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The Queen's Gambit review

A look at life on a black and white board.

To the uninitiated, chess must seem dreadfully dull. After all, it is just two people shuffling game pieces across a tiled board of black and white. It does just seem bluntly mundane, so mundane in fact that its almost impossible to fathom how anyone can sit and watch chess matches as though it were a cup final. Yet after watching the entirety of Netflix series The Queen's Gambit, you find that there is far more to the game than meets the eye. Almost every scene that features a game played, pieces moved, or strategy concocted is enthralling, capable of drawing you into the intensity and drama of each match. The series marvelously demonstrates how something as boring as chess is far more than the sum of its small parts, showing it for the grand battle of wits and strategy it truly is, and ultimately how important it is to some people; often to a fault.

The Queen's Gambit centers around the somewhat tragic tale of Beth Harmon, who in her youth (played by Isla Johnston) is orphaned and sent to live most of her young life at a grueling orphanage for young girls. It is here she develops a knack for chess and popping a few too many pills, supposedly provided legally by the orphanage. Both help Beth escape from the reality of her situation and help push her to be the best at a game that would soon become her life. As a young woman (played by the phenomenal Anya Taylor-Joy), Beth rises to the forefront of chess fame and stardom, playing, and frankly annihilating, some of the best players in the world. Yet even a Queen drops her crown eventually, and when Beth begins to face adversity off and on the chess board, she struggles to hold it together, and is more than ready to turn back to her pills to get her through.

It's a remarkable story to be sure, but a sobering one at that. The story doesn't necessarily take a clear route from start to finish, instead serving as more of a character study of Beth herself, and how she finds her way through the world. Beth is perhaps one of the most complex characters portrayed on screen, often conversing in short sentences and quick responses as to appear wary of social interaction. Yet on the chess board, she transforms into a bastion of confidence and clarity, stalwart in her conviction and trusting in her own ability. She becomes two separate people, leaving you constantly guessing which Beth is real, and which is a façade. In this sense the series is great at keeping you engaged, even in the moments of silence and little conversation. Taylor-Joy's performance as Beth is essential to this engagement, as she masterfully captures Beth's every thought and emotion, whether it be in her dialogue, or, more impressively, her body language. Everything from the slightest glance, the faintest gesture, and boldest expression often reveal more than her conversations do about who she is, expertly creating a character that is absolutely mesmerizing to the audience.

Beth's journey is also one of loss and doubt, at times making the series quite a heavy and depressing watch. As you learn early on, chess becomes Beth's escapism from the troubles of ordinary life, where she often feels more accustomed to the world on a chess board than the one around her. In one scene, she even states how chess is more easy to understand than the real world, feeling she knows how everything works and thus can keep everything (life) in control. Yet as the story progresses, and Beth is faced with the reality that chess is just as unpredictable as ordinary life, you watch hopelessly as she is slowly chipped away by reality caching up with her. She lives her life on a chessboard and that's what makes her so great at the game, but man it's sad to think what she'd do without it. Everything from her journey, to Taylor-Joy's standout performance, makes Beth Harmon one of the best and well written characters in recent memory, and one you won't soon forget.

Beyond Beth, the series hosts a variety of supporting characters that impede, or help Beth on her way to becoming the best she can be. Some of these characters, such as Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and Beth's adopted mother, Alma Wheatley (Marielle Heller), are phenomenal on-screen, and are as significant to the story as Beth herself thanks to memorable moments and performances. Even Russian chess master, Vasily Borgov (Marcin Dorocinski), ranks highly as a surprisingly menacing character and subtle antagonist. Other characters in the series aren't as significant, yet it would be wrong to say they weren't integrated and acted well, as nearly all characters are well-done and performed fantastically.

One thing that should be noted is how the series deals with its setting. Set in the 1960's, the series does well to capture the aesthetic of the era, as well as provide commentary on the questionable social norms of the time. That being said, it never really does this in any real depth, tending to focus more on delivering a believable aesthetic than exploring the era itself. Notably, there are frequent nods to the rising tensions between the Soviets and US, which, again, has no real significance in the story, and at times feels more like the writers trying to remind you of what time period the show is actually in. What can be said is that the sidelining of the setting and the undermined significance of the era is a reflection of how Beth see's the world, not caring about international disputes or getting involved in the social hubbub, instead focusing on the simple things that matter to her. In this way the neglection of the shows setting can be excused, but I still wish a little more was done with it beyond the great set design.

Despite this, The Queen's Gambit is one of the best series available right now, and dare I say one of the best series of the decade. What it lacks in depth in makes up for in intensity and emotion, developing a beautifully intricate and complex protagonist more than deserving of a spot in the TV hall of fame. It's a charming, if not sombre fantasy that will make you wish you had mastered chess years ago, and while it won't help you become the next chess grandmaster, The Queen's Gambit will prove to be one of the most fun and memorable series you've seen in a long time.

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