The Queen's Gambit

Ten years ago, I doubt “The Queen’s Gambit” would have existed.

Hell, ten years ago the notion of a “limited” series wasn’t event considered. Everything needed to fit into 23-episode seasons with each episode confined to a neat little box.

But now that Netflix and other services have broken the mold, we get unexpected treats like “The Queen’s Gambit.”

And what a treat it is: It’s a thoughtful, compelling, and exquisitely made story about genius and perseverance. And it’s set in the chess world, a domain I imagine many people either don’t think about or believe to be arcane and stodgy. (I certainly didn’t think chess could be dramatic, but this series proved me very wrong. There were a number of times throughout the series where I was riveted.)

Anya Taylor-Joy is fantastic as Beth Harmon, a prodigy who emerges from a tragic early life to take on, and beat, chess masters who are better trained and better supported. Who doesn’t like a good underdog story? And who doesn’t like a good underdog story that’s well told and takes swings at the patriarchy in the process?

The producers lucked out with Taylor-Joy. She deftly plays Beth as both a teenager and an adult, evolving the character through small and subtle changes rather than showy transitions. And she pulls this off over a mere seven episodes. It’s quite a performance. (She also has expressive eyes, which work quite well for the close-up tension of competitive chess.)

There are a few issues here and there in the series. The right people have a knack for showing up at just the right moments, Beth’s substance abuse sometimes seems like a choice rather than a demon, and Beth benefits from massive amounts of forgiveness. But these flaws didn’t stop me from feeling genuine thrill at the conclusion.

Netflix has had a hell of a year: “The Queen’s Gambit” and the fourth season of “The Crown” are two of the best things I’ve seen in 2020.