Thanks to Max Weiss, editor-in-chief of Baltimore magazine and long-time critic of film, for taking on “The Queen’s Gambit,” not so much to review it — that has been done aplenty elsewhere — but to explain why it’s a hit. When a crusty, old fishing friend from Florida told me he had binged all seven episodes on Netflix, it confirmed the popularity — indeed, the transcendence — of the miniseries, perhaps like no other of recent vintage. Weiss sets out to explain how “a show about chess, no less—that cerebral and rarefied pastime— [became] the most buzzed about series of the year.” You can read Max’s essay here.
I just want to add a thought that occured well after I finished watching (and weeping a bit).
I loved everything about “The Queen’s Gambit,” from the performances of its star, Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon to the excellent supporting cast (including what Weiss cleverly calls Harmon’s “Scooby Gang”) to the period clothing and sets — for lighting alone the series deserves awards — to its perfect pace and smart narrative structure. If you did not know the story came from a 1980s novel of the same title, you might think you were watching a beautifully realized biopic of a chess genius you never heard about.
But that’s what I’m getting at: Nothing like that ever came close to happening in real life during the Cold War 1960s. “The Queen’s Gambit” is a feminist fantasy. Beth Harmon is a superhero hurled back in time and dressed like a Carnaby Street model. Her “Scooby Gang” of male friends are far more enlightened and encouraging than most young men would have been in 1967. Her adoptive mother (played by Marielle Heller) is trapped in suburban housewife hell, and yet Beth suffers from none of the stifling, smothering sexism of the era. When you consider what the reality for women was in that time and place — and in the male-dominated world of chess — you can end up in a pretty disappointed state. Many viewers might have wondered if there had been a female Bobby Fischer in the time of Bobby Fischer, but, hey, that’s what Google’s for, right?
Perhaps this makes no difference to absolutely no one. But that’s my reflection on “The Queen’s Gambit.” The series had such a powerful biopic aesthetic — unlike the quirky historic fantasies of Quentin Tarantino (“Inglourious Basterds,” “Django Unchained”) — I felt a little deceived by it, and I knew TQG was based on a novel.
Still, I will watch “The Queen’s Gambit” again and I’ll tell friends it’s the best thing on Netflix.
Plus, it made me get the chess board out for the first time in forever. Unfortunately, two of my wooden pieces — the white queen and one of her pawns — appears to have been chewed by a puppy at some point, and will need to be replaced.