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  • Writer's pictureMartin Vaux

TV Review: The Queen’s Gambit (2020)



One of last year’s break-out successes, The Queen’s Gambit follows a young orphan, Beth Harmon, played by Anya Taylor Joy (The Witch, Emma) as she grows up during the 1960s and strives to become the best chess player in the world.


Like a lot of the TV and film released in 2020, I came to The Queen’s Gambit late. Work and political hand-wringing rather defined last year for me and, while I had seen the trailers and read quite a lot about it, I consequently only summoned it from the depths of my Netflix Watchlist last week.


Based on Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel of the same name, adapted for the screen and directed by Scott Frank (A Walk Among The Tombstones, The Lookout) and co-written and executive produced by Allan Scott (Regeneration, Don’t Look Now) it took a jolly long time to put The Queen’s Gambit into a watchable form – and I can see why.


Attempts were made and abandoned during the 1990s, including by directors such as Michael Apted (Enigma, Gorillas in the Mist) and Bernardo Bertolucci (The Last Emperor, Stealing Beauty). More recently, before his tragic and untimely death in 2008, it was set to be the directing debut of Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight, A Knight’s Tale) with then Ellen, now Elliot Page (Juno, Inception) lined up to star.



There were and arguably are three main factors that made The Queen’s Gambit an unlikely screen success – and whether or not these issues were overcome in this adaptation is very much up for debate.


The first is that ostensibly it is a story about a parade of people playing chess, which – despite the two rather sexy matches in both versions of The Thomas Crown Affair – is not often considered the most cinematic of sports.


The game is a visual byword for portent and intellectual prowess (see The Seventh Seal, 2001: A Space Odyssey, the X-Men franchise) but it’s not often thought to be terribly watchable.


The second is that it is a period drama, taking place against a backdrop of the 1960s counterculture revolution in the United States – hippies, anti-Vietnam protests, Cold War intrigue, Second Wave Feminism, and the Civil Rights movement.


Rich and heady stuff for sure, but easily mishandled subject matter too.



The third is that it is a bildungsroman narrative about a female character. This last one should not be controversial, but stories about young women growing up and learning moral lessons simply seem harder for the entertainment industry to make than similar stories about boys becoming men.


To weigh the overall success of The Queen’s Gambit against these three issues is perhaps more of an intellectual exercise than anything else, as the show was an absolute smash hit. It is Netflix’s most-watched miniseries to date, it has been seen by over 62 million households, and it also is sitting at a 97% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.


The jury has deliberated and the verdict is in, so to speak.


Thing is, I don’t think The Queen’s Gambit is very good at all.


I may be in a minority here, and perhaps I am being a bit of a snob, but given a bit of thought there are real and significant problems with the series that leave me feeling unsettled, and during these plague-addled times I find it strange that more people aren’t stopping to say, “Hold on!”


To deal with these challenges in turn, let’s start with the biggie – how do you make chess look cool onscreen?



The answer the showrunners came up with was, in essence, to follow the makers of 2015's Pawn Sacrifice and not really show you much chess at all.


I wrote briefly in my recent Top 20 Films of 2020 article about my predilection for sports movies, admitting that while I don’t like sport at all I do love a good sports film. And be under no illusion, The Queen’s Gambit is the most generic sort of sports film in form and structure.


Alas, in my view, the series fails as an example of its genre. It seems quite embarrassed about the game, presumably afraid that viewers will bail out of the show if it actually shows us how Beth – or anyone else – thinks, plans, or plays, despite chess being very much at the show’s heart.


This sort of ‘anti-sports drama’ approach is not new, but The Queen’s Gambit doesn’t have the patience to be Moneyball.


Then again, it wasn’t written by incredible people like Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin – and more’s the shame.



Indeed, the many, many chess matches in The Queen's Gambit are skipped over by montage after montage, most being set against a mid-weight 1960’s jukebox tune.


