In this age of high quality Television, it’s becoming harder for filmmakers to surprise audiences. The shows that kicked off this craze stood out because they had very little competition, but there is a wealth of choice now. Things that were groundbreaking years ago might seem typical now. One aspect of TV that has benefited the most (but has been exercised the least) since the TV boom is the miniseries. Showrunners are so intent on telling stories with multiple seasons that they forget how effective a powerful miniseries can be. HBO’s Band of Brothers (2001) is nearly 20 years old and yet it’s mere 10 episode run is still one of the greatest and most beloved shows of all time. Let’s not forget Chernobyl (2019), which took the world by storm with only five episodes. Sure, having to come up with new single seasons may not be the greatest business model, but you can’t deny the artistic results. One just needs to look at Scott Frank and Allan Scott’s The Queen’s Gambit (2020).
Based on Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel of the same name, The Queen’s Gambit tells the fictional life story of Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy). It begins in the mid-1950s after Beth is sent to an orphanage following the death of her mother. The socially awkward Beth is befriended by fellow orphan Jolene (Moses Ingram), who informs her that the tranquillising pills they are made to take by the orderlies can be used to trip out. These pills make Beth incredibly focused, putting her into a higher plane of thinking far beyond her peers. Meanwhile, Beth meets the janitor Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp), who teaches her how to play chess. She takes to the game very quickly, especially after using excessive amounts of pills. As she grows up she becomes a global chess sensation, but her ambitious journey to become a Grandmaster puts her on a self-destructive path, forcing her to struggle with her vices.
What sticks out most prominently is the monumental strength of the storytelling. Granted, once you get a sense of what the narrative arc is, it’s not hard to guess how it ends, but the road to the climax is rife with refreshing twists, clever subversions and unexpected thematic depth. It doesn’t really matter that we can picture the ending because the journey there is appropriate yet somehow surprising. At nearly every turn, easily recognisable narrative set-ups are smartly and subtly upended, leading to important story turns that are more interesting than what was in our head. It’s almost like the show creator/screenwriter Scott Frank is playing chess with the viewer and winning every move. Par for the course from the writer of Out of Sight (1998) and Logan (2017).
Fitting over 10 years worth of story into one seven episode series isn’t easy, as it may end up feeling incredibly rushed. Amazingly, The Queen’s Gambit has no such issues, covering all that ground with a delicate yet confident pace. It’s not afraid to take its time, lingering on significant moments for longer than we’d usually expect. However, it never feels slow or meandering, as the spotlighted sequences add so much depth to the characters, while also providing the necessary context for the next time jump. This careful construction allows the series to feel both quietly methodical and highly engaging at the same time, knowing exactly when to slow things down and when to speed things up. It’s an impressive balancing act which somehow results in it being more layered than most dramas and more exciting than most thrillers.
You’ve got to be wondering how on earth a show about chess can be considered exciting, but The Queen’s Gambit is a masterclass in anticipation and tension. It’s not the kind of tension you’d see in a cop thriller or a horror, but it does successfully force the viewer to want to see what comes next. This is achieved by putting us into the minds of these master chess players, making us feel the anticipation they feel in every game. The visual flourishes are key to this achievement. We experience their thought processes in clever and cinematically striking ways which practically put us in their shoes. We may not be Grandmasters, but you certainly feel like one when the characters are in the thick of battle. These visual elements are rarely recycled, as the show constantly delivers new and exciting ways to communicate the action.
At it’s core, The Queen’s Gambit is a simple character study, but it still has more thematic layers than other more fleshed out shows. Themes of respect, love, ambition and addiction are all played off of each other brilliantly, resulting in an emotionally and psychologically rich experience. You might be thinking that juggling too many complicated ideas could make the show feel crowded, but these points of analysis intelligently compliment each other. By funnelling these complexities into a single character arc, the viewer is able to easily understand, feel and appreciate the narrative’s staggering depth. It has so many different things to say, yet somehow it all cleanly comes together to tell a complete and cohesive story.
The impeccable craftsmanship and near perfect writing could’ve kept the show in high regard all on their own, but happily the magnetic performance of Anya Taylor-Joy elevates it even higher. Taylor-Joy has proven herself time and time again in such hits as The Witch (2015), Split (2016), Peaky Blinders (2013 – Current) and Emma (2019), but that doesn’t stop her from giving 110% here. She successfully makes us believe in Beth Harmon’s transform over the course of years, conveying a sense of maturation which actors double her age rarely display. Additionally, Taylor-Joy is able to express an entire spectrum of psychological emotions without going over the top, making Beth an incredibly real and human character. She is the star of the show, and something will have gone badly wrong if she’s not considered for an Emmy come awards time.
A show which goes on for years can give audiences many memorable and original episodes, but there will be just as many forgettable and clichéd ones. By contrast, a great miniseries can get the point and feel rich with detail at the same time. The Queen’s Gambit is proof of the heights a contained miniseries can reach. The smart writing, engaging direction, charming performances and original storytelling makes The Queen’s Gambit the most impressive and memorable show of the year. Not bad for a show with a measly seven episodes.
Best way to watch it: With your eyes glued to the screen (which they will be).