Netflix’s hit historical drama ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ brings the game of chess to life

Written By Amanda Andrews, Editor Elect

3.5/5 Globes 

Streaming service: Netflix

Run time: 46-67 minutes per episode 

Genre: Historical Drama 


If audiences love anything, it’s a story about a tortured genius. Normally, these kinds of narratives revolve solely around male protagonists, but an intrepid, fictional story of a young woman with an innate ability to play chess in the highly competitive Cold War environment is making waves on Netflix. 

Netflix debuted its hit miniseries “The Queen’s Gambit” on Oct. 23. Since then, it has been widely popular among Netflix’s viewers. On its platform, it is listed as the number one watched project in the United States. 

The show is a hard-hitting drama and coming of age story of Elizabeth or Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy), a highly intellectual, competitive girl who is shaped by her childhood trauma. As a young girl, she is in the car as her mother collides head-on with another vehicle. Left with no other family, she is an orphan and sent to the Methuen Home, a girls-only institution in Lexington, Kentucky. There, she meets and quickly becomes friends with Jolene (Moses Ingram), a girl who has been at Methuen for a very long time and constantly rebels against the staff. Beth also simultaneously discovers her love for chess and develops a crippling addiction to pills referred to as “tranquilizers” or “tranquility” medication given to her at first by the orphanage staff members. Beth learns the game of chess from the orphanage’s janitor Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp), masters it under his tutelage and is aided by her over-dependence on the medication, which illuminates new moves to her. 

In the second episode, Beth, now a teenager, is adopted by an economically and emotionally struggling suburban couple and is almost entirely raised by the wife, Mrs. Alma Wheatley (Marielle Heller). Hers and Alma’s relationship is definitely a complex mother-daughter dynamic. Beth is slow to warm up to Alma’s attempts to act as a mother to her, and Alma, also struggling with alcohol and drug dependency, most definitely views Beth as a trophy daughter as Beth wins more and more prestigious chess tournaments over the course of the episodes. Still, their relationship is loving and easily one of the most compelling of any in the entire show. 

As Beth continues to rise in the upper echelons of the chess world, she befriends multiple fellow chess players who admire her unparalleled talent and leaves a string of lovers in her wake, including Harry Beltik (Harry Melling), Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and Cleo (Millie Brady). Harry Beltik’s unrequited romantic feelings for Beth are pretty heartbreaking, while Beth’s chemistry with Benny Watts and Cleo sizzles to life on the screen. But even with her rising success, Beth hits several low points in the middle of the series and careens towards a path of self destruction, having to confront truths about herself and her past. 

Netflix’s “The Queen’s Gambit” is an adaptation of a historical fiction novel written by Walter Tevis back in 1983. According to fans of the novel, the show largely follows the main plot points of Tevis’ book with a few discrepancies in the main character’s characterization. 

Beth Harmon on the screen is refreshing in some ways. Both the child actress who played Beth, Isla Johnston, and Anya Taylor-Joy skillfully portray the depth of the character’s obsession with chess, her anger at the world and the encompassing feeling of isolation she feels even as people desperately attempt to reach out to her. Beth is more concerned with being the very best at chess and dismisses most of the commentary surrounding the novelty of her status as one of the few successful female chess players. All of these aspects, thus, make the series’ season one ending all the more satisfying. 

However, the standout performances of the show belong to Moses Ingram and Marrielle Heller. As many critics and casual viewers have already noted, Ingram always steals whatever scene she is in, her brash attitude, quips and remarkable insight guaranteed to grab the viewer’s attention. For only being in a little over two episodes, Jolene is a very well-formed character. Heller’s portrayal of Alma is less obvious and in-your-face, but there is a very distinct, unique way she is able to convey the perpetual sadness of a woman knocked down too many times.

All of that being said, this is not the perfect series. While “The Queen’s Gambit” certainly emphasizes how harmful alcohol and drug addiction can be, Beth confronting her addiction and playing matches without the panacea of the pill bottle comes a little too late in the story. And although the special effect of the giant upside-down chess board looks cool, it is very unrealistic that would be how a person’s hallucinations would manifest every single time they were using drugs, thus taking away from some of the show’s plot points that are more grounded in realism. Furthermore, though Beth’s character deserves praise, fans of the novel have rightfully criticized the show for making her too passive in many instances, especially in the later episodes. The soundtrack, which features original orchestral compositions and contemporary 60s music, fit the scenes but none of the tracks were all that memorable.

Overall though “The Queen’s Gambit” is a very enjoyable watch. The show does an excellent job at immersing the viewer into the intense world that was chess competitions in the Cold War era, with beautiful sets and costumes only adding to the historical setting. Not only that, but it managed the even more difficult task of making the characters seem like authorities on the rules of chess without unnecessarily confusing audiences who have little to no familiarity with the game. With only seven one-hour long episodes, the pacing of the mini-series makes it incredibly easy to binge-watch.

More than anything, “The Queen’s Gambit” accomplishes the impossible—making chess interesting.