The Queen’s Gambit (2020)

A harrowing delve into the psychology of addiction & traumatization of orphanages, TQG’s a magnificently-acted, sobering, nuanced limited series as calculated as its chess matches – not perfect & poorly-ended, but high-pedigree Netflix showcase for Anya Taylor-Joy. 8.6/10.

Plot Synopsis: Set during the 1950’s Cold War era, orphaned chess prodigy Beth Harmon realizes an incredible talent for chess while struggling with substance-abuse and addiction.

*Possible Spoilers Ahead*

CLC’s Best #TheQueensGambit Episodes: 1. Doubled Pawns, 2. Openings, 3. Exchanges, 4. Adjournment, 5. Middle Game, 6. Fork, 7. End Game

Official CLC Review

Pawns And Kings

From The 6th Century BCE, The India-Created Game Of Chess Has Been IQ Overdue For A Top-Pedigree Cinematization

Photograph Courtesy Of: Netflix Originals

Nearly 1500 years ago, northwestern India saw the rise of a war game called chaturanga. A Sanskrit reference to historical and religious texts of Hindu-lore and the earliest precursor to what’d become chess, the game spread throughout the nation – and later into Persia, the Middle East, Europe [where it was redesigned/whitewashed to resemble the English high-court], and the world. The famed gambol of IQ-determinism [especially growing up in an Indian household; we created it after all], Chess has been scientifically-proven to increase fluid intelligence and raise critical thinking analytical skills – the past-time of choice for the world’s brightest minds to flex their cerebral aptitude. For one of the most ancient and sacred games in human history, though.. it’s a wonder why there haven’t many [good] cinematizations. There are a few indie stragglers people might’ve heard of or only critics watched like Magnus, Pawn Sacrifice, Dark Horse, or Bobby Fischer: Against The World, but nothing that truly defined the exercise like the limitless options for basketball, football, etc. In comes the king of streaming and original TV series-production to turn pawns into queens, and we finally have that definitive centerpiece. A harrowing delve into the psychology of addiction & traumatization of orphanages, TQG is a magnificently-acted, sobering, nuanced limited series as calculated as its chess matches – non-perfect & poorly-ended, but a high-pedigree TV showcase for Netflix and Anya Taylor-Joy.

The Orphanage

A Tragedy Brings Beth Harmon To A Girls’ Home – & Through It, We Experience Their Cold Isolation, Abuse, Systemic Dysfunction

Photograph Courtesy Of: Netflix Originals

Though the series is ostensibly about chess and one woman’s fight for celebration in the male-dominated IQ world of pawns and kings, beneath its roots is thematization on several heavy hard-R/mature topics. One of these is the horrors and psychological traumatization of orphanages on developing children. After a suicidal-attempted tragedy leaves her parentless, Beth Harmon is left without an identity in Methuen girls’ home – wherein the matriarch strips her of even her last namesakes of past life and socializes her into a brutal world of competition, fake-faith, and ‘mood-stabilizers’. The drugging of these children less than 10 years-old by the home [perhaps into a state of submission to be easier-to-raise but devoid of recalcitrance & individuality] is wildly-dark and bonafide terrorization multiple real-life orphanages were actually found guilty of in the age. However, the psychological effects of orphanages are perhaps just as tragic and deleterious. Growing up internalizing poor self-worth from non-adoption and being treated like ‘just another kid’ while having to fight for everything [from cereal to parents] every day in this dictatorial authoritarian existence under Mrs. Deardorff is a truly nightmare experience that will make you thankful for your childhood outside and sets the tone and thematized weightiness quite nicely.

The Substance Abuse

The Core Of The Series, TQG’s Exposition Of Drug Addiction & Escapism Of Its Lures Is Agonizing, Frightening, & Emotion-Invoking

Photograph Courtesy Of: Netflix Originals

The substance abuse cogitation weaved through the events of the film is its core theme and magnificently-realized [until the ending]. From the ‘mood-stabilizing’ Xanzolam [based on the real-life pharmaceutical narcotic chlordiazeopoxide] handed out like candy at the orphanages: a breathtakingly-evil introduction to drugs/alcohol from a single-digit age kicking off the addiction, TQG masterfully delves into the implications of such a primal human vice. Cope for loss and tragedy like losing their parents after being raised in a dysfunctional household only to be transferred to an even more dysfunctional girls’ home is but one of the psychological lures of the world-numbing chemical mixes in each pill. There’s also physical dependency just as addictive as nicotine – a euphoric conundrum of [overdosable] narcotics, pills, and booze-analytical prowess for a mature TV series that hits journalistically-hard on the topic. However, it’s more balanced and delicately-handled than many others that have tried to tackle the topic: highlighting its positives, calibration-potential, and the relationship between them just as much as its negatives. Finally, there’s the weight-of-the-world that just one drink or temptation is enough to death-spiral into relapse – as happens to Beth just as the crux of her characterization finds hope in Paris.

