A TV show about chess. Why were we so obsessed?
I binged this show in a handful of days. MESMERIZED TO TEARS. This was one of the few series that reminds me how desperately passionate I am about storytelling. Here are my authorly reasons why this series was so captivating. (lite spoilers)
1. They take their time in a meaningful way
Personally, as a writer I’m terrible at this, so I was just in AWE of how flawlessly they pulled this off. It was really a genius move to make a limited series rather than a full movie. They slowed everything down to fully develop the story and the characters throughout the episodes, but it didn’t FEEL slow. And that’s because each shot and scene were purposeful toward the narrative.
You don’t have any of that heavy misplaced exposition. You don’t hear some character droning on about how “Margret from high school became a sad alcoholic.” The MC runs into Margret at the store and hears the liquor bottles clink under the baby carriage. And that’s it. It’s never explicitly said. But we know exactly what it means. Proving that YES, you can pull off show vs tell in a cinematic sense.
The Queen’s Gambit is FULL of this brilliant storytelling. Taking time to really show what the other characters are thinking and feeling without saying it. I think the most capital example is the way the Borgov raises his eyebrows when Beth resigns her Paris game in tears. That expression alone. That .04 seconds of screen time and YOU KNOW. You know that character is not the ruthless Soviet antagonist. You know Borgov is a sympathetic man who completely understands Beth. That shot perfectly sets up his warm reaction toward her in the end. (Which made me bawl by the way thank you very much) Such dynamic characters! LET’S TALK ABOUT THAT!
2. The characters are real
Be honest… did you or did you not Google whether Beth Harmon was a real person? BECAUSE IT FELT LIKE A TRUE STORY. If you told me it was a true story, I wouldn’t have flinched! And not just Beth but each character is so carefully developed and detailed with their own voices and experiences. They’re not just pegs of a stool holding up the protagonist, any ONE of them could have had a compelling series themselves.
I never stop complaining about “the generic good-looking cast” that so many movies dish out. It makes the whole movie seem like a catalog ad and not a believable set of people. So I really appreciated that they let the people LOOK real. Even Beth, who in the show is called “pretty” many times, and yeah she is, but in a REAL kind of way. Like someone you would sit across from at the airport. Not a matte photo of a model at a beach shoot.
Another thing I noticed, is they would introduce a seemingly small character and then bring them back a few episodes later. This happened over and over again! Which said one thing to me… this writer loved their characters. This writer loved their characters so much that they had to bring them back and add more and more details. Their crooked teeth. The knife they carry. The full detailed life they had since they last saw Beth. I fell in love with these characters because the creators loved them. And they were actual meaningful driving forces in the protagonists life.
3. The simplicity
I just imagine the original author pitching the novel like:
Tevis: Okay, so there’s this orphan…
Tevis: And she’s really good at chess.
Tevis: Like… super good.
Publisher: … … Can she at least have an addiction of some sort?
Tevis: Yeah, probably. But it’s mostly that she’s really good at chess.
(On my TBD list)
I have never been SO invested in chess in all my life. I never thought I would be on the edge of my seat watching so many chess matches. Caring SO MUCH whether or not this character was going to win. And that’s it! I do think the addiction aspect gave Beth a nice arc and made a clear self-antagonist… but really I cared way more about the chess than anything else. Because BETH cares about the chess more than anything else! We get it! Through the story-telling we understand that for this character, chess is the goal, the motivation and the stakes. And we believe the simplicity. She’s passionate about chess and that’s it.
4. Let’s talk about that actress!
Anya Taylor-Joy. Girl. Wow.
A trait of the Beth Harmon character is that she is solemn and mostly expressionless. That would be SUCH a challenge to portray well. I don’t know HOW they pulled this off, but they really did! I was completely sucked into her emotions. At every moment you knew how she was feeling without obvious expression on her face. Brilliantly done! If she were losing a chess match, fists up to the sides of her temples. If she were winning, fingers clasped under the chin. The consistency was flawless. Not just the adult actress but her childhood counterpart as well. They seamlessly made the character one.
5. THE PRODUCTION WAS SO BEAUTIFUL AND DETAILED
I love the sixties. I mean, obviously I do. And I love time period dramas. Of course. SO HELLO! No wonder I was a little biased towards this show. The music was SO good! So fitting too! And THE OUTFITS!! THE PRETTY PRETTY OUTFITS! ALL THE OUTFITS! GIVE ME ALL THE OUTFITS MORE MORE MORE
Excuse me while I swoon over this show for another three months.