REVIEW: ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ failure and persistence make wholesome drama

Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) is a chess prodigy who must overcome childhood trauma and addiction. ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ is a seven-episode miniseries on Netflix that does not disappoint.

In 1967, in an elegant Paris hotel room, the curtains open and reveal a sleepy-eyed Beth Harmon. Feeling disheveled, she leaps from bed and rushes to put herself together. Following a night of binge drinking, Harmon is late for an important chess match. Cue the violins as a sequence of frantic camera shots show Harmon barreling through a posh hotel lobby and finally facing off with a male opponent. These are the opening moments to Netflix original “The Queen’s Gambit,” which for seven episodes, never loses its captivating and extraordinary story.

The first episode features Harmon as an impressionable nine-year-old orphan learning chess from a janitor. She pursues chess because she has a natural talent for it, and, more importantly, it allows her to escape from the grief and pain of losing her mother. In the years of early adulthood, she began receiving national recognition — soon to be worldwide — for her chess skills.

The quality of “The Queen’s Gambit” is great. The costumes and shooting locations such as Paris and Las Vegas add appeal and intrigue. But what makes the story believable — in fact, even compelling — is Anya Taylor-Joy’s performance. Taylor-Joy’s demeanor is fitting for her Harmon portrayal: doe-eyes, unique face and a strong, resilient posture. Taylor-Joy’s eyes are eager, full of truth and even harmonizing in some scenes.

Harmon finds that chess is a male-dominated game, and being branded by her gender is a caricature heightened by the media. Certainly, examining the patriarchy in the chess world is one of several themes explored throughout the series.

Harmon’s life doesn’t get any easier. She develops an addiction to sedatives, which had been administered to her as a young child at the orphanage. As Harmon gains fame and notoriety for chess she continues to be tested by her alcoholism and addiction. The point of the series is to convey addiction as a complex condition, which affects all types of people, even those who are extraordinarily talented.

Harmon goes on all-night drinking benders, arrives late to matches and slams doors on friends who only mean to help. This is another theme throughout the series, which pursues a deeper meaning of overcoming hardship. Rather than a disheartening story of loss and addiction, Harmon’s dignity expresses her strength and perseverance.

Harmon does this mostly by channeling her grief through chess. It doesn’t hurt that she is a likable person who develops various friendships, some even romantic, with fellow chess players such as Harry Beltik ( Harry Melling) and Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster). Harmon’s likability is a major element to “The Queen’s Gambit.”

What happens when a character is likable? An audience believes in their cause. They want to see the character succeed. When the character experiences sadness, so does the audience. This is why “The Queen’s Gambit” is wholesome. The emotional highs and lows grip the audience and heighten the story.

Maybe, it’s the happy ending that strikes me, but I think Harmon’s story is a success.

Edited by Chloe Konrad | ckonrad@themaneater.com

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