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The Queen's Gambit - Miniseries - Roundtable Review

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I wish I knew enough about chess to write some sort of a meta introduction with a particularly fancy game opening, but alas, this roundtable review of Netflix's latest miniseries: The Queen's Gambit, will have to do without (and I will go back to being intimidated by the chess robots you can play online with). In any case, please join Alison D, DJRiter, Folie-lex, and I (Cecile) for this discussion, with our thoughts and favorite parts of the show!

1. What are your overall thoughts on the show? Were there any storylines you wish had been developed more, or could have done without?

Alison D: I thought it was brilliant and an immersive experience. The cast was exceptional. I’m fascinated by so many things, but I don’t think answers to my questions would have enhanced the plot. I want to know more about Benny’s life. Why does he dress that way? Is he addicted to gambling? Why won’t he buy more lights. Of course, I want more information about Townes. His relationship with Beth is fascinatingly ambiguous, but crucial for them both. I want to know more about Jolene’s anger and activism. Will Cleo’s roll as a tool of the Soviets be revealed? I could go on. I’m willing to wait for my answers, which means I need a Season 2.

DJRiter: This was easily one of the best mini-series I’ve watched in a long while. Although it started out a little slow and careful it dawned on me that it was purposely paced that way as though it were playing out like one of Beth’s (Anna Taylor-Joy) complex chess matches. Each scene or episode was carefully thought out and played like an expert chess move that hinged on her response. It was masterfully played, expertly written and beautifully cast. You become mesmerized by both the story and the performances. I would have liked to have seen more of Beth with Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp) teaching her the nuances of chess, and also more of the unusual relationship she had with Alma, in that it was often times hard to know who was the mother and who was the daughter.

Folie-lex: The Queen’s Gambit was one of the more tightly constructed mini-series I’ve seen in a while. There was pay off in every build up the show set up and the character arcs were unbelievably satisfying on every level. As such I can't say I have any complaints from a narrative POV. If there is one minor comment I might have is with respect to the Jolene/Beth relationship, as the girls’ adult relationship felt a bit rushed.

Cecile: It had been a while since I enjoyed a Netflix original so much, and The Queen's Gambit turned out to be incredibly engaging. Some will say it was (a little) predictable and could have benefitted from a slightly less linear chess-genius to world-renowned star arc, and I agree to a certain point, but overall it didn't bother me. The cast is perfect, the writing exciting and with just the right balance of humor, emotion, and depth. I would've loved to see more of Alma, Benny, and even that little Russian kid who almost beat Beth (I was kind of expecting to see him again in the finale, actually). I could've done without (don't hate me) the whole Townes thing, though. It didn't feel genuine and never quite worked for me on the whole.

2. In one of Beth’s interviews, a journalist tells her « Creativity and psychosis often go hand in hand. Or, for that matter, genius and madness. » What did you think of Beth’s addiction storyline, and her rapport with both of her mothers?

Alison D: Both of Beth’s mothers were grappling with illness. Beth’s biological mother clearly suffered from mental health issues while Alma was dealing with her addiction to drugs and alcohol. Although, Beth’s addiction began after the death of her mother and years before she met Alma. Of course, Alma offering Beth alcohol contributed to Beth’s struggles, but neither relationship was the catalyst. Beth was chasing the control, safety, and perceived predictability of the chessboard. She was a lonely, confused, and angry child, so even though the pills were forced on her by the orphanage, they became her way into the world of king and queens, rooks and knights. An escape from a world where she was abandoned. Chess is her Narnia and so the pills were her wardrobe, a way inside. Beth has a rough road ahead. Even though the audience watches her flush the last of the tranquilizers down the toilet, we also know sobriety is difficult. What happens when she loses again? What happens when the natural high from winning begins to wane? Will Beth turn to drugs and alcohol again?

