Saturday, November 14, 2020

TV Review - "The Queen's Gambit"

Spoilers for The Queen's Gambit after the jump:

My favorite moment in The Queen's Gambit arrives in the show's fifth (and best) episode, when Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) faces off at the US Open against her biggest American rival Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), a man who plays chess while wearing a cowboy hat. First of all, let's underline that little detail, because it's one of the many reasons The Queen's Gambit is among the best shows of 2020—this is a high-end Netflix prestige drama, and yet here you've got a guy dressed like some sort of an Western movie hero while playing a game generally known more for its contemplative nature. And he's good! Also he's super cocky, telling Beth—whom he handed her first-ever defeat two episodes previously—"You have to get past me first" when she says she's planning on going up against the best Russian players overseas. "I'm planning on that, too," Beth cooly responds before the first notes of Mason Williams' "Classical Gas" kick off one of the most exhilarating musical montages I've seen on TV in ages, as both of them proceed to just destroy their respective competition over the first three days of the tournament. 

The series has already featured a couple other inspired, perfectly placed '60s music cues by this point (it may have the best music sense of any show since The Americans), but this particular one is still so deliciously unexpected and fun, with the screen splitting into numerous squares as the montage proceeds in a dizzying, simultaneous display of both players' chess virtuosity. It's not that I necessarily expected a show about chess to be boring—chess is a wonderful game, and the level of thought it takes to play it well can be riveting if portrayed onscreen by a terrific actor. Anya Taylor-Joy is a terrific actor, so it's no surprise the many scenes that do just involve her studying the chessboard and/or thinking about the game are fantastic. Just as good are those moments when she tries to interact with the world in ways other than through chess and finds it a much, much tougher task. Strictly on the terms of being both a lead acting showcase and a layered character study told over seven episodes, The Queen's Gambit would be a moderate success. 

But the way the narrative moves turns it from a success to an outright triumph. It's Beth's story from start to finish, but it's populated with so many compelling, well cast supporting characters (though no others quite as delightfully quirky as Benny, it must be said) whose roles in the show almost never pan out exactly the way you'd expect. Beth's adoptive mom, for instance, does enjoy some of the advantages of having a chess genius daughter but is not some scheming, heartless manipulator, either. Her story is a three-episode tragedy of its own—driven by the various disappointments in her life, among them her lousy excuse for a husband—and is given tremendous weight by Marielle Heller. Beth's various rivals, meanwhile, become her cheerleaders, coaches, and (in several cases) lovers over the course of the series rather than simply vanishing after she vanquishes them in tournaments—a choice that leads to any number of terrific scenes. The overall arc of The Queen's Gambit mostly fits within a well worn sports story framework when all is said and done, but on the moment-to-moment level it's consistently involving and surprising, and almost never does it feel poorly paced.

There's a ton else to like here; obviously the look of the thing is incredible, both in terms of the gorgeous period production design and cinematography that's equally skilled with showy camera maneuvers and capturing the nuances of the characters' faces as they contemplate their next move. And while it deals with some heavy subject matter (addiction, grief, loneliness), it's at times an incredibly funny show, too*. But in the end I keep coming back to that montage and everything it represents about The Queen's Gambit—a drama that, for all its prestige shininess, wants to be enjoyed even more than it wants to be admired, and one that just flat-out carries you from one scene to the next. Those shows aren't unique by any means, but they don't come along often these days, that's for damn sure. 

(* I'm still laughing at "It's chess. We're all prima donnas." Also that one guy who just goes "shit" when he sees Beth because he knows he's about to lose.)

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