Instead of showing us what’s what on the board, and telling us a story through the games being played, the team behind the show either determined that the audience would be too stupid to understand what was happening or that it would be too difficult to try to explain.


Unfortunately though, for all the varied styles of montage the series uses, the playing of chess becomes one of the most boring aspects of The Queen’s Gambit and is but one major example of the series' cowardice.


Compounding this, I like chess, do understanding it, and play it for fun. Not being able to see what was actually happening in the matches – in favour of showing Anya Taylor Joy’s pretty face, or the audience watching, or engaging in some snazzy pan or editing trick – felt incredibly frustrating and patronising to me.


And I know it’s not all about me in particular, but I find it hard to believe that people can’t understand a game as simple as chess. Children play it at schools, for goodness sake!


Now, don’t get me wrong – I know there’s an argument to say that The Queen’s Gambit isn’t about chess, and Scott Frank has said in interviews that the chess in the narrative is really just a metaphor.


But a metaphor for what, I would ask?



In similarly generic sports stories like This Sporting Life, or Bend it like Beckham, or Tin Cup, or Bull Durham, or untold number of others, the sport itself is relevant to the drama. In The Queen’s Gambit, there might be some muddled message about Beth ultimately playing herself, or about the pure lucklessness of chess (i.e. it is one of the very few games in the world that – aside from who starts – is devoid of chance).


Or, potentially, it might be about the grey area that exists between moral black and white, as embodied by the ultimately cuddly Cold War Russians sub-plot.


Thing is, any such message is either wholly absent or cackhandedly obscured.


This seems a real shame, not least because the iconography of chess and its pieces is so incredibly rich. Instead of using this symbolism though, the games in The Queen’s Gambit are reduced to the kind of Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone-style chess match – contests that are meant to communicate nobility and intellectual prowess but which, in the end, feel camp and very silly.

Perhaps this is all forgivable, but the series’ next major sin feels less so, i.e. the way it handles the 1960s. Or should I say in the way it doesn’t handle the 1960s – and when it does, how it makes a meal of things.


In short, the series is very interested in 1960s fashion and architecture. It features many, many very bad wigs. There are long, long sequences panning around opulent hotel lobbies, a lot of time spent looking at snazzy/horrid hotel rooms, and a great many cities rendered out of windows in hazy, ethereal computer graphics.


It loves the trappings, but the spectacle is devoid of import.



Beth occasionally watches a snippet of TV or hears an announcer talking about something in current affairs, and I have read some comparisons between The Queen’s Gambit and Forrest Gump along this theme, but it’s all incidental. She does have some disappointing sex with a slightly hippyish student in one moment, but the world around Beth exists only in the most cursory, flimsy manner.


Perhaps this is supposed to show us how, in her obsessive, almost autistic manner, she is oblivious to local, national or global affairs, but even so how she interacts with and views the world is also problematic.


Let us take the aforementioned hippy student. She meets him – a much older person – at a Russian class (one of the series’ most annoying ideas – Beth learns Russian but only eavesdrops when the plot requires it, and never uses her second tongue). Anyway, she has a bloodless 'first time' with this man, then he and his friends all go out to see a movie, leaving her alone the morning after.


Beth then buys loads of alcohol, drinks it alone, gets stoned off a joint he has left for her (also while alone) then listens to some music and tidies his flat before leaving, like Freddie Mercury in the I Want To Break Free music video.



What’s the point of any of this?


To emphasise that she’s a loner?


To demonstrate that she adheres to social norms for her era, in being a good girl who likes to vacuum?


To inform us that this young girl deals with having lost her virginity to a disappointing adult through rock and roll and numbing herself?


Of course not. The series commits to nothing, and says nothing – it just chugs along, asking no questions, subjecting us to yet another montage of a pretty girl in her knickers trying on some outfits and sashaying about, getting a buzz on.


Politics? No thanks! Pants and tunes and woozy housework, thank you!


