The series seems something of an unlikely star. After all, chess is hardly the American pastime. For most of us, a show about a board game seems an improbable venue for riveting action. And yet! Against the odds — kind of like its protagonist, Beth Harmon (played by Isla Johnston, then Anya Taylor-Joy) — this show is the perfect escapist entertainment for right now.
“The Queen’s Gambit,” based on a 1983 novel by Walter Tevis, follows Harmon, a Kentucky orphan, and her rise as a chess prodigy in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s a dynamic character study with the sweeping emotional arc of a sports movie, set in an era in which the cultural deck is stacked against its heroine. (Tevis is also the author of “The Hustler” and “The Color of Money,” which were adapted into the classic Paul Newman pool films, so you know from the beginning you’re in good hands, source-wise.)
I’m sure there are readers who, even at this point in the show’s firestorm of popularity, are unconvinced a show about chess could possibly be riveting. But they haven’t seen the way the camera films Taylor-Joy’s game play, chin propped on her hand, her otherworldly-large eyes gazing at her opponent with just a hint of flirtiness. She doesn’t need to flirt; she’s legitimately better than nearly every guy she sits down across from (with the exception of the ominous, inscrutable Russian grandmaster Vasily Borgov, played with elegance by Marcin Dorocinski). She just enjoys the performance of it.
Also, chess is a game of intellect. Remember intellect? In a world where every news development seems more implausible than the last, there is something infinitely reassuring in retreating to a series about a cerebral game, in which (this is not spoiling anything, I think) nobody cheats. A loss is followed by a handshake, and the boys and men who are vanquished by Beth are, to varying degrees, impressed with her prowess even in their defeat. (One concession speech from a Russian competitor pulls particularly hard on the tear ducts.)
In addition to all of this, “The Queen’s Gambit” is also giving us something else we’ve been sorely lacking: Literal and functional escapism. As Beth’s star rises on the chess circuit, she attends chess competitions in increasingly glamorous locales — 1960s Las Vegas is pretty fabulous, but it pales in comparison to her trips to Paris and Moscow. Remember trips? And hotel rooms? Maybe few of us have been to Russia, but I think we can all wax nostalgic about what it was like to arrive in an exciting new place.
The show’s high-budget, sumptuous production design by Uli Hanisch (“Babylon Berlin”) serves up major flashbacks to “Mad Men,” one of the last real Event TV series of the medium’s so-called Golden Age. But the narrative here, from creators Scott Frank (who directed “Godless”) and Allan Scott, is an upbeat twist on “Mad Men’s” ability to knowingly wallow in the sexism and racism of the era.
Like the complicated leads of that show, Beth Harmon is wrestling with demons — alcohol and pill addiction, and the trauma of her childhood. But her singular point of view as a chess genius, combined with her detachment from the social niceties expected of women, makes her a superhuman of sorts. She sails through one situation after another in which you fear she’ll be squashed or damaged by the predations of the countless men who assume she won’t amount to anything, or doesn’t deserve to.
And she leans into the physicality of Beth’s evolution from awkward schoolgirl with badly bobbed hair to fashion-forward young woman, her wide-set eyes always seeming to be seeing more dimensions than the people around her.
She’s surrounded by an equally talented supporting cast, notably and most surprisingly director Marielle Heller (“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”) as Beth’s adoptive mother Alma, whose own addictions don’t stop her from being a rare source of nurturing kindness in Beth’s world. Moses Ingram, as Beth’s orphanage BFF Jolene, is also excellent, if underused.
The deliciousness of Beth’s upward, if wobbly, trajectory isn’t just in her ability to transcend the haters; it’s also that she leaves a crowd of male admirers in her wake. At each step of her ascendance in the chess world, she’s confronted with another doubting sneer from a dorky guy convinced she’s out of her league.
One by one, the biggest names in the game come around, and they’re a delightfully quirky bunch: Harry (Harry Melling), the Kentucky chess champ who’s not sure he’s cut out for the long haul but knows Beth is; Townes (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd), the smoldering journalist who turns Beth’s head; Benny (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), the trench-coated, pencil-stached bad boy, who recognizes Beth’s swagger and the emotional voids it covers up. (The swagger of the ’60s chess world, more broadly, is another thing to love about this show. I don’t know how much is sourced and how much conjecture, but what a fantastic subculture deep dive.)
The pill dependence — hardly a foreign concept today — adds to the drama of wondering whether Beth will pull out of what seems, at a certain point, to be an unsustainable rocket ride. But the way Beth experiences addiction is more in line with what we usually expect from male characters, as she bulls her way through countless situations with a cloudy head and manages to make it all seem fabulous — up to a point. It’s less about internalized self-destruction — the more usual female approach in these sorts of plot lines — and more about riding the high as long as you can. The way her drug dependence is ultimately dealt with manages to be humanizing without being humiliating; the show neatly sidesteps the sort of Puritanical comeuppance we so often get from addiction plotlines.
After nearly a year camped out in our own living rooms, “The Queen’s Gambit” has arrived to rescue us from cabin fever. I could give you ten more reasons why this show is hitting us all right, but I think the simplest is that it’s an alternate universe in which being smart is glamorous and people behave honorably. I’d like to spend more time there, so here’s hoping calls for a second season might become a reality.