The Queen’s Gambit is a Must Watch because of Anya Taylor-Joy

White plays pawn to D4. Black counters with pawn to D3, while White shoots its pawn up to C4. In three simple moves, the queen’s gambit is performed. As a result, the queen is now given room to shine and dominate the game, a move that feels eerily similar to what Netflix has achieved with The Queen’s Gambit, letting their queen, the orphaned chess prodigy Beth Harmon take center stage in the streaming mogul’s new and thrilling miniseries. Beth, for whom genius may be a more apt description, is the anchor of The Queen’s Gambit and the reason it soars to new heights. Not your standard sports drama protagonist, she’s more akin to Alan Turing than Rocky Balboa, but her unstable genius and sharp personality, especially while played by the phenomenal Anya Taylor-Joy, make her the ideal figure to spearhead such a complex journey.

After an early competition win, Beth tells the press “Chess isn’t always competitive. Chess can also be beautiful.” This rings true not only for Beth’s personal journey, but also for the journey of The Queen’s Gambit as a whole. The series’ attention to detail and dedication to showing the ugly and competitive side of chess is what separates it from any other run of the mill underdog story. It is also what makes the show so remarkable, by taking all the trials and tribulations of Beth’s life and making them into something resoundingly beautiful. 

The Queen’s Gambit details Beth’s life, starting with a rocky childhood catapulted by the death of her mother and subsequent move to an orphanage. Upon her arrival, Beth (Isla Johnston plays her as a child.) is forced to grow up while developing a dependency on tranquilizing drugs that follows her throughout the rest of her life. A chance meeting with the orphanage’s janitor, Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp) leads to her most important discovery: the game of chess. The show is admirable for it isn’t afraid to show Beth’s vulnerability and the side effects of being a child prodigy. 

Though the shadow of addiction hangs around Beth like a looming enemy, her fiercest allies are what keep her afloat through the tumultuous times. Jolene (Moses Ingram), Beth’s first friend, is a steady rock in her life,someone Beth can lean on in her most powerless moments. Adopted by the Wheatleys, a strained couple from Kentucky, she forms a powerful bond with Alma Wheatley that defines Beth’s most pivotal time in her life. Alma’s support and love for Beth during her seemingly endless chess competitions is a huge proponent of Beth’s success, though Alma’s personal issues with substance abuse prevent Beth from keeping her addiction in check. The series beautifully weaves these two relationships into the bustle of Beth’s life. 

Beth’s talents grow as she attends each new competition. A young woman in a male dominated game, she meets a few men that play crucial roles in her ascent to the top. The charming and handsome Townes (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) an early friend and supporter, as well as Harry Beltik (Harry Melling), an initial competitor and future friend, and perhaps the show’s most eccentric character: Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie Sangster), a cowboy chess prodigy who’s unmatched skills and cockiness threaten Beth. All three, as well as Mr. Shaibel, are presented in passing and scarce, offhand moments and montages. We see these men make sacrifices for Beth, without really understanding why they would do such a thing. This makes believing their dedication an unecessary task for the audience.

That being said, I am a firm believer that a show is only as good as its protagonist. Though The Queen’s Gambit has its missteps, the show more than makes up for it with Beth herself, who is one of the most brilliantly written protagonists I’ve ever seen. From the get go, she’s entirely self-sufficient and reserved, but as the series progresses we see her blossom not only into a true master of her craft, but into a wonderful young woman. This is thanks to not only the nuanced writing, but the commanding performance given by Anya Taylor-Joy. She truly brings Beth to life with her delivery and the way she carries herself. She fits right into the 1950s-1960s ambiance of the setting, and is complemented by the magnificent period costumes.

She grabs our attention and doesn’t let it go until the very last scene. What other actress could possibly make chess so interesting?