The Queen’s Gambit
The Queen’s Gambit is a seven-part series currently on Netflix. The streaming giant refers to it as a “limited series,” indicating that it tells a finite story in its seven episodes, each about an hour long. In fact, it has the feel of a seven-hour movie; and there is not a single minute of this creation that is not engaging.
The story goes that the great Patrick McGoohan forbade anyone on his crew from referring to “television” when he and they were working on The Prisoner in 1967. This was another limited series, although not as limited as McGoohan would have liked. His concern was that people might be tempted to compromise, to not give their absolute best, if they remembered that they were producing something for TV rather than creating a film. What they did produce is still considered by many to be the best thing ever created for the small screen.
There is no sign of compromise in The Queen’s Gambit. It is finely crafted, by any standard: seven hours about the ancient and elegant game of chess, and the people who play it, that is enthralling from the first scene to the final credits, which themselves, by the way, are quite nice.
I’m no chess player. But I’ve studied just enough chess, and spent just enough time among chess players, to know that the chess aspects of this show are true. The viewer may come to appreciate, among other things, how much scholarship is involved in competition at the higher levels; how much time the game’s devotees spend studying its history, and how various masters have contributed to the culture of openings, midgames, endgames, attacks, and defences. The series’ title is the name of a popular opening. All the implications of the chessboard are explored, from the erotic to the geopolitical.
Everything about this show reeks of perfection. I’m not talking about the kind of stuffy perfectionism that characterizes the deadly historical dramas of public television; I’m talking about the kind of perfection that leaves you breathless. The sets, the lighting, the sound design, the editing, the camera movements, are all superb and all contribute to an obvious labor of love. But the way the well-written story is moved forward though masterful direction of actors who bring their best games to the set is what really propels this drama to the top rank. You need to pay attention. The director marks key points of character development through single gestures or fleeting facial expressions. We experience an exemplar of showing rather than explaining, and telling a story this way is an impressive display of confidence and artistic courage.
Every character is interesting and well played. Even minor roles have depth and mystery to them. They intrigue us through their shifting motivations, of which we are often unsure. Everyone is changed somehow through exposure to the person of the main character and the maelstrom of the world spinning around her. We see the character development of a government minder, sent to accompany our hero (and she is unavoidably our hero, from the first scenes of her childhood) to the climactic showdown in the USSR, take place over just a few scenes and a half-dozen lines of dialog. You may not care about chess, you may not intend to get involved, but it’s a challenge not to grip the arms of your chair during her games, invisible battles of the mind, and finally exhale when she wins, and groan after her infrequent losses.
Artistically, this is something with wisely limited aspirations. To make the Nabokovian distinction, The Queen’s Gambit appeals to the head and the heart, rather than the spine. But it does so with intensity and perfection, and with utter integrity.