Checkmate: Why The Queen’s Gambit Scored a Win

Words by Louise Oliphant


Upon its release back in October 2020, the seven-part mini-series The Queen’s Gambit quickly became Netflix’s unexpected hit of the year. Writer and director Scott Frank’s adaption of the 1983 novel of the same name teamed a young female chess prodigy with images of style, sex and sass, leaving audiences immersed in a pleasurable viewing experience. With this unlikely match of the seemingly mundane moving of chess pieces, with a highly optimistic, fearless, and not forgetting fashionable female lead, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, a complex but nonetheless pleasing TV series provided the nation with a newfound appreciation that would have otherwise been left unwatched on the Netflix homepage.


Beth Harmon, our respected chess master, entered our screens as a small-orphaned girl with a captivating presence. Harmon’s inexorable rise to chess stardom, coupled with her ability to introvertly stand out, creates a likability that cannot be ignored. Yet something wider, that can be said for most watchers as the reason behind such attraction, is the feminist within. The Queen’s Gambit advocates for a woman’s triumph with sophistication and historical awareness. Set in the 1970s at the peak of the woman’s movement, the show reflects not just the strive for equality women advocated for back then, but also a more individual struggle still relevant today. To enter a man’s world as Beth Herman did, not just entering but dominating the stiff, masculine, heterosexual culture of the chessboard, sparks an inner sense of pride for females alike. Harmon is unchallenged by her gender, in a way where a glass ceiling seems irrelevant, perhaps not even there; male competitors and tournament directors doubt her ability or make hindrance to her independence, but, if anything, this heartens Beth’s drive. Fiery, sexy and unstoppable, how we see Beth Harmon is how we all wish to be seen. This alone could be what makes this programme so unmissable.


[Image: The New Yorker, December 2020]


Still, her sensually stimulating demeanour and elegant poise would not be the same without the stylistic 70’s aesthetic that envelopes all visual elements throughout. While the first few episodes reflect a matured rendition of a classic novel, it goes without saying that, as Herman embarks into womanhood, an interest in high-class glamour and high-end fashion becomes an unmissable aspect of what makes this a cave for the ever-consumerist Netflix spectator. Where Emily in Paris, Bridgeton and Gossip Girl are all further examples that foreground fashion trends and designer brands, no matter the decade, the interplay of fashion and scenic aesthetics seem to replicate ‘Instagrammable’ content, displacing the temporal to being entirely up to date. With influencer culture on the rise, pleasurable aesthetics, whether it be through clothing, interior design or wallpaper, render colour and pattern in coordination. The glamour lies, not just in Beth’s image, but in her lifestyle; her tournament victories, where the next cash prize awaits in easy reach, throw Harmon and her adoptive mother Alma (played by a wonderful Marielle Heller) into a life of luxury. Cigarettes, martinis, private planes and hotel suites, the life a young-orphaned child could have only dreamed of, right? However, these images of beauty cleverly extract from the complications of darker goings-on. As Jane Hu writes in Vulture magazine, “everything potentially traumatizing or problematic gets actively taken up as fodder for beauty”. This applies to the ever-evolving wardrobe of Beth Hermonas previously notedwhere, during dramatic episodes of struggle, addiction and the backlash of fame, the chess Queen remains captivatingly chic.


This is where a level of escapism enters the programme. With its incessant atmosphere of optimism, confidence and pride within situations that many of us would consider adversary, The Queen’s Gambit brings an elevation of mood. Described as “serene TV when we needed it most” we cannot ignore the social bombardment of unease, fear and confinement the Covid-19 pandemic has brought us. Where Beth Harmon states “I feel safe in it. I can control it. I can dominate it,” referencing the parameters of the chess game, an audience cannot help but yearn for a similar feeling. As such an antithesis to the realities of the world we live in, Harmon’s innate mindfulness is what we needed most. Each character, with opportunities to be villainous as endless other programmes have led us to believe, instead displays acts of kindness and principled good. For example, the first episode, framing an old janitor and young girl with an invitation of playing chess in an orphanage basement, casts a set-up indicative of danger. Instead, this friendship formulates over a common love for chess, with nothing but love and admiration for the comprehendible skill this young girl has. A surprising route of warmth, kindness and success within The Queen’s Gambit series led to an indulgently satisfying ending.