DJRiter: I believe the addiction story were indicative of the time era in which Beth lived, and without stable parental guidance it was not surprising she leaned on drugs and alcohol. From the moment she was taken to the orphanage and given the “vitamins” her fate as being addicted to something was predetermined. At the time she was a child mental illness was barely recognized and treated, because of that I suspect she spent much of her time with her birth mother anxious or in fear and thus formed no strong emotional bond with her. As bizarre as their relationship was, I think she and Alma grew to be more friends than mother and daughter, as both needed a companion at times. I think Alma did the best she was emotionally capable of doing and ironically when she discovered what she thought was a way to make money by having Beth enter chess tournaments, the notoriety the came as Beth’s fame grew, made Alma feel important. Beth recognized a sort of kindred spirit in Alma as someone seeking affection and often went along to please her. By the time of Alma’s death, they were, as previously stated, more friends than mother/daughter.

Folie-lex: From my POV the flashbacks with her biological mother, were about underlining she too was some kind of unhinged mathematic genius, and those scenes were very much about keeping a looming threat that, was also very likely Beth’s conclusion in life. And to be fair, her behaviour manifesting in her addiction flirted with that trajectory a lot. But for Beth it was the other stabilizing factors in her life like Mr Shaiblel, Jolene, and the boys, that offered that counter balance. However, it was Alma in particular, as the “Other Maternal Figure” that was the real factor in her life which managed to stabilize and ground her. Her mother was more about “warning and lecturing” her whereas Alma was all about supporting and building her up. It is no coincidence after all that her spiral actively started after Alma passed.

Cecile: I'll admit that as long as Beth used the green pills to visualize the chess board and reach some kind of almost unconscious epiphany as to how she should play next, I worried that her raw talent was going to fail her one day if she couldn't beat someone without them. The finale put that to rest, but it was an anxiety-inducing ride all along, especially since she quickly falls into harder stuff than the pills. Considering the childhood Beth had, and her experience at the orphanage, it's no wonder she has unhealthy coping mechanisms, but I was still surprised at the extent of them, and especially how young she started (even if the pills weren't her fault, she could have pretended to take them and thrown them away). Beth's biological mother should never have found herself in such a position, but it did directly impact Beth. Alma, I believe, was a good mother to Beth and as DJRIter said, she and Beth were more friends than in a traditional mother/daughter dynamic. Her allowances with alcohol seemed more like an admission that she considered Beth adult enough to be her equal, than a gateway to her own substance issues. It's heartbreaking that she lost both of them, and that the two father figures in her orbit were equally distant to the point of nonexistance, and ultimately rejected her.

3. While chess seems like a solitary game, friendships play an important part in The Queen’s Gambit. Any favorite characters or relationships? (And if so, why Alma?)

Alison D: Honestly, they’re all favorites. Every actor nailed their character. Everyone felt real and three-dimensional. Jolene (Moses Ingram) and Mr. Shaibel were both central to Beth’s story, and the way they frame the series highlights their importance. Jolene always says exactly what Beth needs to hear. The delivery is never soft, but it’s who she is from the moment she meets Beth. Mr. Shaibel with his gruff demeanor and wall mounted scrapbook of Beth’s letter and accomplishments is the closest thing she ever has to a father. He is her teacher, provides financial support right when she needs it most, and is a silent fan. Even in death he’s still lifting her up. His death breaks Beth’s wall of anger and abandonment. Her relationships with Townes, Benny and Beltik were also wonderful. Every relationship deepened Beth’s character. Each person that entered her life added another layer. The cast is exceptional.

DJRiter: So, so many to me who had an influence on Beth’s life. From her time at the orphanage and even later, Jolene (Moses Ingram), and of course Mr. Shaibel. Later, Townes (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd), and Harry Beltik (Harry Melling) who both loved Beth in their own ways. I do think though, perhaps my two favorite characters/relationships besides Beth herself were Alma and Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), having already discussed Beth and Alma, I’ll speak to Benny here. At first I admit I was not fond of the character then both the actor and the part grew on me when it became clear he was one of the good guys who was lucky enough to have a singular passion in the world (chess) and truly was looking out for Beth’s best interests.

