The Queen’s Gambit (2020) : An Inside Look Into Netflix’s Checkmate Success (Written by Anna Miller)
Streaming services take notes, because this is how you make a successful and poignant limited series.
Based on Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel of the same name, The Queen’s Gambit stars Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon—orphan turned obsessed chess prodigy, who struggles with addiction and substance abuse as she tries not to fall victim to the calamitous grasp of her very own mind.
Those familiar with Anya Taylor-Joy know she’s an actress to be taken seriously since her role in Robert Eggers’ The VVitch. I was personally impressed with her craft through Split, Thoroughbreds and Emma, but haven’t been this transfixed by a character for quite some time until seeing her portrayal of Beth Harmon. ATJ is a powerhouse through this seven hour series as the chess-obsessed redhead; she’s proving once again that she can effortlessly glide along to keep in stride with the best of the best in the industry. Her talent and ability is on par with the greats of this age, which has landed her roles in upcoming projects such as Last Night in Soho (2021) and Mad Max: The Wasteland (2023).
It’s fantastic she was allowed to make decisions in creating Beth, alongside series creators Scott Frank and Allan Scott. She puts on that red wig—her own personal choice—and becomes a 60s beast of chess player with a style that could parallel Brigitte Bardot, coupled with enough chaotic inner turmoil to render even Susanna Kaysen concerned.
In just seven episodes, this limited series covers topics from trauma, loss, substance abuse/addiction and mental health issues to racism, sexism, feminism and the idea of “madness versus genius”. It feels vintage in the fact it is so nostalgically 60s, yet modern in so many of its statements and in the attitudes of its characters. This makes it an undeniable feast for the eyes and ears yet grounded in its ability to connect to virtually any viewer. Whether that be chess players, non-chess players, people struggling with addiction or know someone who is or has— this series has the capability to reach and influence any person who might give it the time of day.
Not everything spat out from a streaming service has that impact—in fact, most do not. And that makes this one in particular certifiably fresh, relatable and powerful. Not to mention Netflix’s most successful scripted limited series to date.
It’s apparent when watching that a talented group of people who care about their craft worked tirelessly on this project. For starters, the show’s wardrobe department have absolutely outdone themselves, for the looks throughout are mouthwateringly chic and utterly elegant. I was so mesmerized by the costumes that I looked into who was responsible for my jealousy and love for these pieces and found her- Gabriele Binder, a Berlin based costume designer who went as far as to include hidden messages and meanings in each of Anya Taylor-Joy’s outfits. Because, of course she did.
In an interview, Binder spoke about ATJ’s last look and it made the finale even sweeter:
Kudos to her as well as the makeup artists, the art directors and cinematographers because every frame of these seven hours looks like an expensive painting that I’d want in my living room. The color palette and grading is stunning and truly, the cinematography is unreal; this makes it an absolute treat to watch.
Then there’s the soundtrack which is captivatingly 60s and so, so fun! Featuring tracks from artists like Peggy Lee, The Monkees and Gillian Hills ... it’s retro, it’s groovy and it fits into the rest of the elements seamlessly. Aside from the 60s bops, composer Carlos Rafael Rivera created individual orchestral scores for each and every chess match. He used the ever changing narrative of Beth to write his pieces of music— composing battle music for some games and incorporating a ticking chess timer in for others to increase stakes and anxiety— another master at his passion.
Every element of this series is to be boasted about— the other actors involved, the fluidity of the script and the excellence of the adapted screenplay. I have nothing but praise for this series as it continues to receive accolades and acknowledgments. They were told over thirty years prior that no one would be interested in a film or show about chess, but with a few exchanges of hands, a Beth Harmon-esque persistance and many people with an unwavering belief in her story, it’s obvious that was very much not the case at all.
I recommend you give this one the time of day. Give it your attention, let yourself become transfixed by the 60s and inspired by Elizabeth Harmon and her mastery. Let her take you on an international journey of someone pushing and persisting and achieving their passion. That feat itself is a far fetched thought most of us can only daydream about.
On a personal note, Beth’s story has only urged me to push harder towards my own passions— albeit, mine isn’t chess, but the meaning transcends the medium. Her era of expertise was chiefly dominated by men, as is mine, but she pushed on with determination— set jaw, calculated moves and all, coupled by stubbornness and grace. I saw a bit of myself in Beth and she’s pushed me, through the screen, to keep it up.
And if that isn’t why we create then what the hell is?