Wednesday, October 28, 2020

This Week in Apocalypse Video--Queen's Gambit

Perhaps you, like me, don't jump up and down or get unduly excited over chess. So you might not expect a miniseries with chess at its center is something you want to get involved with. But Queen's Gambit is something more than that, and you won't be able to take your eyes off actress Anya Taylor-Joy. She's mostly absent from the first episode, but the brief glimpse of her in the first scene gives a good clue to the series' eventual focus.

Fortunately, the younger version of her, actress Isla Johnston, somehow manages to be just as compelling as her adult counterpart. Orphaned at a young age, Beth Harmon is brought to an orphanage with some curious practices, the oddest of which is the jelly bean jar full of tranquilizers with which they daily sedate the girls. (Would that make teaching easier too?) Young Beth learns to love Librium, and what could be better for a kid than setting up lifelong addictions at a young age? Thank goodness for the charitable institutions that make America what it is.

The teachers at this orphanage are barely relevant. As important as we fancy ourselves, we're not always the instruments of change we want to be. In this case, it's the custodian who turns out to inspire and challenge young Beth. She stumbles upon him practicing chess in the basement and is instantly fixated on the board. At first he wants nothing to do with her but she prevails upon him. Actor Bill Camp, with few scenes and  fewer words, establishes himself as the most pivotal and influential character in Beth's young life.

Beth is adopted by a couple that reflects some of her own qualities both good and bad--a taciturn dad who likes to read the paper and neglect those around him, and a talented mom who adores alcohol in all its shapes and forms. We learn along with Beth that a martini with an onion instead of an olive is a Gibson, and hey, what's better than compounding your tranquilizer addiction with alcohol? I still can't fathom how Beth manages to play chess better with the help of Librium. (A doctor once prescribed me Valium, and the only thing I did well under its influence was sleep.)

We see politics creep into the chess world at odd moments. It's not cheap traveling around the world to go to chess tournaments. When Beth is trying to figure out how to pay for a Russian trip, a Christian group that had been supporting her offers to help. They ask her to condemn Russia as an atheist state. Beth turns them down and gives all their money back. When she calls the State Department, they decline to help her financially but send some guy to Russia with her. He also asks her to condemn the Soviets.

The importance of family is explored throughout. Who is your family? Is it the people who share your blood, the people with whom you share your time, or the people on whom you can depend? Beth's adoptive mother is supportive of her, to an extent, but at the same time a beneficiary of Beth's spectacular talent. Her adoptive father is pretty creepy, almost a caricature of an indifferent male. Her friends, though, show great loyalty and support, helping her at key moments. This, evidently, is the kind of support the Soviets lent to chess players, and that's a quality Beth learns to respect and appreciate.

There are, of course, weak moments. Beth is roused from a particularly intense bender to find she has an upcoming competition. She walks into the building looking like Svengoolie. There's no explanation why the generally fashion-conscious Beth decides to paint herself as though she's just been subject to an autopsy. Without giving anything away, the conclusion was a little pat and predictable for such a complex tale.

A good feature of Queen's Gambit is that it's listed as a limited series. I'm hopeful that means there is no Son of Queen's Gambit in the works. The fact that this has a beginning and an end makes it all the better. Streaming on Netflix, don't miss this.

blog comments powered by Disqus