The Queen’s Gambit
A Netflix Series (2020)
Posted December 15, 2020
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
--- TS Elliot
Beth is 9 when she comes upon Mr. Shaibel in the basement of the orphanage, her “home” after her mother, in despair, drives her car headlong into an oncoming truck. Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp) is the school’s custodian, an improbable but thoroughly credible shepherd in Beth’s early life, who sits before a chessboard in the dim of their collective lives.
In seven episodes, each an hour or so, we viewers — like bystanders at Chess Tournaments — witness Beth Harmon’s (Anya Taylor-Joy) passages from girl to woman; from chess amateur to world champion; and from doubt and pain to discovering who she and the joy of the game (that she had lost in the fog of competition, celebrity, pills, and alcohol).
The era is the 1960s. The places are states like Kentucky, Ohio, Nevada, and New York. Until the place is Moscow, the Mecca of the chess world. The people are, after Mr. Shaibel, principally young men, especially the plain, devoted, Harry Beltik (Harry Melling, yes, Harry Potter’s Dudley Durley) and the roguish, Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), co-journeyers in playing competitive chess and growing up. Except for Jolene (Moses Ingram, 2019 Yale grad catapulting to fame), a former, fellow student at the orphanage, a "sister" with a huge '60s Afro, who accompanies and supports Beth through the last rites of her passage (at least for Season 1).
Who could be mesmerized by the braininess of chess, its square board divided into 64 individual squares, and all but silence, punctuated by the clack of the two-faced clock astride the board and its players that announces each move? You! And 62 million viewers in its first four weeks alone, making it the most popular "limited series” in the battalion of Netflix's streaming videos.
Huh? What is going on here?
It is not only Beth’s radiant, removed beauty and interior turmoil. Or her "rags to riches," trauma rooted character. It is not only the brilliance and novelty of the writing and directing by Scott Frank (twice an Oscar nominee for Best Adapted Screenplays, Out of Sight and Logan. So, you ask, what is it?
Remember Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz? Desperate to find a life eons away from Kansas? The Yellow Brick Road. Her pals along the way, Scarecrow, The Lion, and The Tin Man. The ersatz Wizard, instrumental to finding her soul, however inadvertently. Where music served to elevate our experience, as the silence did in The Queen’s Gambit. And, central to our intimacy with Dorothy (and Beth), the all-so-human person seeking to make a life worth living, imbued with the elements of every-day life that make for feeling alive: relationships, purpose, and well-earned contribution to our fellow travelers during our ever so transient moment on earth.
If you think this is easy to do, in writing, film, and every other art form, just try. Every step, believe me, is wonderful and arduous. As the Spanish saying goes, “Se hace camino al andar (We make the road by walking it).”
Your next move, have you not yet made it, is to move your Queen, to seize the day.
Dr. Sederer is a psychiatrist, public health doctor, and writer. His new book, Ink-Stained for Life (#13), is 14 stories from his youth in NYC.