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Hailed as “one of the best shows of 2020” and a “surprise hit” of the season, The Queen’s Gambit, set during the Cold War era, shows orphaned chess prodigy Beth Harmon struggling with addiction in a quest to become the greatest chess player in the world.

Director-Scott Frank, Alan Scott

Stars-Anya Taylor-Joy, Bill Camp, Christiane Seidel, Moses Ingram

Released on-Netflix

When you read the words “Netflix limited drama series about addiction, obsession, trauma, and chess”, the first adjective which springs to mind is probably not “thrilling.” But here we are, and “The Queen’s Gambit”, Scott Frank’s adaptation of Walter Tevis coming-of-age novel of the same name, absolutely demands the use of “thrilling”. Anchored by a magnetic lead performance and bolstered by world-class acting, marvellous visual language, a teleplay that’s never less than gripping, and an admirable willingness to embrace contradiction and ambiguity, it’s one of the year’s best series. While not without flaws, it is, in short, a triumph. And it is satisfying not just as a compelling period drama, a character study, and a feast for the eyes. It’s also at its heart, a sports movie wrapped up in the vestments of a prestige TV series. Ask yourself this: When is the last time you fist-pumped the air over chess? Isn’t that something you deserve?

Odds are that Beth Harmon (the remarkable Anya Taylor-Joy) will earn quite a few fist-pumps as people discover Frank and co-creator Alan Scott’s excellent series. We meet Beth as an eight-year-old when she’s left impossibly unharmed—physically, at least—by the car crash that kills her mother. Her father’s not in the picture, so Beth finds herself at a Christian school for orphans. While there, she develops three things: a friendship with Jolene (newcomer Moses Ingram), a passion for chess, and a physical and emotional dependence on the little green tranquillisers fed to the children until they’re outlawed by the state. When she finally leaves the school, she’s got those last two things packed in her suitcase alongside a bunch of chess books, a sizable ego, some unexplored trauma, and no small amount of self-loathing. But it’s the game that drives her, sending her both to the heights of the competitive chess world and, increasingly, to her hoard of pills and the oblivion offered by alcohol.

Playing Beth from 15 onward, Taylor-Joy gives the kind of performance that only becomes more riveting the longer you sit with it. It’s a turn of both intoxicating glamour and precious little vanity, internal without ever being closed-off, heartbreakingly vulnerable and sharply funny, often at once. Much of the story hinges on when and how Beth is alone and sometimes she’s most alone when surrounded by people. Taylor-Joy’s performance is particularly remarkable in these moments.

Scott Frank’s largely excellent teleplays do occasionally stumble, particularly when it comes to race (Jolene deserves better) and gender. The latter is a shortcoming shared with Frank’s “Godless”—both have their hearts in the right place, but are perhaps not as thoughtful or insightful when it comes to physical intimacy, love, and the realities of a patriarchal society as they believe themselves to be.

Khushi Raizada is a student pursuing English Literature from Lady Shri Ram College for Women, Delhi University.

Edited by: Rutba Iqbal

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of The Jamia Review or its members.

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Written by Khushi Raizada

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