Chess is a game of mind. It doesn’t discriminate which mind plays the game. It could be a girl, a boy, a man or a woman. What matters is one’s move in the game. An entire world of 64 squares where you are the master of fate. Until you hear or spell the elegy, CheckMate. However, the most significant is your choice in between the game. Like Life, Chess is the same, just shorter. The Queen’s Gambit (TV Series) orbits one such life which is in and out of the chess game, where a Girl’s choices will decide her destiny.
The Queen’s Gambit is a 7 part drama mini-series streaming on Netflix. The series has been created by Scott Frank and Allan Scott and is based on the 1983 book of the same name. The book itself is an intensely dramatic piece of fiction, written by Walter Tevis. The series is set in during the 1960s and portrays a young girl journey of 10 years from being an unknown to finally fulfilling her ambitions.
The is one of the best series of the year 2020, but before jumping on to what makes it great, let’s dig deep into what it is about.
Note – Queen’s Gambit literally means an opening strategy in a Chess Game.
The Queen’s Gambit (TV Series) begins with its protagonist 20 years old, Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) in Paris arriving late for a chess game. It looks like an important game of her life, as it is covered by the reporters and audience alike. She arrived disarranged, drugged and half asleep. Why?
The story moves back in time when Beth was 5 years old. In a tragic accident, Beth loses her mom and is soon admitted in a community Orphan. Feeling distinct and isolated, Beth befriends Jolene, her only friend throughout. Days of weary and boredom crept in, when Beth, one day, accidentally came across a board of chess in the basement. Her curiosity heightens when the janitor, Mr Shaibel (Bill Camp) to whom the board belongs, tells her, “Girls do not play Chess.” Beth, suffering from heightened emotions and anger, gets adamant to learn it. She starts dreaming about a Chess game in the air at night, majorly a side effect of tranquillizing drugs given to every kid in the orphanage. When next day, Beth dictates sharing her knowledge about chess with Mr Shaibel, he is both happy and surprised, to finally find a companion to share his interest for the game, in this dull, monotonous orphanage. Time passes by, and a 9-year-old Beth starts playing the mind game in her mind, every night and gets addicted to the drugs and the game alike. When Mr Shaibel finally realises Beth’s potential, he introduces her to a Chess Club associate, but the news gets to the Warden who abolish any such game on the premise. But that’s not an end to her conflict, teenage Beth is adopted by a family, Mrs Alma Wheatley (Marielle Heller) and her husband, Allston.
A new life in Kentucky, and a new routine for Beth, filled with an alcoholic mother and a missing father, away for business trips. Beth finds her solace again in drugs and chess. She starts playing Chess tournaments and soon finds her way up to the ladder. When Beth’s new mother, Mrs Wheatley finds out that Beth is winning prize money through Chess, she becomes Beth’s self-assigned agent and they together start slaying the world in the game. Beth becomes a chess prodigy and a heavy substance addict until she finally realises her dream to become the World Champion.
Character Approach in “The Queen’s Gambit”
A character is defined by its conflicts. The obstacles it faces and overcomes makes the sleeve brighter. A well-written plot encounters a character with both internal as well as external conflicts, that gives a plethora of chances to its protagonist to evolve, either into misery or contempt.
Beth Harmon’s character adapted to Screen by Scott Frank, is very close to the one written in the book. Often, characters from books are carved out with precision and much-needed investment which results in outstanding journeys and character arcs that are bound to charm the receptors. Beth Harmon is indeed one of them.
Beth’s character has been thrown into misery, due to the sudden and tragic demise of her mother. An external conflict she didn’t choose to have. It fills her with anger, that needed an outlet. Chess became her portal to drain it down. However, Beth’s addiction to Chess and Drugs is her own matter of choice, that creates an array of internal conflicts of her own. Her own ambitions to never lose a game and lose bothering her so much, layers down many such internal conflicts in her character.
