I heard it was good. Frenzied reviews filled the air waves. But something made me skipped over its icon button every time I got on Netflix. “I’ll watch it next time.” I would tell myself. “I’m not in the mood for this.” The fact is, I couldn’t imagine how a show on chess-playing can be exciting. It’s probably a serious drama with superb performance that depicts the path of a prodigy from zilch to glory that intertwines with complex relationships and overcoming obstacles that finally brings her to a new height. But I just wanted some gunfights and explosions when I go to Netflix. I’ll get to the Gambit one of these days, I told myself. The last push I needed was from listening to The Collective Cast https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/the-collective-cast/id1543230435?i=1000502482949 by Michael Kinsman and Mike Bain. Not only their conversation reveal true adoration for the show. They also informed me that the script comes from a novel with the same title. That got me curious. Once I started on the first episode, I’ve found that it is a page-turner…or, an episode-flipper.
Elizabeth Harmon, the orphaned child of a single mom, discovers the world of chess in the basement of the orphanage when she is only nine. It takes no more than five minutes for the audience to realize that she has extraordinary talent in this game and that she will be exceptional towards the end of story. What happens between now and then requires no less than brilliance of storytelling from the director to formulate a complex life of various experiences to transform the larva within the cocoon to become the butterfly. But, if you think that transformation is about chess-playing, you would have missed the whole point. Harmon is good from the beginning when she first touches the chessboard. She excels beyond good in no time. Winning is like breathing to her. It’s not about whether she knows how. It’s about how fast she can do it. Like any good literature, the main character must overcome a problem. Frodo needs to bring the ring to Mt. Doom in The Lord of the Rings. Luke Skywalker needs to confront his father in Star Wars. And Harry Potter needs to destroy the last horcurx in order to defeat Voldemort. So, of course, Harmon will need to beat someone who is an extremely strong player, who turns out to be Borgov, the Soviet champion. But Borgov is not her “problem”. The bigger problem, or problems, that she must overcome exists within rather than without. Alcohol and drug dependence, not trusting others, and lacking an anchor relationship in her life all become too real to untangle even in her chess matches. “Do you know why the Soviets play so well?” The character Benny Watts asks her. “It’s because they play as a team. We are all individualists.” The coming together of her friends ‘behind the scene’ in the final championship tournament that helps her to ultimately beat her overarching opponent deserves special attention in defining the tone of the seven episodes. In so many scenes throughout the show, chess tournaments are often depicted as lone gunslingers facing off opponents in gun fights. One could almost expect to see tumble weeds rolling over between the stare of the players. The only appropriate background music would be the theme from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Not only these tournaments are nothing less than exciting to serious chess players, non-players would also feel the intensity through the creative visual and linguistic portrayal of the games. While at times the audience could imagine they are watching gun fights, they would feel that they are spectating baseball games at other times. Harmon’s winning the championship in Moscow combines the collective efforts of her friends and her personal talent. On the outside, she realizes that she built her success on group efforts. On the inside, it reflects that the character finally learns that she can have someone else have her back. This is advancement.