The only Netflix show I’ve watched in a while is Queen’s Gambit and that’s largely cuz people seemed to be pressing me about it more than they usually do with sensational TV shows but also because, at seven hours long, the show’s fairly brief—roughly as long, I have to mention, as the fabled rough cut of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, which is now mostly lost or destroyed and people sometimes call it the “holy grail of cinema” even though if the whole thing were discovered tomorrow I don’t think anyone would watch it.
I liked Queen’s Gambit quite a bit but didn’t feel grabbed by it as I did with Breaking Bad or The Wire or The Sopranos and I think that the reason it didn’t hook me like those other shows did, stringing me along for years and years, is because Queen’s Gambit feels like a novelistic character study wherein the thing that’s compelling us forward is curiosity about (and affinity for) this character, the chess prodigy Beth Harmon, played by the broody and charismatic and conspicuously bewigged Anya Taylor Joy—whereas with those other shows, yes, we’re hooked by the characters, we wanna know how they’ll fare, but we’re also curious about the resolution of their crises, crises that generally involve many other players.
What we also see in those larger-scope and longer-form shows is the cultivation of separate plots, parallel storylines, that ultimately (if we’re lucky) collide in a gratifying and complicated way.
The drama and intrigue of Queen’s Gambit on the other hand revolves largely around a succession of tournaments. Two people across a board. And to the credit of the director those scenes truly are pit-dampening even if you don’t know a checker from a rook—but alas: the drama is undercut when we know how these major climactic confrontations will manifest.
It isn’t the same as wondering if Walter White is going to be killed and if so how and by whom.
Our question in Queen’s Gambit is simply, Will Beth win the chess game?
Or, on the other hand, Will she succumb to her addictions?
And that’s fine! It’d be pretty exhausting if every show tried to be exciting and propulsive and loaded with characters who’ve all got their own complicated problems. But I think that I’m in a bit of a phase right now where I’m moving away from the serious, cerebral, capital-L Literary fiction I so obsessed over in college and am now starting to favor plot. When I was in college I felt I’d grown out of plot, thought that thrillers were for simpletons or something, and so I started reading stuff that was more intellectually stimulating and emotionally galvanizing, and I did a fuckton of writing, and then I just happened to read a couple of thrillers (Don Winslow’s) and it was like I’d come full circle: I realized that a great thriller is probably harder to write than a great Literary novel.
So that’s just where my head’s at.
One aspect that really did punch me about Queen’s Gambit though was noticing that the cast is made up mostly of people my age, 27 to 30, and when we see them as teenagers and as early twentysomethings they tend to think very lofty things of themselves.
Then as episodes pass, so too do the years, and we see them resign themselves, slowly, to an ordinary life.
The guy who realizes he’ll never become a grandmaster and so settles into the managerial role at a grocery store where the people are nice and he can earn a good living.
The high school social queen who settles into quiet boozy domestic misery after she has a kid.
The gaggle of chess nerds in New York City who also appear to’ve stepped back from competing and instead just observe and exult.
What struck me so hard about that portrait of a young adult’s contented settling into a quiet regular life is that I’m seeing it happen to my peers right now—saw it in spades last November at my fucking high school reunion where I realized that the personalities that had seemed so huge to me in the microcosm of our graduating class, who seemed so vibrant and destined for spotlights and pampering, are now not the comedians or DJs or athletes or actors I’d envisioned.
They’re lawyers. Accountants. Real estate agents. The best singer at our school went on to be the best singer at her office.
When I was a senior in high school there was a thing where some English teachers got together to discuss who they thought was the best writer of the graduating class and I’m happy to say that I won the award, and I got to attend this very gallant ceremony where my betters were being awarded for academic excellence, and it was so bizarre because I had an absolute shit GPA, I’d gotten a 900 on the SAT (literally about as low as you can go), I really wasn’t all that bright, and I was going to the least-distinguished university of anyone in the room—and yet here I was!, the guy with all the dick jokes, standing among future valedictorians, everybody knowing me as a fairly aloof kinda class clown and yet I’m getting this award…
Anyway, it made me look at myself on the night of the reunion and think: OK, in high school we all put a lotta value in those kinds of awards, so if someone were to look at me and think, What became of the best writer in our graduating class?, I’m inclined to think that they’d see my current situation and think, “Long way down, innit?”
When, in reality, I was never really up that high.
Does that make sense?
What matters most though is that everyone seemed pretty happy. (Or I think they did.) And I’m looking at myself afterward and thinking of how I’ve resorted to self-publishing and I’m doing the podcast and I’m blogging a lot and, yeah, I too have kinda realized that the world won’t be opening up to me like a flower, opportunities galore, and so I’m settling into my own kinda complacency.
At the reunion I got back in touch with a very beautiful classmate I hadn’t thought about in years and we’re friends on Instagram now where she posts lotsa photos with her many tiny children and today she posted something about Santa Clause not being transgender despite the media telling us otherwise.
Just thought I’d mention that.
As for Queen’s Gambit: I’ve also (it’ll come as no surprise) gone through turbulent personal periods wherein booze, ever present, was more foe than friend. So I was feeling some hardcore heebie jeebies during that episode where Beth goes on the strong bender that seems like a death sentence.
Looked pretty familiar, I hate to say it.
Which is also what bothered me about its resolution: it was nuanced and accurate in its portrayal of isolation, alienation, self-sabotage—and then an old friend comes to visit her and overnight she’s totally sober and disciplined and ready to beat the Russians.
Also, a nerdy technical note: the show achieves some beautiful master shots throughout, where the camera follows Beth across some long stretch of a set and photographs several different actions—and those masters are wonderfully steady and graceful.
The show’s photography is very measured, very stabilized.
Then, for some bizarre reason, in the very last scene of the show—which lends nothing of substance to the story—the photography switches to like a Blair Witch-style shaky-cam of whose employment I can make not one lick of sense.
So I’ll answer the question some of you’ve asked: did I like it?
I did! A whole bunch. I feel a bit of anxiety when I sit down to watch a long piece of entertainment, wondering if I couldn’t be doing something more productive, but the show was engaging enough that I found myself just absorbed, episode to episode, and not really worrying about other stuff. It’s good escapist fun in that respect.