Check, and Mate

‘The Queen’s Gambit’ is the best show on TV right now

The Queen’s Gambit, the best and most popular show on your TV right now, and maybe the best show of the year, is a feminist period drama about the world of competitive chess in the 1960s. Listen, I’m as surprised as you are. But The Queen’s Gambit, with its increasingly fabulous wardrobe and room-decoration scheme, has a lot of the style of Mad Men. Plus, like Mad Men, it features a moody and troubled protagonist. The show plays to the girl-power uplift of the moment, but it doesn’t vilify men. Like the recent hugely popular Karate Kid reboot Cobra Kai, there are tons of thrilling competition scenes. And its American-Soviet chess rivalry thruline resembles nothing less than Rocky 4, but with way more good feelings. You get a little Cold War intrigue, like in The Americans, only with a vastly smaller body count.

So, a feminist Mad Men combined with Rocky 4. I think it’s time you started watching it on Netflix.

Anya Taylor-Joy, in a stunning performance that will certainly win many awards, plays Beth Harmon, a young Kentucky chess savant orphaned at age nine. She learns the game of chess by playing the orphanage’s janitor in the basement. The Queen’s Gambit gets lots of credit for making Beth’s relationship with Mr. Shaibel sweet and weird, but never creepy. She quickly rises in the local amateur ranks, and after an upper-middle-class Lexington couple adopts her, she begins playing, and winning, for money. The first episode features an equally impressive little girl playing Beth, but after that’s it’s all Taylor-Joy’s show. She takes Beth from being a gawky, provincial mildly Asperger’s weirdo to being a sexy, worldly, mildly Asperger’s weirdo. It’s never anything less than persuasive.

The Queen’s Gambit is also an excellent portrayal of addiction. The orphanage gets Beth hooked on tranquilizers, which cause her to hallucinate giant chess boards on the ceilings of her dormitory and only adds to her burgeoning chess genius. Marielle Heller, who most recently directed the Tom Hanks Mr. Rogers movie, beautifully plays Beth’s adoptive mother, a tragically stunted woman of the 50s. But this adoptive mother has booze problems. When she needs a drink, she says stuff like “my tranquility needs refurbishing.”

Living with an alkie plunges Beth toward the bottom of the bottle as well. The show does an excellent job of showing the roots of addiction. Beth has good reasons to want to escape into substances. She undergoes more trauma before the age of 21 than most characters experience in a lifetime. Her struggle to conquer those demons is just as compelling as her quest to defeat the world’s great chess masters.

And there’s so much chess in this show! The Queen’s Gambit lingers for long minutes on the game. If you squint carefully enough, you can actually pick up pointers. Mostly, it’s just shots of people shoving pieces around the board, but the show handles these sequences with the deftness of an action movie. In one incredibly clever tournament sequence, as Beth heads for a showdown with her rival Benny Watts, played with a leather jacket, a pencil-thin mustache, and a smooth confidence by Thomas Brodie-Sangster, the show splits the screen and slides images around in the cool mod style of the mid-60s era in which it’s set. It’s one of many bravura touches that elevate The Queen’s Gambit far above anything else available right now.

If you find yourself missing that Mad Men vibe, this is your dream content. It has the global scope of a spy movie, jetting from Mexico City, to Paris, to Moscow, from palatial hotels to sleazy basement apartments in Greenwich Village. Beth Harmon combines the tortured vibe of Don Draper with the proto-feminist take-no-prisoners pluck of Peggy Olsen. And the show doesn’t even have to hammer that feminism home. Beth is more than just an independent young woman. She’s a super-champion, a singular talent, whose greatness transcends class or gender. And she wears tight sweaters.

The show has a few flaws. Some of the subsidiary character arcs feel a little forced in the final episode, as Beth heads for her ultimate showdown with the world’s chess masters. But this is TV, after all, and a little uplift feels appropriate after a deeply stupid year. The Queen’s Gambit ends perfectly, subtly, and satisfyingly. It’s a good show, you should watch it, and if you have watched it, you might rewatch it. The seven hours will go by as fast as a round of speed chess.

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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 11 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. He's written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

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