The Performances & Characterization

A Magnificently-Acted Series Led By A Breathtaking Lead By Anya Taylor-Joy As The Misfit [Fischer-Based] Chess Prodigy

Photograph Courtesy Of: Netflix Originals

Other positives TQC brings to the table are its exotic globetrotting glamorization, fame-exposition of how bullied nerds become celebrated after becoming news-hits, loneliness/nihilism-exposition, addiction parable in how Beth becomes addicted to everything from booze to clothes to instant-gratification relationships, and feminist themes handled [overall] gracefully and subtly without overdoing the girl-power. There’s also a coming-of-age tale of a young girl learning everything from sexuality/romance to womanhood in different status/class hierarchical dynamics [like mean-girl high-school cliques and housewives], and it’s all through the lens of chess – brought to life by a magnificent set of performances. Perhaps the biggest achievement of The Queen’s Gambit is its performances. The central performance that steals the show is Anya Taylor-Joy – a British/Argentine actress we noticed and properly-accoladed back in Robert Egger’s 2015 masterpiece The Witch, only having gotten better in the five years since. The purity of passion and effort she put into this role is astonishing – from the opening scene’s [literal] physical-injuries navigating the dark hotel room, you instantly-feel the insatiable hunger and drive she brings to-screen. Taylor-Joy’s hypercompetitive, shy, quiet, robotic, acicular, tomboyish Beth Harmon is packed with such razor-sharp intensity, when she stares at you through the silver-screen, it cuts like a knife through the lens. Though [unfortunately] a fictional character, Beth bears striking resemblance to a gender-flipped version of the origin story of the Greatest Chess Player Of All-Time: Bobby Fischer.

Bringing Sex Appeal To Chess

From The Levenfish Variation To Four Knights Game, The Definitive Portrayal Of Chess: As Exciting As Technically-Proficient

Photograph Courtesy Of: Netflix Originals

Both won the U.S. Championship-title in 1967, were American-born grandmasters whose prodigal run too started at single-digit ages, began supporting-themselves in late-teens, learned Russian to modernize with Soviet-competition, spent above-their-means on fanciful clothes, and were able to make a living solely playing chess. Finally, and most conclusive, they both played similar aggressive styles from the opening and utilized the signature Fischer-Sozin Attack in their biggest games. The series thus works within the context of chess history as a semi-biographical epic – but succeeds foremost in the performances and characterization it brings to the screen. Beyond Anya’s lead, the supporting cast is strong: Marielle Heller’s lazy-and-bitter housewife trying to find every excuse to get out of having to work, Bill Camp’s cold-but-caring Mr. Miyagi-reminiscent Mr. Schaibel [working in a classism-revisionism theme too in a janitor being the one to train a chess-prodigy], cocky yawning a*shole of Melling’s later-corrected Beltik, bizarre idiosyncrasy of Brodie-Sangster’s cowboyish Watts, Millie Brady’s vapid fashionista-free-spirit Cleo, Patrick Kennedy’s compassionless-adulterer Mr. Wheatley, Dorócinski’s bone-chillingly intense presence as USSR’s Borgov, Isla Johnston’s fine young Beth, and the Oscar Isaac-reminiscent charm of Jacob Fortune-Lloyd’s homosexual D.L. Townes being the broken-heart surprise catalysis that escalates Beth into adulthood.

Period Accuracy, Score, & Cinematography

Pure 1950’s Cold War Design Touches, A Chopin-Like Elegance Of Score, Classical Shot Constructions, & Netflix Prod.-Value

Photograph Courtesy Of: Netflix Originals

The period detail and Cold War-era 1950’s authenticity is off-the-charts: magnificent elegance and set/production design artwork in every frame – down to even the costumes and background music/automobiles. The CGI is brilliant when it’s [sparingly]-used: for example, in the chess scenes upside-down or fast-forwarded/spliced through movesets over an entire game. The cinematography is full of impressive shot constructions, crisp editing, and classical camera techniques with high production value. The score is absolutely sublime as it cycles through Beethoven or Chopin-feeling piano pieces as calculated and precise as its chess moves, juxtaposed with era-nostalgic surf/folk rock, motown, doo-wop, pop, and swing for fun too. The time has come to give them their due, if any doubt was still apparent: Netflix is – and has been for a while – the best production company for original TV series in the world. No other network’s production-value is simply close, and you can feel it emanating from every frame of its newest crown-jewel: The Queen’s Gambit. The series also deserves high recognition/accolade for doing its homework and capturing with breathtaking authenticity the game of chess: a case-study not only academically-astute in real-life stratagems ranging from The Levenfish Variation to The Sicilian Defence to Four Knights Game to Grünfeld Defense to Giuoco Piano to, of course, The [eponymous] Queen’s Gambit, but finding every bit of excitation, close-quarters sex-appeal, and IQ in it as well from speed-matches to road-trip mindgames. TQG’s one of those projects that’s so good, it has the potential to refuel public interest/fascination in its entire subject-matter – and the chess community [and Indian households like mine] can rejoice in celebration.

