By Darlene Alvarez, Features Editor
There’s no doubt by now that you’ve seen and heard of the latest Netflix sensation, The Queen’s Gambit. At first glance, a seven-episode spread on chess doesn’t seem like it would be a thrill ride, or even enough to keep me awake. And I’m happy to say I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The story opens up in late ’60s Paris. We see a wrecked room and a hungover young woman rushing to bring herself together for a very important match that she’s late for, not before drowning down some tranquilizers with a mini bar bottle that she’s been using as a chess piece. But this isn’t a story about ’60s freewheeling.
We immediately jump back to a 9 year old Beth Harmon in the 1950’s, recently orphaned and left alone to find her way in the world within the confines of a Kentucky orphanage that serves up doses of tranquilizers to its children. Beth only really interacts with her friend Jolene, but before long she meets the janitor Mr. Shaibel– and most importantly she meets chess. Skipping class and spending her days in the basement absorbing all she can from him, and spending her nights popping pills and playing matches on her ceiling in her mind, we’re shown that Beth has a true gift, walking a fine line between genius and madness as she grows older and gets adopted by The Wheatleys. Her new life outside of the orphanage walls allows her to start competing in actual tournaments– but she is soon faced with the reality that chess in the 60’s is a man’s world. With her smart determination, Beth not only defeats the top players in her state but starts competing on a grander scale, her age and gender never once standing in her way.
As she and the series grow she travels and competes with her charismatic mother Mrs. Wheatley in tow as her agent .With her big eyes staring down the competition Beth is determined to become a world champion. She even goes as far as taking Russian classes at night, because she must go up against “the Russian” Borgov–which leads to one of my favorite scenes, in which Beth goes on a weekend bender in a college man’s apartment by herself. As The Associations “Along Comes Mary” plays in the background we get a glimpse into her near self-destruction, an isolation that coincides with her struggle and ultimate dismissal to fit in. When she finally does get invited to a party thrown by the prestigious feminine Apple Pi club at school, she’s horrified by their sheep-like attitudes, knowing she’ll never be like them as they sing in unison to the poppy serenade tune “You’re the One” from The Vogues. She steals a bottle of booze and skips out.
The show keeps us drawn to Beth’s journey as she deals with loss and loneliness, growing up and heartbreaks. She battles the biggest players and her own addictions. She goes off on heavy binges while facing flashbacks of her fragile birth mother. There are moments where it seems like all is lost for our Beth, but in true chess fashion, she pulls out her well crafted moves and pushes through to beat all, as the series cumulates into her going where no American woman has gone before, and that’s playing in Russia.
The story isn’t just a chess story. It’s a story about loss and resilience. That friendship and love are just as important as talent, and learning that no one can truly do it all by themselves. The show moves like a beautiful chess game, making it so visually and narratively unique. It’s slow and calculated– but gives you a rush of curious excitement at the same time.
The Queen’s Gambit starring Anya-Taylor Joy is now streaming on Netflix.