BY GOWRI ABHINANDA
Features Web Section Editor
Scott Frank’s adaptation of Walter Tevis’ gripping novel of “The Queen’s Gambit” never failed to pin many’s attention as, Beth Harmon, (Anya Taylor-Joy) an orphan turned chess prodigy, often did to her opponent’s chess pieces as she captured each of their chess pieces.
The 7 episode show begins with a solemn memory of a car crash that causes the untimely death of her mother and lands Beth in a Christian faith-based orphanage in Kentucky where the girls are drugged with tranquilizer pills to provide temporary calm to their deep turbulence. While struggling to cope with the loss of her mother, she soon finds herself in the company of Jolene (Moses Ingram) who within her limited screen time was able to express the care of a life-long companion by giving her character Jolene a more motherly dynamic, which provided an anomaly where the orphanage is filled with dependant children.
Around the same time, she stumbles upon chess. The inclusion of chess in the script was an appreciated dynamic thrown into the story as it served as symbolism to showcase a game of control that holds the power Beth seeks after having so little of it. The orphanage’s custodian, Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp), teaches the young girl everything he knows about the game. Camp’s portrayal of Shaibel was effectively depicted with few words and he successfully acted as a mentor and fatherly figure by putting his foot down to discipline Beth to grow as a person while also supporting her with her endeavors in chess and being a figure in her life that understood how her mind works. This introduction of Beth’s talent in the script was also an interesting component that was included as it provided another complexity to the show, this being how Beth with so much trauma and being so young could also juggle her own intuitive mind with the game that makes her even more difficult to understand and all the more isolated.
With chess and a tranquilizer pill addiction in the mix, Taylor-Joy’s portrayal of Beth seems calm on the exterior, but she tactfully allows moments where Beth seems to be slipping away from reality as she spaces out into her thoughts, signaling to viewers that Beth is harboring a lot more pain than she lets on.
Later, Beth is adopted by Alma (Marielle Heller) who allows Beth to compete in chess tournaments, allowing Beth to conquer titles in a sport that is overrun with men – a refreshing contrast in the script from the beginning of the show where we see Beth being told to be a woman who conforms to the needs of men at the orphanage. Heller acts with a turbulence that matches Taylor-Joy’s character, and like Beth, she appears to be put-together, deftly playing the piano and bonding with her adoptive daughter; but soon we see this act wither away as the character falls in her own sorrows and turns to alcoholism. Heller’s acting does not glorify alcoholism, but instead highlights the dangerous dependence that may arise and how these problems can affect other loved ones. In an attempt to keep their bond together as she slips away, Alma beckons Beth to drink with her, an addition that serves to metaphorically extend the trauma.
As Beth is brought up with Alma who is seemingly drifting away, Beth is left with the liberty to explore herself. Previously Beth is seen wearing drabby clothes that are too big to fit her as Alma provides for her, but as she grows to be independent, her style evolves with her ability to have this autonomy. Beth sports bold colors like black and white with patterns that match the board she dominates. This particular outfit theme that appears throughout the show is calm yet striking to the eye and also works to express how chess is a great factor in her comfort as she is often in a collected state when she mirrors the dynamic of the chess board. However, she also appears in the show wearing pastels at times to experiment. She also accentuates her outfits with hair accessories, dark shades and bold eyeliner with differing wing styles. Her style is not meant to fit-in, it stands out with its patterns and color contrasts, and her unique choice of outfits expresses that she’s embracing being different and standing out.
With more freedom, Beth is also able to express her sexuality freely. Like many others during the 60’s, the show includes the component of expression through relationships, which makes “The Queen’s Gambit” all the more dynamic as it’s not a story of chess, but how a chess prodigy is finding herself and growing as a person. With other chess champions like Harry Beltik (Harry Melling), D.L Townes (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) and Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), in all her relationships, she takes control and calls the shots for what the relationship can entail, which was a great inclusion to further develop this theme of control that Beth seems to try to find everywhere due to her past. The characters Beltik, Townes and Watts all grow to be Beth’s support system in her endeavors as she ventures into increasingly competitive stakes in Russia against the world’s best grandmasters.
The characters Beltik and Watts stood out in particular. Melling’s portrayal of Beltik is awkward, quite opposite to Beth, but serves as an interesting duo as the differing persona’s seem to find a way to mesh together. Melling also acts well as a concerned friend who tries to push Beth to get the help she needs. Brodie-Sangster’s character on the other hand seemed to work even better with Beth’s and they seemed to compliment each other. His character also wore clothes like cowboy hats and even sported a dagger in his belt – flashy like Harmon, and they both had an understanding with one another that while they were different from the way their minds worked, they had one another. Brodie-Sangster also acts well not only as a charming prodilogical chess player, but he also acts as a motivator to Beth, almost like Shaibel who pushed her to be better and have more discipline with chess, which was appreciated.
Even with all this support, Beth still stumbles along the way, struggling with her past, loneliness and substance abuse, which negatively affects her ability to play chess at an optimal level. As these setbacks persist, the scenery grows darker as Beth smokes and drinks in dimly lit rooms and sleeps alone in pajamas that dull in comparison to her previous flamboyant outfits, which beautifully depict her spiral into chaos. However, as Beth begins to take her first step to begin her road to recovery, her style begins to become more bright and sleek and once again mirrors the chess board, almost signalling to the audience a rebirth on her outlook on life.
“The Queen’s Gambit” while melancholy when depicting Beth’s trauma or through its mundane and minimalistic scenery, successfully integrates brighter concepts by including a well-developed coming-of-age story. This message is flawlessly expressed with Taylor-Joy’s acting who never failed to depict her character’s hardships, but also the wonders associated with journeying to new places across the globe as she competes and meets new people. More than this, the somber imagery, the acting and character development shown is remarkable in capturing how Beth’s resiliency in chess inspires her and others around her to continue playing the game, both on the board and in life.