There’s a scene in the new Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit when a Life magazine reporter asks teenage chess prodigy Beth Harmon (played by Anya Taylor-Joy) why the game appeals to her so much. Are the King and Queen pieces stand-ins for the parents she lost? No, she says, it was the board. “It’s an entire board of 64 squares. I feel safe in it. I can control it. I can dominate it, and it’s predictable. So if I get hurt, I only have myself to blame.”
Beth’s obsession with chess isn’t about what she’s lost, it’s about what she can control — the direction of her life and avoidance of pain. And it’s the women in the series who get Beth across the board, square by square, to victory.
Based on the novel by Walter Tevis, The Queen’s Gambit is set in the 1960s, when expectations for what women could and should do were still pretty limited. Nearly all of the female characters lack control over their lives, and are dealing with it in different ways when we meet them. Beth’s mathematically brilliant, mentally ill mother Alice (Chloe Pirrie) commits suicide, leaving Beth to be raised in an orphanage. Her adoptive mother Alma (Marielle Heller), a lonely and sickly housewife, brings Beth home just to have some company. Her first and best friend Jolene (Moses Ingram), uses drugs as an escape from life in the orphanage.
What’s brilliant about their relationships with Beth is that even though they don’t understand the game or her ambition, it doesn’t stop any of them from being there for her. Alice, trying to save the two of them from a dead-end life, indirectly introduces Beth to her first chess coach. Alma becomes her agent and chaperone during Beth’s rise in the lucrative world of competitive chess. Jolene rescues Beth at her lowest emotional point to give her the final perspective, love and support she needs to finish her chess journey.
The miniseries explores the gender constraints of the period in another way, too — by not having Beth care about them. At all. Yes, the world believes that girls like dolls, girls like boys, girls only like chess because of the boys who play it maybe? Beth encounters these expectations everywhere, and to her, it’s not so much a bother as a puzzle. Why does the Life magazine article focus on her being a girl instead of a great chess player? Why can’t she play in this tournament if she’s willing to pay the fee? She doesn’t get mad when men tell her she can’t win (and she’s told this a lot), she just beats them. Ironically, her blasé attitude and fierce competitiveness attracts men anyway — as groupies, teachers, lovers, or sometimes all three. But she’s never more important to them than the game or their own needs, and she’s left disappointed or abandoned again and again.
The women in the cast all deliver truly phenomenal performances. As Beth’s broken-down yet protective adoptive mother Alma, Heller shatters your heart. Pirrie is haunting as Beth’s troubled birth mother, and Ingram’s Jolene is a grounding presence and a delight every time she’s on screen. But it’s Taylor-Joy’s Beth who really makes the show work. She’s reserved, always watching for the next best move, but capable of surprising spouts of happiness and affection. It would have been very easy to play Beth as either a bitch or a victim, but she sidesteps both. You can practically see her passion and fierce intelligence simmering beneath the surface as she ages seamlessly from a socially awkward teen into a confident — and astute — young woman. If she doesn’t pull an Emmy out of this role, someone is going to have to call me and tell me why.
All seven episodes of The Queen’s Gambit are currently available to stream on Netflix.