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‘The Queen’s Gambit’ is a flawed, but intriguing look at the 1960s chess world from a woman’s perspective

‘The Queen’s Gambit’ is a flawed, but intriguing look at the 1960s chess world from a woman’s perspective

‘The Queen’s Gambit’ is a flawed, but intriguing look at the 1960s chess world from a woman’s perspective
November 12
12:00 2020

Director Scott Frank‘s “The Queen’s Gambit,” which follows fictional Elizabeth “Beth” Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) throughout the ’50s and ’60s as she works her way up from an orphanage to the top of the chess world, is a bit of a sensation right now. It secured the number one spot on Netflix’s Top 10 List and has amassed an impressive 100 percent critical rating on Rotten Tomatoes. You can’t count the number of articles gushing about the show’s fashion. So, is it checkmate?

In short, no. But it still makes enough of the right moves for an interesting game.

First, the plot is dragged out unnecessarily long, with the seven-episode series better suited to fill five. The start of shows are almost always slow, but a sluggish pace across at least half of a season does not bode well.

Even with all this extra time, though, Frank doesn’t seem to know what to do with it. The show’s primary flaw is that it depicts a young girl navigating a male-dominated sport in the ’60s, and yet the impact Beth’s gender has is rarely ever explored, outside of men giving her a few confused looks as she walks through an event area. There is no further exploration than this. Instead, everyone seems to fawn over her skill, and she’s admired everywhere she goes for her talent. We get a reporter in episode six mentioning how people thought of her as “too glamorous” to be taken seriously, though there was literally nothing leading up to that point to imply her femininity has hindered her. It’s a shallow look at the barriers women faced in the ’50s and ’60s, especially in a sport as intellectual as chess. 

While Beth’s gender seems unrealistically uninhibiting, nearly every other female character is all but inhibited. I sort of get what the showrunners were going for here — juxtaposing Beth’s abnormal success with the way women around her were forced into their domestic roles. But this contrast is marred by this weird insinuation that Beth is the only one who deserves a chance at success. There’s this insistence, made most plainly in conversations between Beth and her friend Chloe (who has a horrendously over-the-top French accent), that every woman who isn’t Beth is wildly vapid and lacking. Is the implication that the only quality redeeming of a woman is genius? The theme is well-meaning, but it’s undertone screams, “All this girl had to do was just be smart and beat men in order to be treated equally!”

There’s also little to no exploration of her age — not only is she one of the few woman competing, but she also starts off as being 15 (though she’s pretending to be 13, as she had to seem young enough to be adopted). Yet no one treats her as if she’s a tween. One would think being a young teen girl in chess would come with more barriers, but apparently not.

But where the show stumbles in its exploration of gender, it thrives in its portrayal of perfection. Genius comes at a price, and Beth pays with her emotional stability. Her screen time, along with that of her biological and adoptive mothers, explores a volatile relationship with obsession and addiction.

Another right move on Frank’s part was in the visuals — every detail in the costuming, hair, makeup and set design dazzles. It’s a completely immersive experience, down to the old-fashioned Budweiser cans. There’s also a gorgeous orchestral score from Carlos Rafael Rivera accompanying the visuals. The way the cinematography and sound mixing were edited together impressed, too, especially in the first and final episodes.

And of course, it’s impossible not to mention Taylor-Joy’s performance. While I find her strengths to lie more in stoicism and glaring looks than delivering high-caliber emotions, she’s quite commanding here, capturing a fierce confidence while keeping composure. I’m not fully convinced Taylor-Joy isn’t actually from another time period, seeing as how she seems to blend effortlessly into the past (read: “Emma.” and “The VVitch”). She delivers a sense of perilous urgency every time Beth starts to spiral, gripping the liquor or the tranquilizer pill bottle all too intensely. 

Lastly, the show makes chess look exhilarating. I’m incredibly close to looking up how to play on YouTube.

So, how do these critiques tally up? In its authenticity and plausibility, “The Queen’s Gambit” misses the mark. By a lot. It’s a superficial exploration of gender that’s too long for its own good, and riddled with a few too many details that are either inconceivable or convoluted. For a show with 100 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, I expected more. But that certainly doesn’t render it unwatchable, as Taylor-Joy, brilliant visual details and a deep character study make it a game worth playing. 

Final rating: 3.5/5

Featured image: Courtesy Netflix

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Haley Arnold

Haley Arnold

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