Television Series #6:
“The Queen’s Gambit” (2020), directed Scott Frank, swept the binging world by storm when it came out on Netflix last year (just four weeks from its release, it had become Netflix’s most-watched scripted miniseries), but its source material actually came out in 1983 in the form of a novel by Walter Tevis. It is the type of content that was made for the screen, but has taken a long time to get there. A brilliant female orphan, who struggles with opiate addiction, tears through the world of chess in the mid-1950s and 1960s, a world predominantly dominated by men.
According to “I am Heath Ledger” (the 2017 documentary on the late actors life outside of his film career), Ledger apparently had his eye on this script, as he was a near master level chess player himself – supposedly even known to play with strangers at Union Square Park – and was fascinated by the subject matter. His version of the script was set to star Elliot Page (né Ellen Page), and would have likely been raw and psychological. Could have even been a masterpiece. Sadly, we will never get that version. However, the glamorous mini-series by Frank and his co-creator Allan Scott is fantastic.
The seven episode spread begins with Beth Harmon as a young girl in a strict orphanage. She’s quiet and mysterious, with a cropped cut of short bangs and a unbreakable stare. Finding it challenging to make friends her own age, she spends most of her time with the school janitor, where she learns her gift for the game of chess. Though she’s a prodigy from the start, she also quickly develops a drug dependency when she gets her hands on a stash of pills – an addiction that follows her as she grows.
Gliding from the mid-1950’s and Beth’s unusual upbringing to the new fashionable decade and into her adulthood, the show focuses on her unparalleled determination, complicated inner life and varying social life. Played remarkably by the doe-eyed tour de force Anya Taylor Joy, Beth Harmon is one of the most captivating female characters on television.
The show received high praise for both Taylor-Joy’s performance, as well as for the cinematography and production values. It has also received a positive response from the chess community and is claimed to have increased public interest in the game. But one of the most impressive elements of the show is the spectacular period piece costuming by Gabriele Binder. In tune with the mid-century setting, but also complementing Taylor-Joy’s unique appearance and understanding the characters independence, Binder puts together countless jaw dropping looks made for a museum. And now they are in one (https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/exhibitions/queen_and_crown!
The series is delightful, chic, smart and genuinely emotive. Despite the plot centering on Beth’s journey to the top of the chess world, the show incorporates enough layers to remain interesting and dynamic far beyond that. It is engaging, rewatchable and the top of conversation across the masses. It goes without saying that this one should not be missed.