Review: ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ not worth the hype, but worth a watch

Anya Taylor-Joy delivers stunning performance, rest of show falls short of excellence

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Morgan Vehige

“The Queen’s Gambit” was released on Oct. 23 on Netflix, with all of its first season premiering on the same date. The show was an almost overnight success and has earned a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 8.7/10 on IMDb.

Morgan Vehige, Sports Editor

The subtle clicking of the time clock, the scratching of pencils on paper, the solid movements of the wooden pieces, they all add up to an intense game of skill, precision and strategy. It’s where a single mistake can lead to an irreversible downfall, where the players’ lives spiral down the drain and leave nothing but a powerful devotion to the game. It’s a game that can destroy lives but can also build them up from nothing.

That game is the long-adored game of chess. 

One of Netflix’s newest original limited series, The Queen’s Gambit, is based on Walter Tevis’s 1983 book by the same name. The story follows an orphan, Elizabeth “Beth” Harmon, and her journey from playing chess in the basement of an orphanage to vying to become the number one player in the world. 

Within that singular journey, the show does a very good job of featuring the young protagonist as she battles with drugs, alcohol addiction, depression and loss. It’s completely, brutally honest on the trials of life that Harmon goes through and refuses to sugarcoat or romanticize anything, which is rare in mainstream media nowadays. 

The show has gathered a lot of hype from casual viewers and chess fans alike. So much so, that it became Netflix’s most-watched limited series after only 28 days on the streaming service. With 62 million viewers tuning in from countries all over the world within the first month of it airing, the show has dominated and claimed a place on Netflix’s Top Ten, only furthering its popularity.

And while the show doesn’t specifically go in-depth explaining the game of chess or attempting to teach viewers how to play, it has increased the popularity of the game as a whole. Google searches for chess and how to play it have doubled, and the number of new players on chess.com has risen fivefold. 

The success of the show is mostly contributed to lead actress Anya Taylor-Joy, who plays Harmon. In fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that she carries the entire show. With her immense range, cutting glares and overall magnetic performance, Taylor-Joy embodies what it means to truly bring a character to life. 

Throughout Harmon’s storyline, Taylor-Joy is able to portray the difficult time of puberty in a young girl, to a young adult’s growth and maturity, to an alcoholic and addict who is off the rails to a woman who has learned, and will continue to learn, from her mistakes in order to better her life, along with the lives of those around her.

It is because of that range, as well as the completed character arc in the last episode, that a viewer is able to look past the flaws and red flags that Harmon so clearly demonstrated when dealing with her relationships with other characters and her destructive relationship with herself. Harmon is complex, yet Taylor-Joy is able to break down all of the layers wonderfully.

Other stunning performances were put on by a few other actors. Benny Watts was an opponent, tutor and romantic partner of Harmon’s, and was brilliantly played by Thomas Brodie-Sangster. This type of character was new to Brodie-Sangster, but he does a solid job in captivating the audience with his stoic, yet charming, character. 

Throughout the entirety of the series, a large aspect of the design of the show, from the costumes to the plot, was made to resemble a game of chess. (Morgan Vehige)

Another great performance came from newcomer Moses Ingram, who played Jolene, a fellow orphan and future savior of Harmon. Her character also experienced massive growth, and Ingram does a wonderful job illustrating Jolene’s growth into an empowered woman of color.

Isla Johnston plays a young Harmon, but she sets the stage for Harmon’s addiction and depression in a mature way that is rarely seen in a young actor.

Another large part of the success of the show comes from the aesthetic of it. Set in Cold-War America, The Queen’s Gambit does an exceedingly good job at depicting what life was actually like. The show also succeeds in the wardrobe department, as every character is accurately dressed in stunning clothes that matches the era.

In that same realm, the score and music that supports this show from beginning to end are underrated. There were many famous songs from this period, as well as classical pieces that only added to the intensity of the chess games and Harmon’s downward, drug and alcohol-induced spiral.

By no means does the music or the fashion glamourize the era, rather it offers a bold reality of what it was like to live in that time period. 

While the show has many great things that attribute to being as popular as it is, there are still some places in which it could’ve improved and become the limited series to end all limited series.

For example, the cinematography was well done and consistent throughout most of the episodes. However, it became bland and repetitive watching the millionth close-up shot of Harmon in a chess match after the third episode. It was almost too straightforward and rarely allowed for much creativity to grace the screen. 

On another note, it’s understandable that the plot would be about Harmon; she is what the book is all about in the first place. However, the show definitely had some of the creative liberty to dive deeper into the stories of background characters. There were so many characters introduced to help Harmon in her journey, but there’s really nothing else about them to give them credit on the screen. 

There are a couple of loose ends and random plot points that are scattered throughout the show, such as the Wheatleys’ first child and even in some cases of Harmon’s addiction. While the ending is one of the open-ended variety, it leaves too much to be answered in terms of Harmon’s future, her addiction and her relationships with other characters, amongst other things. 

Despite those issues, the show is worth the watch, just maybe not all the hype that surrounds it. There’s no rhyme or reason as to why it should be breaking records, but more likely it can be attributed to one of the many mysteries of streaming series.

Overall, The Queen’s Gambit is a good show. Though it may be boring at times, it’s got great characters, a decent storyline and wonderful aesthetics. The seven-episode limited series is perfect for a show hangover binge and tells a beautiful story for many different viewers to enjoy. 

Final rating: 7.8 out of 10.