Five years ago, it may have been controversial to say that TV and streaming programs would be the leaders in screen entertainment. In 2020, that is clearly the inevitable future of movies and TV. Even though great, high-caliber TV has been a common thing since at least the early 2000s, the modern audience is inclined to be more obsessed with binging and discussing streaming programs than they are movies released in theaters. My main qualm with these has been the necessary break in story at the hour cut-off. Some shows have benefitted from excellent writing to help mitigate the loss of flow and tension from these cuts, but few have impressed me as much as The Queen’s Gambit. This simple, albeit thematically complex story of a young chess prodigy in the 60s, has mastered the concept of pacing the miniseries, having been formed as more of an extended seven-hour movie than pigeon-holed into standard episodic format.
Based on the best-selling 1983 novel, The Queen’s Gambit chronologically shows the life of Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy), the cunning and brilliant chess player who rose from constrained orphan once belonging to a troubled mother, to a world-class celebrity and heroine. Her journey is far from easy though, as early addictions to medications and a constant state of feeling loss fuel an addiction and strategic reliance on liquor and drugs. It is a dark story, but not without some moments of levity and relief as Beth cleverly conquers her challengers. This doesn’t seem like a fully original story, as I felt like I’d seen parts of its narrative DNA in other movies and shows, but the comprehensive final product feels particularly fresh. Part of this show’s success is undoubtedly due to Anya Taylor-Joy’s performance as Beth. I can’t say her acting is particularly outstanding, but she perfectly nails the attitude of a hyper-introvert with big ideas. You can see into her mind very effectively, despite her highly guarding her emotions. The show is very self-aware of chess not being a high-paced game, but nonetheless succeeds immensely in turning the matches into high-stakes battles of whit, forcing the audience to feel the tensions of each moment. It is a satisfying experience that I think will win over even the most casual show-watchers without being pretentious.
The Queen’s Gambit takes place over a mere seven episodes, but rather than feeling like a reduced TV-show, it was undoubtedly written as a movie that has decided to take necessary and valuable time to develop its troubled protagonist. Each episode breaks not feeling like a finale, but rather as a simple good place to stop and set up a solid narrative moment to pick up at. Mitigating the effects of giving each episode its own “finale” somehow gives the whole thing a greater feeling of continuity. I can see this format easily being used for many future adaptations and original stories of complex characters. Movies often seem to take a gamble on approaching their protagonists and antagonists when attempting to honestly communicate the depths of their personas. The Queen’s Gambit has set a clear precedence for a safe, yet effective and high quality means of accomplishing this goal. Given its massive audience and critical praise, now being one of the biggest shows on Netflix despite not being tied to a property or cinematic universe, I think we’ll be seeing many more of these “extended films” in the future. 8.2/10