Wednesday, January 06, 2021

Watching The Queen's Gambit

      The Queen's Gambit is a miniseries based on a novel about a brilliant chess player.  Wonderfully cast, the 1960s setting is remarkably evoked by the costumes and sets.  The direction, cinematography and editing are outstanding -- even the soundtrack is great!

      But you probably knew all that.  Here's the thing: it's a darned good story and the miniseries allows enough time to tell it properly.

      Tam and I watched the first episode last night.  I'd already seen the entire series while I sick over the holidays, but it's worth a second look.

      I like stories about chess and the people who play it.  I am not, by any serious standard, a chess player.  My family had a nice chess set and we played, but there was no depth to our game.  Playing well calls for precisely the kind of real-time spatial prediction that I struggle with.  But I like it; I like people with the kind of mind that makes them a good player.*

      And that's exactly what you get in The Queen's Gambit -- and plenty more.  The episodes are each titled for parts of a match; each episode can itself be read as a game.  And the characters--

      I can't tell you for certain that the author used chess pieces to guide each character's identity, but they certainly map well.  Based on their making the first move or responding to the protagonist, based on how they move and how they affect the protagonist, it's possible to make a fair guess at each one.  (Warning: I'll try to avoid spoilers but it's almost impossible.)

     Protagonist Beth Harmon starts as a pawn: smaller than the other pieces and able to make only small moves.  She's quickly placed in the ranks of pawns, too.  By the end of the first episode, she reaches the far edge of the board and is promoted -- and, as can be the case, is taken soon after.
      Her mother's the white queen, making large-scale, dramatic moves; her father is the white king, and acts accordingly.
      Helen Deardorff, Directer of the Methuen Home for Girls, is the black queen.
      Janitor William Shaibel, who teaches Beth to play chess, is the black king.
      Mr. Fergusson, the orderly at Methuen, is the white queen's side knight.
      Beth's friend Jolene is the white queen's side bishop.  (Arguably, Miss Lonsdale, the chaplain and choir director, is her king's side counterpart.)
      Mr. Ganz, the local high school teacher and chess club sponsor, is the black king's side knight.

      ...And so on.  Mapping them to chess pieces is an interesting game and the pattern returns with new characters in each episode.  Even how they move through their scenes can be mapped to chess pieces.  Is that how Walter Tevis, who wrote the original novel, shaped his characters?  Is it how miniseries writer/director Scott Frank saw them?  I don't know.  Chess makes for easy metaphors for the same reasons that make it a great game. 

     Good acting, good writing, good imagery, good music -- it's enjoyable entertainment without analyzing it.
* People with the kind of mind and drive that makes them great players often don't have much small talk.  I'd need to be able to follow their game to be much of a friend.

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