Sports movies and dramas usually have a simple format, kicking off with an underdog who works their way to the top through hard practice and building up to a showdown with the toughest opponent, then ultimately winning in the end. The “Rocky” formula has been played out countless times, regardless of the sport. Ultimately what makes each sports drama unique however, is the style and spice added into the story to make an engaging watch. “The Queen’s Gambit” plays out exactly like a sports drama, but it is captivating and alluring every step of the way.
Released Oct. 23, Netflix’s “The Queen’s Gambit” chronicles a fictional chess grandmaster from the 60s, who works her way up to beat the best of the best, dealing with an addiction to drugs along the way. Beth Harmon, played marvelously by Anya Taylor-Joy, starts her story at an orphanage, where she spends most of her formative years learning chess from Mr. Shaibel, the custodian. When the children are given daily dosages of sedative drugs, she waits until the nighttime to take them, using their hallucinogenic effects to her advantage to play out chess games in her mind.
While the drugs allow her to improve her chess skills, they also lead her down the dark and harrowing path of addiction. In her teens she gets adopted by a suburban family, and with her newfound freedom she begins entering chess tournaments, with easier access to the drugs she needs. Bullied in her new school and stuck with an adopted mother who struggles with depression and alcohol as well, it becomes clear that chess and her green pills are the only thing that make her feel in control. The chess board becomes the only place she can control the outcome when her personal life goes south.
Amongst the other predominantly male chess players, she never feels out of place as her focus remains solely on the game. In this way, “The Queen’s Gambit” delivers on empowerment through a way that contributes to Beth’s character. She does not wish to be seen as anything other than a chess prodigy and is understandably frustrated when both men and women bring up the fact that she is the only woman chess player in the room.
Throughout the seven episodes, the limited series shows just how detached from the normal world Beth is, delving into the world of chess players and the countless tournaments they compete in. Each player is so engrossed and dedicated to chess, that their priorities simply lie in beating their opponents and reviewing their previous games. In this way, the show manages to overcome the arduous task of making chess interesting and does so with astonishing ease. The chess matches become as engaging as the boxing matches of the “Rocky” franchise, the baseball games in “A League of Their Own” and the hockey games in “Miracle.”
With a strong green and pink tint, the show has a visual style that is as captivating as its story. The set design and fashion take from the best of the sixties and delivers a visually appealing experience as well. While I was never a fan of sports dramas, “The Queen’s Gambit” manages to stand out, and places itself amongst Netflix’s best watches this year.