The opening of a show is akin to that of a chess opening. The first few minutes of the game determines the flow and rhythm of the players involved, much like how the first few minutes of a show sets its atmosphere, pace, and tone of the plot’s characters and setting. Netflix’s new mini-series “The Queen’s Gambit” is about a chess wunderkind, immediately invokes a theme of genius and madness colliding into one another.
The opening scene follows a young woman waking up in her Paris hotel room trashed by a night of rampant debauchery. After washing down some green pills with minibar booze, she hurriedly rushes down to the foyer to greet the first part of her day. Her opponent, a Russian world champion of chess. The setting is the 1960’s into the early ’70s. Shocking Blue about to break in the new decade with Venus.
Bouncing back about a decade, the show starts its journey with an adolescent girl reeling from a devastating crash. The tale follows Elizabeth “Beth” Harmon, as an adult played by Anya Taylor-Joy. Soon-to-be prodigy, Beth discovers her path at an oddly parochial orphanage in Kentucky, placed there as an adolescent (played by Isla Johnston) after miraculously surviving a car crash that killed her mother.
The morbidity lingering around her death leaving Beth with stunted emotional problems. At the orphanage, Beth finds an escape from her recent trauma in the form of chess. She becomes engrossed in the game after quickly grasping its fundamentals from mere glances at the orphanage’s custodian, William Shaibel (played by the nuanced and experienced Bill Camp), playing against himself in the basement lair.
Coupling her immediate prowess and fascination of the game with her growing addiction to Librium, a potent tranquilizing drug for anxiety, she begins vividly visualizing chess games and scenarios in her head using the prison-like orphanage’s ceiling as a canvas. Showrunner, the writer, and director Scott Frank, whose series is based on the novel with its namesake by Walter Tevis, captures the coming-age-story centering around Beth notable by her rising star and addiction sagas, with an enchanting, almost euphoric feel.
Taylor-Joy puts forth a dynamic and compelling portrayal of a teenage girl entering the male-dominating world of the Cold War-era combating systemic sexism. Veterans of the chess world underestimating her power over the game by the reasoning of her sex and glamourous looks. Newspapers at the start chose to focus on her status as a woman in a male-dominated chess world rather than her prowess at the game. Beth’s increasingly flourishing boldness given the picture by Taylor-Joy cements her character’s position as the superior player over her critics.
Of course, just like with all geniuses, Beth wrestles with a case of her own touch of madness. Her dangerously swelling dependence on alcohol and downers as her fuel for her rocket up the chess star ladder is brilliantly juxtaposed with the character of Vasily Borgov (based on 2nd highest ranked grandmaster Garry Kasparov), Beth’s white whale of the series, as a way of misdirection by Frank to muddle the viewer’s grasp on who or what is the true villain of the show.
Beth’s competitive nature clashing with her addiction is explosively displayed and further enhanced by Taylor-Joy’s own performance. The hazardous obsessiveness Beth maintains that gives such vigor and anger her success is reflected in her super aggressive style of chess choosing to demoralize her opponent from the start.
However, her nature truly implodes within herself when she faces major stumbles. The first being a defeat at the hands of U.S champion Benny Watts (based on 11th World Champion Bobby Fischer) and the other two by the hands of Borgov himself. Each loss acts as a milestone to which Beth’s metaphorical shoe dropping becomes even more vivid. They act as the compounding force pushing her obsessiveness to its limits and towards the pills and bottles.
Beth’s third loss brings the tale back to the time of the opening scene, where her massive hangover most likely cost her a possible win against Borgov. The level of hangover she experienced during the game is strikingly embodied by Taylor-Joy’s performance along with direction by Frank. From her unquenchable thirst to the persistent quivering of her lips and fingers, to her fragmented thoughts as an attempt to recall advice mentored to her by a former opponent, Watts. Her shattered state of mind caused her to resign from the game for the first time in her career.
Her second defeat against Borgov places Beth in a self-destruct sequence putting her in a race against time. The viewers are left watching to see if her remorselessness towards the damage she’s done to herself and the disappointment she’s invoked from others becomes the death of her, or will she survive and recover from the recoil.
Keep in mind, it’s quite easy to find immediate pleasures to enjoy in “Gambit”. Frank paints the series with entertainingly vibrant scenes throughout the series. The different environments mirror Beth’s own gradual discovery of the show traveling from the Midwest to Las Vegas, Mexico, New York, Paris, and Moscow awhile destroying her male opponents one chess-game after another that are brilliantly shot invoking unique energy to the scenes. Beth finds herself picking up as well as reuniting with a few critics turned admirers turned close friends who eventually finds each other in an emotionally euphoric reunion at the end.
Losing this queen may have you resign the show to Netflix’s queue, but with investment, “Gambit” will certainly always have you at check.