There is a lot of this thoughtlessness in The Queen’s Gambit, but where it is at its worst is in its handling of Jolene, played by Moses Ingram.


Ingram, who is 26, plays Jolene as a young girl – despite being very obviously an adult – during the utterly unconvincing first episode of the show. She then later returns to save Beth later on.


Jolene is black, and from the moment she is introduced she is a saviour, source of advice, and burdened with the yoke of the Magical Negro archetype.



Jolene speaks like a country yokel when she needs to, her grammar slipping to help her seem more rustically profound when required, yet at other moments she appears perfectly articulate and sophisticated. She sexualises herself, and talks in a racially charged way, but it’s all empty.


While in the book she is the character Beth comes closest to loving, and is the person with whom Beth has the most explicitly described sexual experience – one that happens when she is a child, at the orphanage – yet in the series Jolene is just a source of solutions for Beth.


Need more magic Chess Pills, Beth? Here you are.


Need my life savings because you spent your money on dresses, Beth? Here you are.

Need someone to say something profound because you have no friends, Beth? Here you are.


It’s annoying, and stupid, and considering the time period in which the series is set – yet alone the times in which we are living – it feels lazy and thoughtless.


Indeed, while much like the novel feels written by a man in the 1980s the series feels written by men – also, arguably, in the 1980s, and this is pretty inexcusable.



One of the characters who epitomises this is Cleo, played absolutely terribly by Millie Brady (Mr Selfridge, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). Ostensibly a French model, despite having one of the worst, most uncomfortably lost accents I can recall from recent years, Cleo spends a lot of her time talking about how all women are stupid and pointless, apart from Beth.


Her lines are embarrassing and her role in the narrative arc intended as titillating. Ultimately though, she is anticlimactic, pointless and forgotten in an instant – an unconvincing visual prop and little more.


Similarly, Beth has two mothers in the series – her ‘Flashback Mum’ played by Chloe Pirrie (To Walk Invisible, Emma) and her ‘Adopted Mum’ played by Marielle Heller (director of A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood and Diary of a Teenage Girl). Both of these characters are problematic too.


Heller’s part is one of the main highlights of the series – she is funny, charming and empowers Beth in super little ways. She is also a very tropey Mother too though, falling into archetype; she lives to serve others instead of herself and then, as soon as she deigns to enjoy life, the showrunners kill her!


As for Flashback Mum, she is another creation for the TV series and every scene she is in could have comfortably been edited out.


She says little, offers nothing useful to the drama save histrionics, and is portrayed only as a misguided victim.


Her one redeeming feature? She was mentally ill, which makes her errors excusable, apparently.



Did you know, incidentally, that the series was intended to be six episodes long and grew to become seven? If they were looking to remove some of the bloat, this aimless sub-plot is where I would have started – quickly followed by those hotel lobby crane shots.


Anyway, needless to say, the series’ handling of women and womanhood is poor – and no better is this encapsulated than in Beth herself, which leads us neatly to the third challenge the series faced: creating a bildungsroman with a female protagonist.


On this topic, it is generally accepted that audiences will watch an adaptation of a historical novel from the genre – see the profusion of versions of Jane Eyre, Anne of Green Gables (Netflix has its own), or Jane Austen’s books (see Anya Taylor Joy’s own largely superfluous Emma from last year).

Sadly though, most of these stories are about young girls learning to stop being so very wilful and getting married, and while this moral message may feel comforting to many it is also fairly retrograde – something epitomised by Greta Gerwig’s very stupid 2019 adaptation of Little Women.


Original stories about girls becoming women remains an under-loved genre, and unless the story is going to be a tragedy or a comedy (in which the girl gets the guy) then questions remain about what is to be said in them.



What are the lessons a young woman must learn as she grows?


This discussion is probably the biggest failing of The Queen’s Gambit because, while Beth does not die or couple-up, she does spend the whole series preoccupied with daddy issues – something which mostly results in her seeking out and relying on the advice of men.