Major Flaws

A Maddening Stereotypification Of Black Representation, [Not-So]-Limited Series, & Cheesy Hallmark-Ending That Betrays Its Tone/Themes And Fails To Resolve Many Of The Series’ Arcs

Photograph Courtesy Of: Netflix Originals

Now, while there are many pros, there are major flaws as well – and the series is far from perfect. For one, the series self-markets as a limited series hoping to capitalize on the niche market in which masterpieces like HBO’s Chernobyl clean-swept the Emmy’s.. but stretches its comparatively-thin plot way too long at the expense of its pace and storytelling in parts. Not only that, but it misuses that extra [pointless] time lollygagging instead of fixing its biggest problem by far: the ending. The finale of TQC *spoiler* is extremely-cheesy, betrays its subject matter, and fails to resolve almost any of the series’ many arcs/plot-threads left hanging. Beth [easily] reverses every sign of addiction to the drugs she’d been struggling with her entire life on the biggest and most relapse-threatening stage possible [betraying alcoholism: asserting that it’s that easy to stay sober if you just want to], all of the contentious relationships she was in and completely self-alienated like Benny and Beltik randomly forget everything to come together and celebrate, and no explanation at all is given to what happened with her mother Alice’s craziness and orphanage-abandonment in the first place. Instead, the series panders to one of the most Disney movie-like cheeseball / schmaltz happily-ever-after endings I’ve ever seen on TV – one that’s wildly-mismatched and incongruent with the dark, gritty, heavy-themed series before it. The stereotypification of its black characters and absence of ~any POC are shocking too. Now, we’re not one at CLC to play the identity-politics game, award points just based off representation, or prioritize diversity-checklists nearly as much as storytelling and cinematic prowess [even as immigrants and POC ourselves] – but what were they thinking? A sea of white in every direction is exacerbated by the only two black characters in the entire series being sickeningly-stereotyped: 1) the cornrow-rocking hood-girl spewing profanities and improper grammar every scene Jolene and 2) the minifro-rocking help given the grunt-work and dignified honor of being [basically] a drug-dealer to little kids Mr. Ferguson. Charming!

Conclusion

The King Of TV Originals

Netflix Deserves Sharp Recognition For How Consistently They Put Out Top-Pedigree TV: A Harrowing Delve Into The Psychology Of Addiction & Orphanages By A Lens Of Chess

Photograph Courtesy Of: Netflix Originals

Overall, The Queen’s Gambit is one of the best new TV series of 2020. Netflix deserves celebration and high recognition for how consistently they put out top-pedigree original series: the king of the streaming wars. The core of the series is Anya Taylor-Joy’s career-performance as chess prodigy Beth Harmon [fictional & a gender-flipped version of the all-time legend Bobby Fischer’s origins]: a razor-sharp protagonist whose stare is so intense, it cuts straight through the screen like a surgeon’s blade. TQG paints a harrowing nightmare of substance-abuse/drugs and the horrors of orphanages within the 64-square landscape of the most intellectual game ever-made: chess. The series has the potential to refuel public fascination with the game of pawns, and does so with sex-appeal, excitement, IQ, strategic authenticity, high production value, and cinematization. The period-detail/authenticity of its 1950’s Cold War setting is beautiful and transportive, cinematography and editing impeccable, & score Beethoven/Chopin-like – as calculated as its endgames. The series is far from perfect and has major flaws in its not-so limited series false advertisement, overstretching its thin plot, overly-white cultural palette, sickeningly-stereotypified representation of its black characters, and cheesy schmaltz Hallmark-ending betraying its dark addiction-storyline, tone, alcoholism as a concept, and many of its arcs it fails to resolve or even explain like Alice’s or Benny/Beltik’s – however, these are overall bishop-exchanges that are overall-overlookable in the scope of its many pros. A harrowing delve into the psychology of addiction & traumatization of orphanages, TQG is a magnificently-acted, sobering, nuanced limited series as calculated as its chess matches – non-perfect & poorly-ended, but a high-pedigree TV showcase for Netflix and Anya Taylor-Joy.

Official CLC Score: 8.6/10