In the early 1960's, nine-year-old Beth Harmon, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, walks away from a car accident that kills her mother, the only family she knows. She is sent to an orphanage, a silent and somber old building housing dozens of girls of all ages, dressed in bland unflattering jumpers and blouses with identical haircuts. Beth, still grieving her mother's death and feeling very alone, falls into line with the other girls, eating, sleeping, doing schoolwork, singing hymns, and attending church. Most of the girls don't even talk to her, except for one Black girl named Jolene, played by Moses Ingram, who is always getting into trouble for mouthing off. Beth welcomes the sedatives the orphanage hands out daily to its charges, to "even out your mood." One day, bored, she wanders down to the basement and finds the janitor, Mr. Shaibel (played by Bill Camp), quietly playing both sides in a game of chess on a small table. Beth is immediately entranced by the game, its movements, and its strategies, and she begs Mr. Shaibel to teach her how to play. He's a very good player, but Beth is soon winning games against him and spending all of her spare time in the basement. At night, unable to sleep and half-drugged, she watches the lights and shadows reflected on the ceiling and imagines a giant chess board up there, playing out games in her mind and trying out new approaches. In her teens, Beth is adopted by a well-off suburban couple, the Wheatleys. Beth feels out of place in their beautiful home and discovers that her adoptive father is often away and her adoptive mother, played by Marielle Heller, is distant and drinks a lot. Gradually, though, she and Beth warm up to each other, as Beth begins to compete in chess, launching an early career as a chess champion.
Despite my lack of interest in chess itself, both my husband and I found this entire show fascinating and compelling. It is a coming-of-age story, a family drama, a suspenseful competition saga, and more. At its center is unique, beautiful, brilliant Beth and Anya Taylor-Joy who fully inhabits the captivating character. The supporting actors are all excellent, too, especially those playing Jolene, Beth's adoptive mother, and some of the male chess players Beth gets to know along the way. Far from boring, the show is filled with tension, not only during the chess games--in which Beth is always seen as the underdog (at least at first)--but also with respect to poor Beth's life, her drug abuse, and her loneliness. Plus, once Beth leaves the orphanage and starts winning some money in chess competitions, she becomes obsessed with fashion, and her 60's outfits, hair, and regal bearing are entrancing (I see Beth Harmon costumes on Amazon!). The whole package is an absorbing, gripping, bingeable story and a visual treat. We loved every minute of it, and I'm ready to watch it all over again!
The Queen's Gambit is a Netflix original program, so you can watch its seven episodes exclusively on Netflix. You can also read the novel the show is adapted from.