Chess is one of the rare board games that I consider to be perfect. It is accessible to everyone and the games can be as intense or calm as the players dictate. Walking away from The Queen’s Gambit, it wasn’t the chess matches or strategies that engaged but the wonderful coming of age story encapsulated in its central prodigy. The show explores the world of competitive chess while taking an engaging, emotional, and deep story that is sure to be one of the most memorable television shows of 2020.
While 9 year old Beth Harmon grows up in an orphanage, she becomes interested and invested in playing Chess with the facility’s janitor. She quickly demonstrates a knack for the game, easily beating multiple Chess opponents simultaneously while building a name for herself. Throughout this growth however, she faces the typical trials of growing up and comes to terms with loneliness, control, and substance abuse.
The world of competitive chess is made engaging thanks to the expert direction and editing of the show. Each time a piece is moved on the board, or the clock is hit you feel a rush of intensity and adrenaline waiting to see what is next. While the show doesn’t explicitly explain the rules to those unfamiliar with the game, it is an accessibile show for just how tense the matches are. As Beth moves up the ranks, you feel the sheer fear that she could mess up and cost the game, and that kind of engagement for a game as simple as chess needs special praise.
The show rests on the shoulders of Anya Taylor-Joy’s performance who commands the screen in what is arguably her strongest performance to date. She imbues Beth with a sense of confidence and vulnerability, showcasing the young prodigy’s excellent talents while conveying the inner humanity of a young woman. While Beth is a woman of few words, the micro-expressions on Taylor-Joy’s face portray a wide range of emotions from joyfulness to rage. It is commendable that we can read so much about her emotional state without having to be spoon fed the information, showing the show’s brilliant “show don’t tell” mentality. When Beth gets frustrated, you feel that with her and are almost a fly on the wall with her emotional journey.
Beth has an excellent character arc, undergoing many trials and roadblocks that grow her over the course of 7 episodes. Her rise to being the best Chess player is certainly investing in its own right, but observing her losses provides a far more interesting character study. Seeing how she handles losing a Chess match is a brilliant examination of the loss of control she feels over her life, sending her to dark places that are intriguing to watch. Her interactions with the supporting characters that challenge her mentally and emotionally showcase the loneliness she feels and fear of conforming to the 1960’s view on women. Again, we are never shoved this information down our throats but can subtly watch the natural evolution she undertakes as she gets better in Chess but also as she matures from teenager into an adult.
While Beth does have to handle an increasingly male dominated society, the social subtext of feminism is managed with grace and eloquence. Men try to grab her bags when she enters a hotel, her adoptive mother yearns to have romantic encounters, and people consistently comment on her looks. There are instances where her being a woman in the Chess community is mentioned and explained, but they are far and few between where we actually get to see the implications rather than being told them. It makes the show feel more organic and alive, rather than trying to satisfy an agenda.
The supporting cast of characters leave a little bit more to be desired at times, but are still great foils to Beth’s growth. Her adoptive mother at first seems like she is in it for the money but you do see a love and appreciation between them that is endearing to watch. While I wished for more from that relationship and examination of the mother’s character in general, the result ends up showcasing Beth in a new light which is definitely appreciated. The interactions she has with other members of the Chess community, particularly Harry Beltik and Benny Watts serve to challenge Beth in her beliefs and accelerate her character development. Again, while these relationships may come off as a bit one-note or cliche at times, it is all in service to grant an excellent growth for Beth.
The one thing that did disappoint me about the show is one of the deep questions that is asked but never actually given a satisfying answer. Without spoiling anything, several key characters mention Beth’s obsession with Chess and the potential implications that has on her growth. While I did feel the show does answer part of the question, it is still something that I don’t feel truly satisfied on, and with this only being a limited miniseries there is no season 2 to help flesh out those answers.
Gratefully, it didn’t take away from my overall enjoyment of this excellently written, acted, and directed show. Anya Taylor-Joy captivates the audience and carries the weight of a young gril growing up with a gift but many other things weighing her down. It’s a brilliant examination of the coming of age experience while showcasing the world of competitive Chess. This show is definitely one to check and a quick watch as well. I anticipate a lot of awards discussion for this miniseries in the months to come.