From the opening scenes of Godless showrunner Scott Frank’s chess prodigy drama, Beth (Anya Taylor-Joy) is shown with an appetite for self-destruction. Woken in the bath by banging on the door moments before the biggest match of her rapidly rising career, she swears, swallows two turquoise pills, and minutes later faces her opponent under a sea of eyes.
You’d think that this chaotic opener would be enough to establish the 1960s-set The Queen’s Gambit as a new chapter in the punk period drama cannon. It’s done wonders for the royals (see The Favourite, Catherine The Great) and literary icons (Colette, Dickinson), so why not inject a little anarchy into the world of professional chess?
Only the anarchy will have to wait. The few scenes of self-inflicted mayhem that we first witness is a fleeting placeholder for things to come, before a lengthy detour into a young Beth’s genesis as both a prestigious chess player and an addict. The shift in narrative works to the show’s disadvantage. In an effort to flesh out the season’s sprawling, near-seven-hour runtime, a meandering, sedated spell that Beth spends in an orphanage not only snuffs out the show’s initial spark, but could have been outlined in half the time.
In spite of Taylor-Joy’s persistent star power, when she returns further into the second episode you’d be forgiven for a dwindling curiosity as to how she wound up in the bath. It’s only when the relationship shifts between Beth and her adoptive mother (played with fragile charm by filmmaker and actor Marielle Heller), that the show finally begins to warm up.
As Beth’s status skyrockets the game opens up to the viewer as well, with talk of trades, attacks and counter-threats between the prodigy and an all-male line-up of opponents adding weight to the moving pieces. The opponents become more interesting also, notably fellow prodigy Benny, played by a rakish Thomas Brodie-Sangster, who carries a knife and dresses like a Las Vegas magician.
Beth’s experiences as an addict and a woman in the world of chess may be new ground for television, but Frank and co-creator Allan Scott do little to address evolving attitudes around such themes, focusing instead on a likeable lead. Taylor-Joy embodies the chic, placid poster girl effortlessly with her orb-like eyes and swan-like posture. As an addict however she’s still shown to be glamorous, moving lucidly around kitsch interiors while drinking from a bottle as if in a music video.
Netflix are visibly invested in the first (and possibly only) season of The Queen’s Gambit. In a bid to externalise the thrills of this very insular game they’ve adorned the tournament with lavish production design and Gabriele Binder’s elegant costumes, while slick CGI shows Beth’s inner workings on the ceiling. Yet all its extravagant set pieces and seductive needle drops only dull the heart of the show. It ties up a young woman’s struggles in a chic pussybow and settles on a paint-by-numbers journey of redemption, when something messier with a raw punk spirit would’ve done a better job.
‘The Queen’s Gambit’ is Streaming on Netflix now