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Beyond 'The Queen's Gambit: How the Year's Finest TV Drama is Holding Up a Mirror to Life
December 12, 2020  | By Alex Strachan

There are so many exquisite moments in The Queen's Gambit, Scott Frank's haunting, evocative miniseries adaptation of Walter Tevis's 1983 novel about a female chess prodigy, that it's hard to know where to begin. 

On the one hand, it's an achingly beautiful coming-of-age tale set in the late 1950s and mid to late '60s — an Americans-style period piece that opens with a family tragedy on a rural road outside Lexington, Kentucky, and ends in triumph in Soviet-era Russia, at the height of the Cold War, with its echoes of the real-life 1972 chess championship between world champion Boris Spassky and American challenger Bobby Fischer.

There are so many moments in The Queen's Gambit that could have ended in cliché — the shy, awkward, 13-year-old orphan who takes up chess with the brooding, moody custodian in the orphanage's basement that could so easily have trolled in sexual abuse, a TV movie-of-the-week staple, but instead becomes something quite rare and beautiful: He teaches her to play chess, reluctantly at first; she knows nothing about chess but has a pure, white-hot streak of intuitive talent that will carry her through early adolescence and later in life.

There's the friendship with a difficult Black girl at the orphanage that could so easily have turned into A Teachable Moment About Race in the Deep South, but again becomes something rare and unexpected and quite beautiful in Frank's hands. (Frank, the twice Oscar-nominated screenwriter of Out of Sight and Logan, wrote and directed every one of The Queen's Gambit's seven episodes.) 
Then there's the unhappy couple that adopts the girl chess prodigy as a 13-year-old, a plot device that could so easily have turned into a familiar tale about extramarital affairs and the dissolution of a marriage, but instead becomes a story about the growing bond and friendship between an older woman and the headstrong, willful teenager she adopted, a teenager who succeeds despite everything thrown in her way.

There's the underlying cautionary thread of substance abuse — alcohol, tranquilizers, opioids, you name it — that could so easily have turned into a screed against the evils of lack of self-control, but instead reveals itself to be a thoughtful, realistic treatment of a difficult subject.

Mostly, though, The Queen's Gambit succeeds because of its enthralling storytelling, anchored by one of the most singularly nuanced small-screen performances you will see this year. Anya Taylor-Joy plays child chess prodigy Beth Harmon, from a gangly, knock-kneed 13-year-old to a young woman who's mentally tough and confident to the point of overconfidence — it's an emotionally shattering performance that almost literally takes the breath away at times.

And then there's the just-watch-this cinematography by Godless cameraman Steven Meizler and an uncommonly deft background musical score by Carlos Rafael Rivera, the Guatemala-based composer whose work here is exquisite, all shimmering piano sonatas and string scherzos that create an emotional heartbeat for the emotional beats on the screen. I often grumble about lousy music in TV programs, and this is why: Rivera's background score is enchantment personified, a prime example of how good music can elevate even the best material — echoes of Chopin, crossed with Thomas Newman.

Meizler's camerawork is uncanny. The late, great cinematographer Conrad Hall once confessed in an interview with this writer that his favorite personal work was the 1993 film Searching for Bobby Fischer, in part because he felt the challenge of making a static game like chess seem visually exciting was the most daunting challenge of his career — a career that spanned In Cold BloodCool Hand LukeButch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to, more recently, American Beauty and Road to Perdition.

Hall's solution was to film chess pieces on a chessboard as though they were living, breathing characters in their own right, with sweeping camera pans and tracking crane shots alternated with extreme close-ups. The chess pieces would be in constant motion, flying upwards and outwards, as if anticipating the movement of human hands and the human mind behind them.

Meizler's chess scenes in The Queen's Gambit have a similar vibe and feel to them. Even if you know or care little for chess, it's hard not to be swept up in the visual excitement of the moment.

Netflix released The Queen's Gambit six weeks ago, in late October. Since then, this remarkable ode to a young girl's coming of age has taken on a life of its own. Netflix estimates more than 62 million subscriber households have watched The Queen's Gambit at least in part, making it by far the streaming service's most-watched miniseries. (Netflix does its own ratings measurement and considers the data proprietary; their word has to be taken at face value.)

COVID lockdowns, social distancing, and stay-at-home orders have played their part — that's one reason why Netflix's Tiger King became a cultural sensation earlier in the year — but there's more to The Queen's Gambit than just that.

The year has been long and grueling, and the sheer joy-of-life and heartfelt emotion in The Queen's Gambit has touched the popular nerve.

St. Louis (MO) chess grandmaster Susan Polgar, who became the world's top-ranked female chess player at age 15, told her local newspaper recently that she appreciates Queen's Gambit's portrayal of the competitive world of chess, the way it depicts chess "as something emotional and exciting," while pointing out that the sexism Taylor-Joy's character faces in the series is nothing compared to the sexism female chess players face in real life, even today.

Garry Kasparov, the Russian former world champion — who in 1989 famously played then-Late Night host David Letterman and a bevy of chess advisers in a week-long chess challenge over long-distance phone-call — was a story consultant for The Queen's Gambit, which perhaps explains its unerring feel of accuracy.

Present-day chess grandmaster Viswanathan Anand, from India, recently told Agence France-Presse (AFP) he was floored by The Queen's Gambit's accuracy and credited the series — and COVID-19 lockdowns — with reviving interest in chess. Queen's Gambit, he said, is "spectacular."

In Frank's hands, The Queen's Gambit has turned chess into a metaphor of society and shaped it to mirror our modern world — The Queen's Gambit as life in miniature. For all its focus on chess as a game and a sport, at its heart, it's about how a young girl discovers something she can do well, better than anyone else, which in turn shapes the woman she is about to become.

A story earlier this week in the New York Times credited The Queen's Gambit with encouraging young girls and women to flock to chess in droves because it posits a world in which "women can be rock stars."

The website chess.com has added nearly 2.5 million more players since the series premiered in October. Registration of female players is up 15 percent. Chess schools have noted a 50 percent increase in enrolment among female students.

Yes, The Queen's Gambit is that good.

These things are subjective, of course, but The Queen's Gambit is my pick for the finest TV drama of 2020, bar none. It's been a long, hard year for so many people, but if ever there was a show that suggests there is light at the end of the tunnel, this is the one.

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