TV review: Netflix’s ‘The Queen’s Gambit’

At this point I feel like it’s kind of cliché to say that we’re living in a golden age of television, but truly, we are. 

I’ve always been more of a movie girl than an avid TV watcher. Film is my favorite medium in which to experience a fictional story. However, with film releases drastically reduced and theaters closed for much of 2020, I ended up watching a lot more TV than I normally would, and I got to experience some truly great shows. 

“The Mandalorian” and “The Umbrella Academy” (on Disney+ and Netflix, respectively) had amazing sophomore seasons, and I also got caught up on some excellent shows from the recent past, such as “The Night Manager,” an espionage thriller starring Tom Hiddleston. 

TV shows have been telling incredible stories with the same caliber of acting and cinematography as the big Hollywood films, and streaming platforms like Netflix now offer series that are just as good as — and often even better than — the content offered on traditional broadcast TV.

I recently finished watching “The Queen’s Gambit” on Netflix, and I was blown away by how incredible this miniseries was. I know I’ve commented on this in my blogs in the past, but I actually prefer miniseries to traditional television series. With a miniseries, the creators aren’t pressured to keep a show going long past its expiration date, trying to milk more seasons out of a concept that should have been retired many episodes ago. A miniseries gives creators more time than a movie, but with a more manageable scope than an open-ended TV show. You get a complete arc in a limited number of episodes. 

Normally, a TV show about chess wouldn’t be my first choice. I played chess as a kid but was never very good at it (my little brother always beat me, which drove me crazy). However, there was too much buzz around “The Queen’s Gambit” to ignore it, and it’s one of those shows that’s so good, it will make you care about the topic, even if you don’t think you’re all that interested. 

The 1960s-set miniseries stars Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon, a child chess prodigy with a tragic past. Harmon is orphaned at a young age and sent to live at a dreary home for girls, with little hope that a loving family will ever adopt her. One day, she discovers the school custodian in the basement with a chessboard, and she eventually convinces him to teach her. 

As it turns out, Harmon has a knack for playing chess, and the custodian is impressed with her natural skills. Harmon has the ability to look up at the ceiling at night and visualize moves on a chess board, helping her to develop new strategies to outwit her opponents. 

Harmon keeps gaining prestige in the chess world, and soon she is winning high-level competitions. To outsiders, it appears that Harmon is now living a charmed life as a triumphant success story. She has fame, wealth, and a razor-sharp mind that is the envy of her (predominantly) older male opponents. 

However, behind the scenes, Harmon is an absolute mess. She’s addicted to pills and alcohol, and her self-destructive habits threaten not only her chess career, but her life. 

Without giving away any major spoilers, “The Queen’s Gambit” is a tragic story that does have a happy ending. Normally I don’t like to give away any hint of how a show ends, but after the long, difficult year that was 2020 (and the rough start to 2021), I want to give people a head’s up that if you’re looking for a story that’s both thought-provoking and inspiring, “The Queen’s Gambit” absolutely delivers. 

I always love a good period piece, and I enjoyed the show’s 1960s setting. The costumes are fabulous, and watching Harmon challenge the misogynistic norms of her day is part of what makes this show so compelling. 

While I’ve never really been able to wrap my head around chess (even though I’m an avid board gamer), I had no problem following along with the story in “The Queen’s Gambit.” The showrunners find some really creative ways to film the action during Harmon’s chess games, and they manage to make her final chess match in the show feel as high-stakes as the final scene in a big-budget superhero film.

“The Queen’s Gambit” proves that if the material is good, you can pretty much tell a story about any topic and convince people to watch it. This series takes a somewhat tired genre — inspirational sports film — and gives it an entirely new spin, introducing audiences to the world of competitive chess and providing us with a glimpse into the life of a complex young woman. 

Watching “The Queen’s Gambit” actually made me want to break out a chess board and give the game another try, even though I hadn’t played in many years. And who knows what future chess prodigy may watch this show and be inspired?

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