However, it is impossible to separate traits or internal conflicts, as good or bad. It sometimes saves a character emotionally or motivates them to pursue a dream, externally. It acts as their save mechanism. Just like drugs, is an escape for many. Similarly, Beth’s ambition kept her on track to pursue her game, with all seriousness she has. Ambition, though, is a sweet poison. It harms you and saves you. Beth is known to the world as the chess prodigy, her game is evolving steeply but it also caused her great pain and sorrow. Thus, it is when one of her friends/boyfriends relates her journey with a yesteryear Chess Champion, who like Beth, was full of Pride and Sorrow of Chess. Pride for the Game and Sorrow for her own Life.
Yet, it is Beth’s own journey in the show that defines her character. She is flawed, like all of us. She speaks both right and wrong things. When hit by a tragedy, her unconscious flaw of being dependent on substance takes over and she screws her own life and her game. That one flaw is her anger and her infliction towards being alone.
Beth gets addicted to the game because an entire world of 64 square boxes is in her control and very much predictable for her. While life, she has no control over. She is still haunted by the past of a lost mother and certain forgetful instances she had encountered in her life. It is only in Chess, where she feels authoritative. She doesn’t want to become famous, just be in control of her life.
While Beth’s character speaks a lot of such ironies, subtly, as they are in the book. She is not very verbal about any, except if you happen to read between her words, which clearly elucidates the genius writing. At one point, Beth gets verbal about her ambitious nature, but not to define herself but warns another budding Chess player, who was 9 when Beth played with him, being a teenager, herself.
“If you’re World Champion at 16, what will you do with the rest of your life?”
Though Beth speaks the words to another character, it is her own life’s dilemma. Thus, at some point, she put her own obstacles in the journey, just to delay the final game. However, she passionately wants to win the title, and in the stretch, she is only figuring out, what after it. I am glad she gets to know the answer in the end, and it is not verbalised, but if it would be, it would sound like, “Enjoy the game, until it lasts.” This realisation got tears in my eyes, and thus, I am happy to state The Queen’s Gambit as one of the best series of 2020.
Well Knitted Plot
It is the mark of a genius screenwriting to not pinpoint a singular layer, but attach a number of it, through various characters, subplots and conflicts. The Queen’s Gambit (TV Series), through Beth’s journey, portrays how a girl, in a male-dominated society, beats them at their own game. It talks about individualisation in American Society, where people are too afraid to ask for help. They live in their own closet and when a tragedy hits, they look out for escape in substance and not in people.
Beth’s own addiction to drugs is kind of similar. She feels the tranquillizers are boosting her game, while in actuality, it just reliefs her internal chaos so she can focus on the game. Chess is a game of focus, after all. It is often and subtly visited in the series when Beth is in Chaos, the result of her game has a similar end to it. The day she ends the chaos, there is no stopping to her triumph.
Through various sub-characters in Beth’s life, Scott Frank has explored their flaws as well. These people help Beth, both directly and indirectly to overcome her flaws and learn from them. A lot of series and films claim to incorporate this element but The Queen’s Gambit has done it marvellously.
A special mention to the dialogues and lines used in The Queen’s Gambit. Some of it forces you to replay a certain scene just to get that exhilarating feeling of a certain line again and again.
There are a lot of teen dramas and coming of age stories available digitally. What most of them lack, is an artistry to approach them on paper. Vince Gilligan did it, so as did George R.R. Martin and Scott Frant and through Walter Tevis’s book, the makers are able to take that artful approach once again The Queen’s Gambit (TV Series) does not run on cheesy drama and fictionalized cliff hangers, just for the sake of hooking the audience. But it really notches every part of the drama, naturally and intellectually. It keeps you engrossed because it allures you and never compels you.
Watch The Queen’s Gambit (TV Series) here.
The Queen’s Gambit (TV Series) is streaming on Netflix. You don’t want to miss this masterpiece.
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