Never is this worse than the final and climactic chess match at the end of the series. It is won because, so it seems, Beth spends the night before getting advice from her previous chess boyfriends, low-key gay Townes, played by Jacob Fortune-Lloyd (Endeavour, Medici), Harry-With-The-Bad-Teeth, played by Harry Melling (the Harry Potter franchise), and bum-fluff cowboy Benny, played by Thomas Sangster (Love Actually, Nanny McPhee) – as well as a few also-rans.


These men are all insufferable people. They are patronising, oblivious nerds who are irredeemable fools – none more so than Benny, who is a horrible man-child whose life is a mess of contradictions that the show simply does not have the nerve or will to untangle. But these men are all awful sexual partners, none of them are as good at chess as Beth, and they all treat and speak to her as if she is a fool.


But they are the ones who seem to save her bacon?


It is utterly messed up.


The only other explanation for Beth’s gifts is, of course, her chess pills – sorry, her tranquilisers.

Much of the series relies on Beth playing magical chess matches on the ceiling of bedrooms while dosed up on tranquilisers and, while this device is carried over from the novel, it is really silly.


Despite many visual similarities, Patrick Melrose it ain't - but the spirit of Benedict Cumberbatch does hover close by nonetheless.



In particular, the idea feels lifted right out of Marvel’s Doctor Strange – the green pills and green Time Stone both enabling the characters to go into a trance and explore bazillions of probabilities in mere moments.


I just couldn’t suspend my disbelief. It didn’t work for me, and the moment when Beth plays ceiling chess without her pills being some sort of profound realisation struck me as thundering stupid.


Wait… I can… do chess… on the ceiling… without my chess pills?


Why bother with any of it, though? Can’t she just think and play the damn game?


And do we need the silhouette of a king to creep over Beth’s nightgown in the half-light of her room, carrying her off to intellectual ecstasy?


Indeed, the series’ prudish attitude to sex throughout is another major issue I take with it. For all of the lying about in sheets looking disappointed, at no point did the series have the boldness to actually put some actual recognisable sex on screen. This felt narrow-minded, straightlaced and incredibly middle-brow – but that, ultimately, is the character of the series. It is meant to be comforting and retrograde, with nothing in it to challenge or scare the horses.


Take the final scene, where Beth runs into the arms of dozens of surrogate fathers, finally finding acceptance.


“Oh, all these daddies were here for me all along!”



This coda answered the question, what is the lesson of The Queen’s Gambit, in crystal clarity.


It is a story about how much women need patriarchy – and when that won’t do then they need other women to sacrifice themselves in order that they progress.


It might seem unkind to summarise The Queen’s Gambit as “a show about a pretty young hobbyist struggling to find male validation,” but that’s what it’s really about.


Left to her own devices, a girl will only spend her money on clothes, tidy up, get drunk, dance alone to Shocking Blue’s Venus, and put her make-up on wrong.


It’s shallow, and dumb, and while it might be dressed up in 60s trapping it is an exercise in empty exploitation.


Just consider Walter Tevis’ inspiration for his book in the first place. It was the child prodigy Bobby Fischer. Only he decided to make the main character a girl. And to what extent does it matter that Beth is a girl? If it was a series about Ben Harmon, a young male chess prodigy, would the series be materially much different?



To what degree is Beth even a girl, or a woman, at all?


She needs to be one in so far as she serves as a visual prop - a sex doll - just like Cleo.


Her femininity is a short-hand excuse to shovel a reductive moral into our brains, prettified by period ornamentation.


Give me the series about the "baddie" - Vasily Borgov, played here outstandingly by Marcin Dorociński - instead, please. His story, always out slightly out of view in The Queen’s Gambit, seemed infinitely more interesting, and something I hadn’t seen before.


But the sad girl in her pants doing the vacuuming to pop songs?


It’s stale, mate.


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