Folie-lex It’s gotta be a choice between the Alma/Beth and the Mr.Shaibel/Beth relationships for me. And it is a tough decision seperating them from the crop when all of her friendships with each of the boys, and Jolene and even the Borgov dynamic are so significant to Beth and her growth. But it is Mr. Shaibel who introduces her to the game and it is Alma who supports her through her humble begginnings. I think I would have to pick Mr.Shaibel because, as loving and supportive as Alma was, she was also a bit flaky with her won demons tofiht which she did project ont Beth a little. In the end Mr.Shaibel gave her a level of structure and dicipline that I think Beth needed in order to properly excell.

Cecile: I really wish Jolene hadn't disappeared after the orphanage episodes, because she was a highlight and brought a very welcome balance to Beth's life. Having her pop up in the latter episodes was lovely (and necessary), but like Folie-lex said in the first question, I found it quite difficult to believe that after all these years, and the changes in Beth's life (and in Jolene's), they'd be able to pick up their friendship where they'd left it off, and she could still have such an influence on Beth. I will say it was particularly heartwarming though, to see her get through to Beth in her lowest moments. I will not comment on the fact that Beth never got to thank Mr Shaibel in person for everything he did for her, and his unwavering (if distant) support, because it broke my cold little heart. As for Benny, oh, Benny...I never thought that cowboy stringbean would weave his way into my heart (another one!), but he did, and I can't believe Beth didn't fall for him. I do hope that after the finale, they at least stay friends if nothing else.
Sidenote: When I realized that Alma was played by Marielle Heller, I had to go check that she was indeed who I thought she was, i.e. an acclaimed director I'd heard of during awards season several times, because I had no idea she still acted, too! She's wonderful in the role, and there seems to be a trend in directors (who were also actors) playing pivotal roles in current shows (see also, Emerald Fennell of Killing Eve fame, playing Camilla Parker Bowles on The Crown. I'm much less fond of that little tidbit though, considering what role Camilla plays in the Charles/Diana dynamic, and how much poorer season 2 of Killing Eve was compared to Phoebe Waller-Bridge's season 1. That said, her movie directorial debut, Promising Young Woman, has garnered a lot of praise at Sundance so I'll reserve judgement until I get to see that).

4. The lead, and two main characters of The Queen’s Gambit are American, and yet played by British actors, as is increasingly becoming the case in American productions, but the reciprocal is less true. Any theories on how this has become so frequent? Also, how glad were you to see Newt from The Maze Runner (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and Dudley Dursley from Harry Potter (Harry Melling) in new roles?

Alison D: When actors become well known people say they lose the ability to become the character because the audience is always aware they are watching a performance. It makes the experience less immersive. Perhaps using British actors, whose faces may be familiar while the intricacies of their lives remain a mystery, allows the audience to see just the character. The other reality is that “Hollywood” as an idea still exists. It’s still the goal, so I think the lack of reciprocity is more that American actors aren’t as hungry for roles in British productions. I quit the Harry Potter movies after the third one, so it took until I was answering this question to realize Beltik and Dudley were played by the same person. Melling did an excellent job. A bit of the Dursley came through during the first tournament when he arrived late. All cockiness and entitlement. It’s always great to see Thomas Brodie-Sangster. From Love, Actually and Nanny McPhee to now.

DJRiter: I am a firm believer in the concept you cast the best actor for the part, so the being or not being British really isn’t an issue for me. If a British actor can carry off an American accent and vice versa and is the best actor for the role, then cast them. I will say though that I believe the acceptance and level of training many young British performers get in the British theater could play a factor in their success. There just, to me, appears to be a great deal more respect for the craft of acting in England. As I’ve not seen The Maze Runner I can’t comment on the last part of the question.

