The late Walter Tevis wrote The Queen’s Gambit all the way back in 1983, a year before he died of lung cancer. It seemed like the novel was just as hot a property with Hollywood as his other novels, like The Hustler and The Color of Money. But it took 37 years to find its way to the screen, but it seems like it’s arriving at a good time, when viewers are looking for a nice, meaty limited series to binge. From what we can see, this is going to be that kind of series.
THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
Opening Shot: We hear someone knocking on a hotel room door, asking for a “Mademoiselle” in French. A woman climbs out of a bathtub, where she supposedly passed out.
The Gist: The woman, hungover after a night of god-knows-what, opens her curtains, retrieves her shoes from the bar pulls herself together and runs down to the master chess game that she’s participating in. Her name is Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy). We soon go from Paris in 1967 to Pennsylvania in the ’50s. Nine-year-old Beth (Isla Johnston) is left unscathed after a car accident that killed her mother Alice (Chloe Pirrie), and since her dad is nowhere to be found, Beth is is sent to an orphanage called The Methuen Home.
There, she’s greeted by the overly-friendly headmistress Helen Deardorff (Christiane Seidel), and one of the first things she does is get uppers and downers (i.e. “vitamins”) from Mr. Fergusson (Akemnji Ndifornyen). There she also meets an older girl named Jolene (Moses Ingram) who enjoys flouting the rules, like not taking the “vitamins” when given and liberally calling people “cocksucker.” But, as expected, she feels lost and adrift.
She wanders into the basement one day and sees the custodian, Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp) playing himself in chess. Beth knows nothing about the game but is fascinated. As she learns to take the tranquilizers at night, she envisions chess openings and moves on an upside-down board she envisions on the ceiling. She keeps going down to the basement to play him on Sundays; every time she improves in leaps and bounds, to the point where she eventually beats him.
Seeing her remarkable ability, Shaibel invites the chess coach from the local high school to see for himself. After playing her, she invites her to his club to play every member simultaneously. She wipes the floor with them, but not before jonesing for the green “vitamins”, which are locked away after the state gets wind of what the orphanage is doing. As withdrawal gets to her, Beth takes desperate measures to get those vitamins.
What Shows Will It Remind You Of? Though based on Walter Tevis’ novel and not real-life people, The Queen’s Gambit gives off that same regal vibe that we’ve seen on The Crown. The addiction-fighting-with-genius story, though, goes way back to Sherlock Holmes, all the way through period dramas like The Knick.
Our Take: Though we don’t see a lot of the adult version of Beth in the first episode of The Queen’s Gambit, we were sucked into her story anyway, mainly due to the performances of Johnston and Camp. Camp is especially good at playing the gruff custodian, smarter than anyone at the school realizes, who is content with sitting in the basement nipping from a flask and practicing opens and defenses.
Allan Scott and Scott Frank have done a fine job of adapting the long sought-after 1983 novel and exploring the phases of Beth Harmon’s life as she rockets up the ladder of the professional chess world while simultaneously battling a crippling addiction that may or may not help her game. We know that her mother was a mathematician that became a suicidal recluse due to drugs, mental illness or both, so it’s not a stretch that Beth may suffer from those same tendencies.
It’s fascinating to see that her addiction was kicked off by her orphanage’s highly questionable policy of drugging their residents. No one at the orphanage is portrayed as downright evil, but they are just creepy enough to put us in Beth’s wary shoes. Even the fact that Shaibel is down in the basement all day playing chess is creepy, but the gruff custodian is actually the warmest character at the orphanage, because he sees Beth’s individual genius, whereas everyone upstairs just sees her as another annoying kid.
What this sets up, of course, is Taylor-Joy taking over as the teenage and adult Beth, figuring out how to navigate the chess world. The first episode was engrossing enough to make us curious to see where the story is going, and that’s a whole lot more than we can say about 95% of the opening episodes we’ve seen this year.
Sex and Skin: Nothing.
Parting Shot: Beth, desperate for the green pills, breaks into the room where they are and starts gobbling them down by the handful. Then she grabs the huge glass jar they’re in, just as she’s caught. She drops the massive jar and then passes out.
Sleeper Star: Moses Ingram does a lot with a little screen time as Jolene. She’s both a good and bad influence on Beth, but the only one at the orphanage that seems to want to buck the system, which brings out the rebel in Beth.
Most Pilot-y Line: Nothing we could see.
Our Call: STREAM IT. The Queen’s Gambit opens up a world that feels inscrutable at times, told through the eyes of a prodigy who embraces her genius, but is as human as the rest of us.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast Company and elsewhere.
Stream The Queen's Gambit On Netflix