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What’s Worth Watching: ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ an emotional roller coaster worth repeating

UPDATED: Thu., Jan. 21, 2021

Featuring a cast of refreshingly three-dimensional characters, heart-warming friendships and countless games of chess, “The Queen’s Gambit” is the kind of emotional roller coaster that you’ll immediately want to ride again.

Based on Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel, “The Queen’s Gambit” follows Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy), an orphaned chess prodigy on her way to becoming the world’s best player.

Luckily for those of us who are not yet chess grandmasters, this story is about Beth, not chess.

Orphaned early on, Beth meets several important friends and mentors, including Jolene (Moses Ingram), a fellow orphan and surrogate mother figure; Mr. Scheibel (Bill Camp), the orphanage janitor who taught her to play chess; and Alma Wheatley (Marielle Heller), her adoptive mother.

After Beth’s adoption, I was fully prepared to slog through another “evil adoptive parent” story, but I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Sure, Mrs. Wheatley isn’t perfect. Some of the ways she influences Beth aren’t exactly praiseworthy. But the mutual respect and affection that the two develop for each other really make this show something special.

“Beth? How would you feel about giving me 10% as an agent’s commission?” Mrs. Wheatley – whose emotionally abusive husband has recently walked out on them – asks after Beth takes first place and the accompanying $500 prize at one of her early tournaments.

“Let’s make it 15%,” Beth says.

While the show is set between the early 1950s and mid-1960s, the kind of blatant sexism you might expect actually plays a very small role in the drama.

It’s no secret that as a woman in the world of 1950s chess, Beth is an oddity – in the entire series, she plays only one female opponent. But after her first tournament, Beth’s fellow players seem to respect her. There are some sore losers, but, at the end of the day, Beth is just too good to ignore.

“She’s quiet, well-mannered and out for blood,” her adoptive mother reads from a copy of Life magazine in the third episode.

The show is not about society dragging down Beth. It’s about the choices she makes – good or bad – and the people who love her as she loses and finds her way along the road to success.

From her earliest moments – whether she’s dealing with the death of a loved one, alcoholism or a childhood addiction to tranquilizers – Beth finds herself in some very dark places.

“Someday, you’re going to be all alone, so you need to figure out how to take care of yourself,” Beth remembers her brilliant but mentally unstable mother (Chloe Pirrie) telling her before her death.

But the friendships she maintains and the lessons they teach help her to pull herself back up again.

“The Queen’s Gambit” is available on Netflix.

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