Folie-lex: Well it’s always a delight to see Thomas Brodie-Sangster and Harry Melling and witness them be the strong actors they’ve both grown into. As for the “UK actors in US productions” trend it’s not new... but mostly I feel it has a lot to do with getting great actors at far more moderate rate. At least the cynical part of my thinks it’s also financially motivated... as for why the other way around is less likely, for one I think American actors tend to look down on international productions. Lastly I do think the issue of the accent tends to come into play: usually it's easer for UK actors to fake a US accent than it is for US actors to fake a British one.

Cecile: I do think it's surprising that so many American roles/figures are, in fact, played by British actors, because you'd think the patriotism would win through to make the audition work, if only for pride's sake (just kidding). But I'm not a stickler for accuracy so I'd rather have the right actor for the role, in any case. And I do love seeing familiar faces in unexpected places, especially when they're as talented as these 3. Cue me catching up on Anya's entire filmography before she finally becomes Furiosa. Like Folie-lex said above, it also seems that US actors have a much harder time with accents, but English isn't my first language so as long as I can distinguish between US/UK, I almost always let those slips slide! As for these particular actors, well, it was kind of hilarious to see everyone falling over themselves and wondering where on Earth they could possibly have seen Benny before... only to realize, it was the kid from Love Actually (and Game of Thrones, and, and, and.).

5. On a more fashion-related note, Beth’s outfits made quite an impression, both in the show and our media. What did you think of their progression throughout the show, and what they represented as she climbed towards success?

Alison D: Fashion is another of Beth’s addictions. One fueled not only by a need for control, but by her past. Fashion is a strike against the stiff dresses of the orphanage and the the high school girls who bullied her. Beth’s choices begin behind the times. She initially gravitates to the starched stiffness of the 50s before moving to the short and flowy designs of the 60s. The clothing follows Beth’s own life experiences. The more she opens herself up to the world the more her style changes. Honestly, my favorite looks were the casual jeans, shirts, and cardigans she wore after her return to Kentucky. Beth suddenly seemed approachable. She was no less put together but it was and easy effortless. I think we can all agree that her experiment with makeup when she was spiraling and at her lowest was indicative of what a mess she was. It’s worth noting Beth’s final outfit. With it, she has became the white queen, a living piece of the chessboard.

DJRiter: I think both the costumes and the soundtrack played an integral part of telling Beth’s story. They clearly depicted the time, Beth’s economic and personal growth and progression in her journey to discover herself. Growing up during that time myself, I could totally relate to Beth’s experimentation with hair, clothing, and decorating styles as she searched to find herself. The music was expertly chosen and used to depict her moods and the tone of the entire mini-series.

Folie-lex: The fashion (which BTW: STUNNING!!) was absolutely a representation of Beth’s growth and her growing confidence. Starting with how she was always dressed by others as a child, to her slowly finding her own style and owning it and in the end capping out the show with her “White Queen” attire was the perfect final outfit.

Cecile: I would like to say I didn't covet almost every single one of Beth's outfits post-orphanage, but that simply wouldn't be true. The evolution was stunning, every choice perfectly put together and a useful barrier when it comes to getting into a mostly male-dominated world. The fact that they, like her high-school peers, picked on her but this time for being too into fashion, was very telling as to how women in positions of power, and by whom men feel threatened, are treated.

6. Did you read the novel The Queen's Gambit is based on (by Walter Trevis) before watching it, or (like me) had you never heard of it and are planning on reading it now?

Alison D: I read the novel in school. My teacher that year was an odd one and peppered what I thought were little known novels between the Fitzgerald’s and Faulkner’s. We read The Queen’s Gambit right before or after Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion. At the time, they were all just old books to me. Books I enjoyed but still old books thrust upon me by a teacher that smelled of patchouli. I’m thrilled there were people who read the book and saw its potential as a scripted series.

