so damn addictive. How did a show about chess, no less—that cerebral and rarefied pastime—become the most buzzed about series of the year? Let’s break it down.
- Anya Taylor-Joy’s Performance
As I said on Twitter, I would watch a show called Anya Taylor-Joy Stares at Stuff. The actress, with her long neck, regal posture, and large, searching, wide-set eyes, is utterly beguiling. Part of the joy of the show is trying to figure out what makes Beth Harmon tick. She’s the rare lead character who is somewhat inscrutable. We want to know more about her—her self-possession, stillness, and aloofness, paradoxically draws us to her. The more she withholds, the more fascinating she becomes. And Taylor-Joy pulls off numerous balancing acts in this role: She manages to hold our attention, to rivet us, actually, often while doing nothing more than thinking on screen. And she manages to play a woman who is both uncommonly confident and falling apart at the seams. Somehow these seeming contradictions live seamlessly in her, making Beth Harmon one of the most compelling characters of all time.
- The Good Will Hunting Factor
One of the joys of the great film Good Will Hunting was that Will, our working class math genius, was constantly being underestimated—by MIT classmates, by Ivy League snobs in bars, by psychiatrists, and by various other elitists who mocked him before they were humiliated by him, often in public. There remains something uniquely satisfying about watching an over-confident twit get brought down a peg. Beth has a similar trajectory. At her first tournament, it is suggested she play in the girl’s heat. Then, when she refuses, they sign her up as a beginner. “But I’m not a beginner,” she says calmly. Eventually, she convinces them to let her play in the main tournament and it’s an absolute thrill to watch her dispense with her cocky male opponents, one by one. She’s an underdog on many levels: Young, female, untrained, an orphan. So the enjoyment here is watching her smash the patriarchy and publicly take down her haters. This is a fantasy we all secretly harbor: Vanquishing our enemies while proving they were wrong about us the whole time!
Genius is also fascinating, albeit difficult to depict on film. Good Will Hunting did it well (remember how Will mocked, patronized, and utterly frustrated all of his assigned therapists until he met his match in Robin Williams’ psychiatrist). It’s one of the things that made the TV show House so compelling. But it’s tricky to get right (as evidenced by the number of House rip-offs that died a quick death). The Queen’s Gambit absolutely nails it. We never doubt that Beth is once-in-a-generation genius—a real world superhero of sorts. She the Chosen One, a la Harry Potter, except instead of slaying demons and Dark Lords, she’s slaying male chess opponents.
- The Way It Looks
I mean, my God. The clothing! The sets! The art direction! The series has been compared to Mad Men, but it’s actually more luxe, more stuffed, more of an intentional feast for the eyes than that cool show. (If you didn’t have a wallpaper kink before watching this show, you do now.) It helps that Beth stays at a variety of mid-century hotel rooms, each more fabulous than the next—all tufted couches and dense, jewel-tone curtains, and color-blocked rugs and reams of the aforementioned patterned wallpaper. As for Beth’s style, I’ve heard a few skeptics complain that she is too chic to be believed, that somebody as dreamy and bookish as Beth would never be so concerned with fashion. But I allow it.
We see the first time Beth really comes to care about fashion: She’s in a department store with her adopted mother. She fingers a dress, but it’s not for her. They’re going upstairs, to the sales rack. In that moment, the dress becomes an object of aspiration for her. And it seems to me that Beth goes after what she wants: Men, chess matches, drugs—and in this case, fashion. Becoming a fashion icon is another win for her, another way she masters her environment. And I will say, there is one moment when her chicness fades away. At this point, she’s hit rock bottom, in terms of self-destruction and drug and alcohol abuse. She’s making an appearance at a local tournament, just to earn some cash, pose for some pictures. But she looks like absolute shit. Her cat-eye makeup is too extreme—she resembles a raccoon. It’s one of the few moments in the series where instead of looking glamorous, she looks ridiculous. And it’s a smart touch.
