Chequered careers: ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ and ‘The Good Lord Bird’

By Craig Mathieson

Among October’s streaming highlights are stories of a teenage chess prodigy and a zealous abolitionist

Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon in The Queen’s Gambit. Image © Phil Bray / Netflix

In the second episode of Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit, a vanquished opponent surveys 15-year-old American chess prodigy Elizabeth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) and observes, “You really are something”. On first hearing, it is a compliment – which startles the awkward, obsessive teenager – but over time it lingers as a warning. Beth’s aloof brilliance does not allow her to transcend her life, instead it foreshadows her future, offering visions of her possible downfall, whether through substance abuse or the mental illness that claimed her mother. Repeatedly invoked, that illuminating dual meaning is what elevates this sturdy 1960s drama. The plot may be easily graphed, as Beth rises from her initial instinctive mastery of the game to facing Russia’s grandmasters, but the way in which the scenes skew to her distinct perceptions, along with the compelling performances of the actors playing Beth at different ages, makes for an emotionally rich and involved series.

The Queen’s Gambit was created Scott Frank and Allan Scott, with the former – a Hollywood screenwriter responsible for Out of Sight and The Wolverine – writing and directing seven episodes that adhere to the outline of the 1983 novel of the same name by Walter Tevis. Beth goes from being a newly orphaned nine-year-old (Isla Johnston) taught chess by a janitor (Bill Camp) to the teenaged adopted daughter of a dissatisfied suburban housewife (Marielle Heller), but whatever the situation her furious control of the board can’t be duplicated in real life. Beth’s ability is dismissed because of her gender – which gives her pleasure in her subsequent victories – and she is perplexed by the era’s conventionality, her inability to find any personal satisfaction that matches gameplay, and an addiction to tranquilisers nurtured by the controlling orphanage. She speaks longingly of “an entire world of 64 squares”, because it’s where she feels at home.

The period design and Beth’s outfits, which hit the height of mid-60s fashion when she reaches adulthood (and receives prize money), are employed not for glamour’s sake, but to provoke unease. Whether in a chintzy Las Vegas hotel or a Moscow ballroom where the chessboards dwell in deep pools of light, the visual exaggeration suggests a discombobulated world, a hint that Beth’s outlook is teetering. Tevis’s book dwelled at length in Beth’s head during her matches, describing her fluctuating emotions and detailed strategies, but Frank replaces that interior voice with the flinty gaze of Taylor-Joy, who excels at playing young women so fiercely self-contained that you intuitively sense the distress they’re trying to hold in. Stories of champions often require a scene where the subject repents their flaws before they finally ascend to greatness, but The Queen’s Gambit makes the world bend to this young woman. Check, and mate.

A picaresque period drama, The Good Lord Bird (Stan) depicts America’s formative history as ludicrous precedent in recounting the campaign of John Brown (Ethan Hawke), the abolitionist who in the late 1850s was an armed advocate for the end of slavery. His bloody campaign led directly to the American Civil War, but thankfully this limited series eschews the “great man of history” narrative. The plot is conveyed from the point of view of Henry Shackleford (Joshua Caleb Johnson), a fictional 13-year-old slave who is unwillingly “rescued” by Brown and his misfit militia, and promptly misidentified as a girl, a cover that the increasingly pessimistic teen uses to stay alive amid intermittent carnage. With his gravelly voice and lengthy conversations with God, Brown is a religious zealot who favours public executions in the righteous service of his cause. The show, created by Hawke and novelist Mark Richard and based on James McBride’s 2013 novel, is too grimly sardonic to be triumphant, but that doesn’t stop some of Brown’s spit-flecked rantings telescoping to the present day. “America will never have peace,” he says, “till we’ve dealt with slavery.”

Inspired by the Coen brothers’ 1996 film of the same name, Fargo (SBS On Demand) established itself as a baroque crime anthology with exemplary second and third seasons (the first can be bypassed). The fourth season of Noah Hawley’s show looks for contemporary relevance in the past, exploring the unofficial struggle for power in America via a simmering gangland war between an Italian mafia family and a black organised crime syndicate in 1950, in segregated Kansas City. Jason Schwartzman and Chris Rock play the respective mob bosses, with the narrative complicated by loquacious intermediaries and theatrical eccentrics, played by the likes of Ben Whishaw and Jessie Buckley. Parallels that should be made with stealth are too readily spelt out. As an alternative, consider Briarpatch (SBS On Demand), a neo-noir crime drama about a formidable US Senate investigator (Rosario Dawson) returning to her home town in Texas to investigate the murder of her police-officer sister. The mix of David Lynch-esque mystery and teasing dialogue is juicily entertaining.

In brief: Emily in Paris (Netflix) turns the empowerment comedy into a xenophobic mess, as Sex and the City creator Darren Star summons every Gallic cliché imaginable to sketch out the misadventures of a young American executive (Lily Collins) seconded to her corporation’s newly acquired French luxury goods marketing firm. The show’s numerous failings aren’t unwittingly amusing, just merely dismal. The Zoom comedy will be remembered as a pandemic-specific genre, but the droll and succinct Staged (ABC iView) deserves to outlast 2020, with Michael Sheen and David Tennant (along with their partners) as exaggerated fictional versions of themselves, negotiating lockdown and extremely unproductive rehearsals for a postponed West End stage production. The second season of The Alienist (Netflix) is true to the first: Gothic menace, unspeakable crimes and nuanced protagonists in 1897 New York City. It’s a stately thriller replete with historic figures, and its depiction of how a city takes shape – through inequality, corruption and barbarity – feels equally pertinent to considering how a city might fall apart.

Craig Mathieson

Craig Mathieson is a television critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, an author, and the creator of the Binge-r streaming newsletter.


Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon in The Queen’s Gambit. Image © Phil Bray / Netflix

Read on

Image of a tampon and a sanitary pad viewed from above

A bloody shame: Paid period leave should be law

Australia’s workplace laws must better accommodate the reproductive body

Image of Gladys Berejiklian appearing before an ICAC hearing in October 2020. Image via ABC News

The cult of Gladys Berejiklian

What explains the hero-worship of the former NSW premier?

Cover image of ‘Bodies of Light’

‘Bodies of Light’ by Jennifer Down

The Australian author’s latest novel, dissecting trauma, fails to realise its epic ambitions

Image showing from left: The Tiger Who Came To Tea, Gladys Berejiklian and Thomas the Tank Engine

The little premier that might have

Does unquestioning, childish enthusiasm have a place in politics?