DJRiter: I had never heard nor read of the novel, however, time permitting may seek it out and read it. It may, as I suspect, tell me more of Beth’s story than is depicted.

Folie-lex: I hadn’t read the book before the show and I’m usually a “book first” kinda gal. So odds are I probably won’t read it, but also never say never.

Cecile Before starting the show, I'd heard it was an adaptation but hadn't read the book yet. Usually, I try to read the source material before I watch the show, but this one wasn't on my radar and I didn't want to wait. (There's probably a negative take on today's immediate consumption society to make here, but let's not) I do want to read the book now though, not just to see the choices the adaptation made, but also just because this is now a subject I want to know more about. "Niche" (or not so niche sometimes) subjects that focus on gifts in particular fields, being adressed in fiction, are always interesting to me, and I wish more of these themes were used. And if they specifically cater to my very own little interests (ballet, tennis, etc.), with additional drama? All the better!

7. If you could be the world’s best at any specific hobby/activity and could make a living out of it, what would it be? (And if you’re already doing it, hats off to you!)

Alison D: Is there a way to make a living through reading? Someone let me know.

DJRiter: I would love to make a living as a novelist or screenwriter. I’ve had some minimal success at it but the desire to write the stories I want to tell burns within me, and I do my best to give them life.

Folie-lex: Working in film has always been my dream and I’ve actually had the pleasure of fulfilling it by working on productions, even if it wasn’t in my primary department of choice (however I do love working for the art and sets dpt). Writing is a true passion though and I would lovelovelove to be able to make a living out of it (still trying to make that happen...).

Cecile: I really like Alison D's answer so I'm (unoriginally, now we know why I'm not a star chess player, or star anything!) going to go with that too. Although there's something to be said about having something you love transform in something you "have" to do, and I'm not sure I'd be willing to sacrifice reading whatever I want, whenever I want, in order to make a living out of reading books I'd have to read/review/edit. (I'm just being a brat though, if it came to it, I'd gladly do it!)

8. Any final thoughts you’d like to share?

Alison D: The series ended in a good place, but these were characters you don’t want to leave behind. I hope Netflix green lights a season two, the cast is willing to give us more, and the story telling maintains its high quality.

DJRiter: The Queen’s Gambit was an exceptional mini-series filled with many stellar moments and award worthy performances. Among my favorite moments were Beth’s match in Mexico City with the young Russian boy; the sheer joy on Alma’s face as she played the piano in the lounge in Mexico City as though she had found a way to be herself and seeing Beth recognize that (an excellent example of how powerful the soundtrack was); and the mastery with which Beth’s final match with Vasily Borgov (Marcin Dorocinski ) who knew a game as quiet as chess could be filmed with such a sense of building intrigue and intensity that had me on the edge of my seat; and of course that perfectly perfect ending of Beth going back to the Russian park after her grand victory and choosing to celebrate by playing chess with the old men there. This will be something I will go back and watch again, and I am sure we will be hearing more and more about it come awards season.

Folie-lex: As someone who walked into this show mentally prepared for one of those self-indulgent messy Netflix shows, The Queen’s Gambit ending up being such a phenomenal piece of TV was a wonderful and pleasant surprise. Also, with the precident of this and Godless, being a 2 for 2 I hope Netflix green-lits more projects from Scott Frank and Co, seeing that they clearly have a stellar showrunner on their roster.

Cecile With Netflix publishing just this week that the scripted limited miniseries is their most viewed ever, there likely will be talk of a second season. I mean, Big Little Lies was supposed to be a one off, until its ratings sky-rocketed and the critical acclaim piled on, and suddenly it wasn't. I'm not sure I want it to have another season though, this one felt pretty complete and I don't know where they'd go after that. And it's not that I wouldn't follow them there, but without a story to follow, there's even less of a guarantee of quality.

And that's it for today! But do sound off in the comments below, we'd love to know your thoughts about the show, the storylines, and a potential second season!

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