- The Restrained Sentimentality
The Queen’s Gambit is undeniably sentimental, but I would argue that it’s the various ways it holds back that makes it so effective. Take, for example, Bill Camp’s Mr. Shaibel—the janitor who teaches Beth to play chess. He’s a grouchy, largely taciturn man—he’s never overtly affectionate with Beth. The closest to affection they come is when he stiffly puts his hand on her shoulder for a photoshoot. As I watched the show, I kept expecting an emotional reunion between the two where she can tearfully tell him how much she loves him and how much he changed her life. It never comes. When Beth goes back to the orphanage where she was raised, Mr. Shaibel has already died. She goes down to the basement, where they would mount their epic chess battles, and she sees that he has devoted a bulletin board to her accomplishments. He was following her career, with fatherly pride, this whole time. That bulletin board is more moving than any tearful reunion could possibly be.
Another example, of course, would be Beth’s adopted mother (the equally great director Marielle Heller!) In many ways, she was too mired in her own addictions and traumas to be a great mother to Beth. But she loved her daughter and they formed a kind of grown-up partnership and bond that was born out of mutual trust, affection, and an unlikely simpatico. She is truly Beth’s lifeline and best friend—even if she was never anything close to a nurturing figure—making her death all the more jarring.
- The Benny Watts of It All!
Just a moment to express my appreciation for the weird and wonderful character that is Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), the perfect foil, sometimes lover, and eventual ally of Beth. What’s great about Benny is that he’s as cocky and self-admiring as she is. He floats through chess tournaments just to soak up the adoration. His clothing—the hats! the knife! (as though he’s less a chess player than a swashbuckling adventurer)—indicate that he has constructed a persona in the same manner that Beth has. In a way, he’s the only one who really understands her. He shares her genius, her touch of madness, and her absolute obsession with the game. When he finally comes around to loving her it feels as hard-earned as it is inevitable. Benny plays a crucial role: Not just a love interest, but one of the few people whose respect and approbation Beth actually craves. An aside: Who knew the scrawny little kid from Love Actually could grow up to be a still scrawny(!) yet unstoppably sexy adult. All hail our lanky king.
- The Pacing
Here’s where I’ve got to really give it up to writer/director Scott Frank, who orchestrates this thing like a maestro. On Twitter, I noted that there’s not an ounce of fat on the show, but it’s more than that. He knows when to draw out the tension of a chess match and when to cut to the chase, when to linger over Taylor-Joy’s remarkable face and when to treat chess like an action sport. It’s perfectly calibrated. In other words, Frank has the instincts of a populist filmmaker, with the subject matter of prestige TV. I think that duality also lends to the show’s addictive appeal.
- The Lack of Serious Consequence
This isn’t actually one of the show’s strengths, I confess, but I do think it contributes to its wild popularity. Beth is a mess—an addict with a fear of abandonment who can actually be a bit of a dick to the people who have the temerity to love her—and yet that pretty much never stops her from winning chess tournaments or being propped up by her many admirers. Things never really go that badly for her, all things considered. She never sleeps through a match (although she certainly tries), she never overdoses, she never crashes her own car, or publicly humiliates herself. And it’s kind of a relief for us watching at home, waiting for that other shoe that never drops. Again, what I’m analyzing here is why the show is so insanely beloved—and I think the comforting sense that everything will work out for Beth, despite all its potential for disaster, is part of that appeal.
- The Scooby Gang
Here, perhaps, is where the show does allow itself to be truly sentimental. All throughout the show, Beth has been a lone wolf. (Even her adopted mother, whom she was closest to, never really understood her.) She pushes people away, or occasionally they push her away, albeit briefly. And she claims to like it that way. Self-sufficiency is a form of survival for her. At some point in the series, Benny tells her that one of the reasons why the Russians are so great at chess is because they view it as a team sport—they strategize together, proving the collective can be greater than the individual.
So, during the show’s climactic match against the Russian master, she gets a phone call from her group of friends. It’s Benny, plus the lovable twins who she met way back at that first tournament (and who pop up periodically throughout the series like charming chess elves), plus the Salieri to her Mozart, Harry (Harry Melling)—they’ve all been avidly following her match from Benny’s dank, basement apartment. They help her, and what’s more, she accepts their help. It’s cathartic. What makes this ending so perfect is that it indicates that Beth will finally lean on people, embrace the love she receives, at least a little bit. (She has also allowed herself to lean on her old pal from the orphanage, Jolene (Moses Ingram,) who becomes part of this new family she has created for herself.) As Buffy the Vampire Slayer proved, even the Chosen One needs her Scooby Gang.