‘Tis no gamble to binge watch The Queen’s Gambit this weekend

Netflix's love letter to chess is immensely watchable

by Justin Choo

Anya Taylor Joy’s piercing stare inexplicably draws your eye to her cartoon-like features: those larger than life eyes and perfectly puckered lips framed by elegantly crossed hands that cradle her perfectly shaped chin. Yes, this show is all sex appeal. But there is not a single gratuitous sex scene – sensuality seeps from every crevice, dripping from its gorgeously framed shots to its overtly romantic depiction of the timeless game that is chess.

The whole notion of brainy is the new sexy has been bandied about in many shows, but precious few nail it. It’s clear as day that The Queen’s Gambit, featuring the geeky and awkward (gawkward?) Elizabeth Harmon does. Think Lara Pulver’s Irene Adler and then imagine if she had an insecure younger sister in Harmon and we’re off to a good start.

There’s nothing about The Queen’s Gambit that will surprise you. It’s a classic underdog story – albeit this dog happens to be the greatest prodigy to fall out of a car crash unscathed. Every punch thrown is telegraphed so obviously like it’s an amateur WWE choreographer’s first day on the job, but it does not matter one jot, because this is not a show where you need finesse in that department.

And that I suppose, is the essence of The Queen’s Gambit. It’s classic Mary Sue, but it’s smart and sexy (in the sense that the visuals are top-notch gorgeous, please don’t cancel me) enough so you don’t ask about the elephants piling up in the room. I’m just grateful enough that it doesn’t go out of its way to shove an agenda down my throat. But when the topic of misogyny does come up, it’s handled with grace. That doesn’t detract from the fact that Harmon is far from a role model figure because she is more privileged than the average person. But this is not a show where you need accuracy in that department.

Harmon is touted as the most promising chess prodigy in her time, and then some. Trouble is, she’s a girl, and nobody takes her seriously at first. That would soon change, as her knack for projecting Augmented Reality-worthy chess simulations on the ceiling is matched only by her predilection for tranquillizers and BMing (though teabagging might sound more period-correct) her hapless and shell-shocked opponents. The stark reality is that she was never a true underdog. But it’s nobody’s fault but ours if we fail to recognise a mecha Godzilla standing right in front of us.

Perhaps the only thing that differentiates Harmon from a classic Mary Sue is that her flaws are more than capable of stopping her from achieving true greatness, and at least, the story sets Harmon up as being unable to shake off her self-destructive tendencies. That tone gets somewhat undercut by the fact that even in her darkest moments, Harmon is unable to shake off those Vogue-spread looks. She is always perfectly framed by the camera and is imperfectly capable of looking nothing short of gorgeous, even in day-old underwear. She belongs to Milan, not Moscow, and her eyeliner is always impeccable even when it’s not – you’ll get what I mean when you see it. But, this is not a show where you need to overthink these details.

If anything, I blame the fact that the production is so impeccably slick. The wardrobe is so chic; there’s not a single strand of hair out of place, and the camerawork, sublime. Everything is perfectly framed and the lighting spot on perfect – how the hell am I supposed to take her pain seriously? Again, I digress. This is simply proof that stellar production is no longer the sole domain of your usual big-budget Hollywood flicks.

And back to the point: I’m pretty sure that some people will not be pleased by the trivialisation of Harmon’s battle with her self-destructive behaviour and her struggles in a misogynistic society. The Queen’s Gambit doesn’t quite nail the harsh realities of these struggles, but more importantly, we must recognise that it’s not the focal point of the story.

Make no mistake, this mini-series is unequivocally a love letter to chess, first and foremost. For those who know nothing about chess, every reference and gameplay has been meticulously researched and developed with help from legendary chess Grandmaster Garry Kasparov and beloved chess educator Bruce Gandolfini. It might not be apparent at first viewing but if you bother to work it out you’d be moved by the level of reverence and respect that the showrunners displayed for the subject matter. I know nothing about the finer points of chess to comment further; but it seems that no one online has thrown a hissy fit about gross inaccuracies and as far as I’m concerned, the salty tears of toxic Twitter users remain the ultimate litmus test for these things.

The Queen’s Gambit makes it clear that it’s less interested in sending a pointed message about issues such as gender equality and more interested in its tale of a little girl’s love story with the game. And it’s all the stronger for it. By the show’s end, even womenfolk of the ’enemy’ (the Russians, obviously) are throwing their support behind Harmon in her bid to defeat her nemesis, Vasily Borgov, and you’ll certainly find yourself rooting for her wholeheartedly as well. Even better: Borgov isn’t an insufferable misogynist or some convenient plot device to further an agenda, so their rivalry resolves amicably and delivers the message anyway.

As cheesy as it seems, ultimately it is love that finds the way. Her authenticity and her unwavering passion for chess are what draws people to her; ex-rivals and ex-lovers alike who have been moved by her steadfast love for the game and who genuinely want her to succeed, despite her exasperating flaws. It is the premise that sets up a heartwarming prelude to her third and final showdown with Borgov, which drives her to complete her redemption arc.

Indeed, it is the only way to make sense of that final, inexplicable moment as she looks to the ceiling to find an answer to Borgov’s crafty play: her friends’ collective love for chess (and ergo, her) was what opened the door for her epiphany, that life-defining moment where she symbolically breaks free from her inner demons. All too convenient? Ehhh, kind of, yes. Am I stretching a little to justify this? Oooooh, yes. Is this that kind of movie? Ehhh, definitely no. Again, let’s move on.

Harmon’s underdog story is the perfect metaphor for the state of chess right now: an intelligent, ravishing beauty overlooked and underestimated, ahead of its time yet stuck in the past, addicted to its pride of superiority and yet, struggling to find relevancy in the world that does not acknowledge its presence nor its strengths.

At the show’s end, Harmon finds her way to a small gathering of elderly chess enthusiasts and joins them for a game. We are taken full circle, mirroring the first games with her mentor, the janitor Shaibel, and she finally manages a smile. The bitter, confused girl in rags from the first episode is now the resplendent white queen, a lowly pawn that has traversed six arduous tiles (or episodes, if you like) forward to fulfil its destiny. Then, chess was an avenue to a different life. But now, chess is her life. Put your faith in love and all that jazz.

The Queen’s Gambit is the perfect exercise in stunning superficiality with the silver bullet hiding impishly in plain sight all along. Harmon, the girl who almost has it all, is the college kid who finally realises she has to get a job and pay rent and gets on with it as such. But you know what? I wouldn’t have wanted it any different. The mini-series is an awkward, awe-struck love letter written by a teenager to his or her hero at a Star Trek convention. I’m thoroughly awed by the overthought, overproduced hustle with an earnest desire to impress. What a wondrous, feel-good spectacle it is indeed.


The Queen’s Gambit

Feel-good fluff done right. Bottom line: chess is now sexy.