“The Queen’s Gambit” review

A beautifully-explored cliché


Maya Markowicz/Talon

Illustration of Beth Harmon (played by Anya Taylor-Joy) in front of a chess board.

Out of all the TV shows that have been released recently, “The Queen’s Gambit” seems to have held the most space of the cultural memory at large. According to the mainstream television formula, “The Queen’s Gambit” should’ve been a niche show. It’s a psychological exploration of a female protagonist, not the most popular of genres right now. The main character is unstereotypical (both in looks and personality), complex and has her fair share of issues. The show’s also set around chess. 

Somehow, however, it is immensely popular. There are, to me, two reasons for this. One: the show has suspense, relatively good acting, well-crafted, period-appropriate costumes, sets and cultural references. Two: well, it’s pretty much a cliché. And we Americans love a good cliché

“The Queen’s Gambit” is centered around Beth, a troubled orphan who turns out to be an astounding chess prodigy. Beth is sort of like a mix of “Prozac Nation” author Elizabeth Wurtzel, “Mad Men’s” Don Draper and Kevin from “Home Alone,” all of whom she emulates at different times throughout the show. Beth, however, is an entirely unique character.

Beth is portrayed by Anya Taylor-Joy, who is known for her roles in the British period series “Peaky Blinders” and the horror film “The Witch.” I can’t tell if I think Taylor-Joy is merely a good or incredible actress. At times, Taylor-Joy overdoes it. How many times does a depressed girl have to pout her mouth, stare off into the distance and widen her eyes before we get the point? 

Part of the problem, in this regard, is that Taylor-Joy has a look: an incredibly distinct look of huge eyes, a striking red wig when she’s playing Beth and a uniquely-pointed mouth. When an actress has this much of a look (think Natalie Dormer or Kerry Washington), it’s sometimes hard to escape it, whether the director makes her utilize it too much or whether the actress herself does. 

At her best, Taylor-Joy uses her look, but adds more to the scene in her diction, expressions, or body language. At her worst, she relies on her ethereal face to look like a lost waif, rather than actually becoming a lost waif, and adds an overdone, sassy “I’m a prodigy” voice to make the trope even more obvious. 

The role is hard. It consists of long stares, repressed dialogues and many many many “getting wasted while the audience slowly senses the troubled character’s eventual demise” scenes. For the cliché she was presented with, I believe Taylor-Joy does an incredibly good job. However, it seems at times that she is amplifying the cliché of the depressed-orphan-waif-hottie, rather than trying to add depth and complexity to the already-overused trope. The rest of the actors range from below mediocre (the owner of the orphanage and her helpers made me laugh, and not in the way they were supposed to) to incredible. Bill Camp as Mr. Shaibel and Thomas Brodie-Sangster as Benny Watts in particular were terrifically convincing and naturalistic. 

On to something the show does without fault: the makeup and the costumes. The makeup is impeccable, progressing with Beth to show her personality changes and coming-of-age, along with the passage of time in terms of the actual cultural context (from the early to late ‘60s). The costumes, though not as much as the makeup, are both enviable and period-appropriate. The teal beret Beth wears when she goes to Paris is already iconic, both in terms of its throwback to the mod era and its viability in terms of fashion today. If you have any interest in fashion or makeup, watch “The Queen’s Gambit.” It’s practically a style lookbook and each new episode brings into view a new ‘60s trend (both the good and the bad). 

Often, modern day shows will nostalgize, exaggerate or even humorize the past to the point where the era isn’t even a real time period anymore, only an aesthetic (most girls in the ‘80s weren’t running around in bright pink leotards and most women in the ‘70s didn’t go out in sparkly jumpsuits). However, “The Queen’s Gambit” remains both historically accurate and chic throughout its run, whether Midwestern bland, Parisian mod or Russian elegant. 

Of course, again, the show leans towards the obvious. When it’s breakdown time, we have to have some crazy party girl look, right? But, cliches are based on reality in some regard, and I don’t think it’s going too far to say that the mental being overtaken by depression can often lead to the physical wanting to put up some sort of mask or reinvent itself to escape the mind. 

I love Beth. I love her personality. I love her outfits. I love her mindset. I also love the locations the series takes us to. I love many of the plotlines. I’m a big fan of the depressed girl trope, so that somewhat worked for me. The animated chess board on the ceiling, though? That was too much, even for a show as overdramatic as “The Queen’s Gambit.”

The board definitely gets the point across; I’ll give it that. She’s really obsessed with chess. She’s imaginative. She’s reliant on drugs partly because it helps her focus on this incredibly intelligent and creative part of her brain. But couldn’t they have portrayed those ideas in a more sophisticated way? I don’t think I’m overreacting, though I’m sure others disagree, when I say that every scene that had that 3-D animated chess board on the ceiling made me want to laugh. 

We understand that the chess board is some grand symbol: we don’t need it so plainly (and idiotically) spelled out. I know “The Queen’s Gambit” is based on a novel. Maybe they had the chess-on-the-ceiling thing in there, and it was great, poignant, heart wrenching. But, in the show, with Beth’s big blank eyes doing her signature “I’m a misunderstood genius” stare at that badly animated knight piece, it is simply laughable.

The director’s treatment of race is, for lack of a better word, sad. The only major African-American character in the entire show (Jolene) was so obviously written just to be the token minority that it is sometimes hard to watch. Everything Jolene says is written, shot and acted in a manner that seems like it’s trying to prove some grand point about race which never actually arrives. If you really examine Jolene’s character arc, the only message it sends is that black women were made to support their white counterparts and will consistently provide witty comic relief. 

I wouldn’t write the show off specifically because of its racial problems, though they are immensely troubling, as Jolene plays a very minor role in the heart of the story (another issue altogether). The series’ storyline is a classic one in terms of its plot points, and you may end up guessing the next episode’s main events as a result. However, the costumes, complex characters, cinematography, niche sport and oddly surreal settings allow “The Queen’s Gambit” to be elevated from the normal drone of modern television. 

“The Queen’s Gambit” is a cliché. There’s no denying it. But, for me, there are worse clichés that could be made today. This is a cliché that the culture hasn’t seen in a while. Nobody has any superpowers. All the plot points that happen could generally happen in real life. The protagonist is not someone you meet every day, in real life or in the movies, and the show doesn’t rely too heavily on romance when dealing with its female lead. 

So, even if Taylor-Joy overuses tropes and the show relies a little too heavily on some overdone ideas about damaged women, prodigies and waifs, the series is still an amazing thing to watch. I haven’t seen something like it in a really long time, and I doubt any screenwriter will delve so far into an activity as niche as chess, along with incorporating the psychological and historical with such beautiful attention to detail, for some time to come.