*Warning: Spoilers ahead*
There's a new show-stopping ingenue on Netflix and unlike recent heroines who were Southern belles or gaslit Brit lasses, this woman's story is really unexpected: She's a drug-addicted orphan who becomes a world-renowned chess champion.
Welcome to the world of The Queen's Gambit, the new 7-episode series that's captured the number-one spot among Netflix episodic shows. Perhaps you're thinking, as I did when I heard about the show's premise, Has it really come to this? Are we so desperate for entertainment that we're tuning in to a dull narrative full of people playing a slow, boring board game? As the Russian baddies in the show might say: Nyet. Here's what you need to know about this hot show, which earned Rotten Tomatoes average scores of 100 critical and 98 audience percentage approvals.
1. So What Is ‘The Queen's Gambit’ About?
We're introduced to a late 1960s-era young woman as she's being roused out of a bathtub in a hungover state, who rushes to make her way downstairs in a luxe hotel where, after a phalanx of Beyoncé-level paparazzi snap pictures of her, she sits nervously in front of a chess board across from her opponent, a middle-aged, stern-looking man. What will happen to our boozy protagonist? How did she get here? The first answer takes hours to get to (each episode is a meaty 60 minutes of drama), but viewers are immediately thrust into the the woman's backstory. Her name is Beth Harmon, and we flash back to her as a nine-year-old standing unharmed next to a car accident that has claimed her mother and destined her to live at an orphanage. There, the poor little girl experiences confusion—some of it caused by little green pills doled out by the school pharmacist—and makes two friends: a fellow resident girl and the school janitor, who she pesters into teaching her to play chess in a dingy basement. Turns out, the girl has an almost spooky talent for the game and develops a secret habit of hoarding the little green pills she's given to take them before bed; the relaxed state she enters allows her to hallucinate chess pieces flying around an imaginary board on the ceiling. Beth's skill level and addiction chug right along until the state of Kentucky outlaws giving children addictive tranquilizers, and she is caught breaking into the medical station and gobbling all the pills. Oh, and then falling off a chair in an overdose.
That's just episode one. Successive installments see our underdog girl grandmaster-in-waiting experience adoption, high school b*tches, being the only female at almost every chess competition, cadged liquor, pills and chess periodicals, PTSD from her early childhood with an unstable mom and eventually travel to New York, Paris and Moscow. Oh, and since this is the ’60s in Middle America, she also experiences about 75 unique wallpapers, most in her own home.
TLDR: Think A Beautiful Mind meets Girl Interrupted meets Rocky.
2. Why Should Anyone Care?
This surprisingly gripping show will keep you hitting "Watch Next Episode" late into the night thanks to two main strengths: the great acting and the girl-versus-world trope. First, the acting of Beth Harmon, from her girlhood played by Isla Johnston to her 20-year-old self played by Anya Taylor-Joy, absolutely captures you as if you're ensnared in one of the chess openings that she so skillfully dispatches her opponents with. (The series named for a particularly aggressive move that reflects Beth's aggressive playing style.) Taylor-Joy is transfixing, which is good because you're watching her for 7 hours of pensive pawn-shuffling; her wide-set eyes call to mind a young Lea Seydoux crossed with a flounder, and her willowy figure shows off the A-line mod shifts of the day. And the supporting players are stronger than they need to be: As Beth's adoptive mom, Marielle Heller (the director of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood) delivers such mannered line readings ("I asked for a pleasant room, and I believe they have given me one") that you can't wait to see what she will say or how she will say it. And finally, our girl's orphanage friend Jolene is a charismatic and compassionate Moses Ingram.
As for the story itself, you'll find the trials and triumphs of underdog Beth Harmon an absolute tonic. She's imperfect, immature and uncertain of her place in the world, but she's got hope for a better life if she keeps doing what she loves—escaping into her passion. When someone is kind to Beth, we cheer; when someone is cruel, we feel her anger and dedication to overcome adversity. Another character says of her in the film that she will have to overcome her anger to achieve happiness, and it's impossible not to relate to her frustrated desire to make her way in a male-dominated field. And who helps our heroine, with her hard feelings as well as her addiction? The women of the piece—her adoptive mother and her friend Jolene—are the voices she lets guide her when she's at her lowest. You'll be rooting for Beth Harmon, even if you don't have the faintest interest in chess.