Beth Harmon is at her first chess tournament. It’s 1960s Kentucky, and she’s playing the incumbent for the title of state champion. She’s usually composed, but today her game is off: She’s fidgety and her shellacked orange bob is frizzy. When it’s her move she runs to the bathroom. “Come on you ugly piece of trash. You can beat that fucker,” she hisses at her reflection. Then, she dry swallows a handful of pills. When she returns her face is a glassy mask, and she wins in a handful of moves. She’s only 15.
It’s a striking scene from Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit, and one of the many that gives a game of chess the kind of tension usually reserved for a bomb-defusing sequence. In the show, chess holds a mystique; a sexiness that’s usually conferred upon something like poker. It also does something we rarely see onscreen: places a woman at the ugly center of a story about the cost of genius.
But how does it make this infamously dull activity so sexy? Chiefly through Anya Taylor-Joy’s protuberant eyes, which take up most of her face and in which she can express a myriad of emotions — fear, rage, and seduction — while hardly moving anything else. The actress (Emma, Split, The Witch) embodies Beth, the orphan and chess prodigy at the center of this story, entirely. She gives the character a distinctive physicality. It’s almost erotic how she caresses a chess piece before moving it; there’s an intensity to the way she studies opponents, as if she’s trying to melt their faces off.
Beth gets two things from the Kentucky orphanage she’s raised in: a drug addiction to the tranquilizers (“vitamins”) used in 1960s orphanages to make children compliant and an obsession with chess, taught to her by the janitor, a bearish Bill Camp. Beth’s story is a confluence of these two things: her domination of the global chess circuit and her substance abuse, the latter of which is not encouraged — but also not suppressed — by the alcoholic housewife (Marielle Heller) that adopts her.
And this is the other way chess gets to be so sexy in The Queen’s Gambit: the colorful, compelling characters that play it. Beth isn’t really likable, but when she sits down to play a game of chess, you can’t look away. Will her drug-manufactured sangfroid contain the anxiety bubbling just beneath?Beyond her, other dramas swirl. The severity of her mother’s substance abuse rivals her own, and Heller is excellent as an ennui-filled housewife, a human vortex of unfulfilled potential. And The Queen’s Gambit is hot outside of chess, courtesy of Beth’s run-ins with Townes, a handsome writer played by Jacob Fortune-Lloyd. Another big treat is Thomas Brodie-Sangster (of Love Actually fame), who has a brilliant turn as a cowboy-hat-wearing chess pirate.
The peacocking men that surround Beth means that the show has a feminist message, but that’s not why it’s worth watching. Rather, it’s the fact that Beth gets to be the neurotic, drug-addicted genius around which the story revolves. It’s not entirely new for a woman to get to be the center of a story about the pursuit of excellence, but it’s rare enough to make The Queen’s Gambit a thrilling watch.