[Editor’s note: This article contains spoilers for “The Queen’s Gambit.” And “Rocky,” I guess.]
After such a tumultuous year, are any of us really surprised that the holiday season has been completely disrupted? Or, conversely, is anyone that shocked by some people’s insistence on attempting to plow ahead with their Thanksgiving traditions, giving little heed to the ongoing pandemic that continues to expand by the day?
Ah, but you and I are smarter than that. We’ve canceled our plans with family and friends and our Thursday schedule includes hunkering down to watch a deserted Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade and eating Cool Whip straight out of the container.
If that scenario — or the alternative, watching four sub-.500 NFL teams compete — sounds too depressing to be imagined, there is an alternative; one that even allows you to lure your socially-distanced dad into a quality holiday hang.
Since its debut, there’s been plenty of chatter about Netflix’s breakout limited series “The Queen’s Gambit.” Earlier in the week, the streamer reported the chess-centered show had been watched by 62 million households in the 28 days after its October 23 release, even sparking a boom for the strategy board game in both Google and eBay searches.
There are plenty of reasons “The Queen’s Gambit” is striking such a chord with audiences, from the quality of the original novel by Walter Tevis to the mesmerizing nature of Anya Taylor-Joy’s turn as protagonist Beth Harmon to the swinging ’60s soundtrack to the show’s globetrotting scope. But hidden underneath the series’ prestige veneer, there lurks a surprising secret.
It’s a sports movie.
This was a realization I made somewhere in the back half of the episodes, when Jolene (Moses Ingram), a friend from Beth’s time in an orphanage, shows up on the doorstep right when the chess prodigy needed a guiding hand to show her the way to move forward. It’s an awkward moment, made more so by the uneasy feeling that Jolene’s role in the series trends dangerously close to the Magical Negro trope, whose sole purpose is to uplift and educate the white protagonist. Even though the series itself attempts to undercut — or at least acknowledge — the narrative transgression, it never feels quite right.
Then there’s the team of people who immediately recognize Beth’s genius and beauty wherever she goes. You have Cleo who tells Beth she could be a model, but, unfortunately, she’s too smart to be successful at it. You have chess player after chess player telling Beth that she’s the best they’ve ever played. And while part of that is a necessity when depicting a hyper-cerebral game in which you must show and tell in order to maintain audience engagement, it still feels clumsy in the moment.
To say nothing of all the people willing to drop everything to come together at the end and make sure their friend is able to reach all of her goals and investing in her well-being, despite Beth being, at best, a mediocre companion in the meantime.
Which is all a long way of saying that “Queen’s Gambit” has its flaws, OK?
But damn if it isn’t wonderful anyway.
Because, like the best sports movies, “The Queen’s Gambit” is all about investing viewers in an underdog and watching them face impossible odds only to triumph when all is said and done. Beth Harmon was from the wrong side of the tracks, with a tumultuous childhood filled with the instability of a mentally-ill mother who commits suicide, threatening to kill Beth in the process. She proceeds to an orphanage where she’s drugged out of her mind and finds that she has a talent for chess. She finds a fortuitous match in an adoptive home and is able to hone her skills and build a life for herself, though not without further trauma and addiction. But in the end, she finishes on top, where she was always destined to be.
These are the beats of many a great sports film and, in reality, many a sporting event. We want to root for the home team, yes, but we also want to root for the underdog. Also, sometimes we want to root for prodigious talent. Sometimes, for the hardest worker. In Beth, you have all three. When executed well, these kinds of stories can be among the best a medium can create. Films like “Rocky” and “Moneyball,” as well as TV shows like “Friday Night Lights are all worthy classics. And even when executed at the official level of pretty good, these stories are still often a great time. That’s why Disney regularly churns out these fun little gems, including “Miracle” (about the 1980 Winter Olympics), “The Rookie” (about an old guy who becomes a pitcher), and, obviously, “Cool Runnings.”
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The sports epic is built into the structural DNA of “The Queen’s Gambit,” which is likely at least partially responsible for the viewer response to the series. We know how these stories work, and we know what we want to see from them. Taylor-Joy is a charismatic and intriguing presence, not unlike — but also, obviously, completely unlike — a young Sylvester Stallone in “Rocky” and she draws your focus so that even when the story drags, it’s impossible to tear your eyes away.
And yet “The Queen’s Gambit” feels like something more. The chic costumes and luxurious production design, the central competition revolving around an intellectual game (rather than a physical one), the focus on a woman (Sorry, “The Next Karate Kid,” starring Hillary Swank), all of it repackaging a story that we know and love in the prettiest wrapping paper money can buy, somehow transforming it into something more than a sum of its parts.
So call your dad or your mom. Your family or your friends. Reach out — not physically — to your loved ones and ask if they want to watch something with you, even though you might be far away. Tell them you heard about a show that some deranged woman online was comparing to “Rocky” and how you should all check it out, if only to prove her wrong.
It’s the stories that keep us together when we can’t close the distance between us. This Thanksgiving, invest in a story that may feel familiar, but contains all the narrative creature comforts you seek. Be well. Be best. Be Beth Harmon.