Review: The Queen’s Gambit

Note: This review is only about the TV Series. I haven’t read the book and currently don’t intend to.

I liked this TV series. I’m a little upset that I did.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to like in the series. Anya Taylor-Joy plays the role of Elizabeth Harmon beautifully, with a subtlety of expression and nuance of character far more mature than many older actors. The filmography, likewise, is intoxicating, well shot, full of dream-like color. The music suits the period and theme while providing a nostalgia for those who lived through the 60’s or, like K, who were raised on the songs of the era.

More than anything, the series builds an ethereal, mystical view of chess, depicting the tension in every move, the complexity of possibilities, the focus and forethought of the players as well as their emotional investment in one seamless package that would entice anyone to take up the game. I think that it’s this mystique that made the show so enjoyable for me.

But, at the same time, I found the storytelling to be disappointing. The show plods along from plot point to plot point in formulaic structure. Following genre and convention in the structuring of a story isn’t a bad thing–formal structures in writing have been adopted because they work, and in the commercial setting of TV shows and filmmaking, not following recognizable structure may be fatal to ever getting a first read of your work by someone with the authority to make a script a full production.

The Queen’s Gambit follows structure dutifully, though, dispassionately, focused on going through the proper motions than making them mean something. It is the difference between the dancer who is technically proficient and the one whose motions tell you a story that stirs the soul. If we’re going to be specific, the problem is that Elizabeth Harmon’s lows are never low enough. Without giving too much away, she suffers some significant obstacles in her path–some of them truly tragic–and yet we’re never given enough time with any of them to let them sink in, nor are we ever shown them affecting Beth in a deep (or even realistic) way.

Beth’s most significant flaws magically heal themselves in time for the climax. Those people she’s spent time using and then pushing away all return to loyal serve her in her time of need, with no real explanation for the change of heart. What should have been a central struggle for the character–her addiction to barbiturates and alcohol–is simply set aside when the time is right. Only Taylor-Joy’s face gives us any indication of a struggle over giving up the addiction–the script gives us about 5 seconds of film to turn around a character problem developed over episodes of the series. We’re given multiple instances of Beth indulging in her addiction, but only the flipping of a switch in being rid of it.

That’s why I feel bad about enjoying the series. The writing was passable for the most part, but sorely lacking in some of the most important aspects of story. When the climax is a foregone conclusion, you lose the drama, the catharsis, that causes us to immerse ourselves in story in the first place.

What we are left with is not a period piece or a character study, not a bildungsroman or hero’s journey, but a story about chess. The characters are merely present to show us the details–social, technical, emotional–of the game. They become pawns themselves in the writer’s moves, shadowing a game someone else played to perfection a long time ago. Pieces moving across a ceiling with dreamlike precision.

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