‘The Queen’s Gambit’ Blasted as a ‘Parody of History’ Amidst Mostly Glowing Reviews

It seems like everyone is watching — and tweeting about — The Queen’s Gambit. And that’s arguably true; the new Netflix series is the platform’s most successful original series of all time.

The Queen’s Gambit, starring Anya Taylor-Joy as a young chess savant, is also receiving glowing reviews from critics — so many, in fact, that The Queen’s Gambit currently sits at a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. However, not everyone agrees with that perfect percentage.

[Spoiler alert: Some non-specific spoilers for The Queen’s Gambit appear below].

‘The Queen’s Gambit’ reviewer casts the show in a new, negative light

Cast members Marcin Dorocinski as Vasily Borgov and Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon in The Queen's Gambit
Marcin Dorocinski as Vasily Borgov and Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon in The Queen’s Gambit | Cr. PHIL BRAY/NETFLIX © 2020

As a Vulture critic pointed out recently, many 5-star reviews of The Queen’s Gambit center around its aesthetics. Several of them make the comparison to Mad Men.

TV reviewers from publication to publication have noted the gorgeous fashion, the decadent set design, the lovely cinematography. Have we really gotten that desperate for 1960s iconography since Mad Men went off the air?

“Whether evoking Mad Men or The Crown, these comparisons always wind back to the show’s aesthetic pleasures, suggesting that it depicts history less by way of content than style,” Vulture reported.

The historical aspects, the Vulture writer noted, is where the Netflix series actually suffers. Thus, they’ve come up with a different period project to draw a line to:

… a better comparison for The Queen’s Gambit would be The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Both shows knock you out with their overly lush costume design and production, while their beautiful white heroines somehow slip unscathed past all the roiling traumas of their respective ages. 

Like Maisel (also a well-reviewed, not to mention Emmy-studded series), the Netflix show draws you in with a fabulous wardrobe and stunning cinematography. But, it also glides easily over tumultuous periods of world history, without digging into anything real or gritty. As the publication explained:

… even [Beth’s] frequent spirals into addiction … no longer register as moments of concern, so much as opportunities for cinematographic play while Taylor-Joy stumbles around in her underwear. Everything potentially traumatizing or problematic gets actively taken up as fodder for beauty.

Is the Netflix original series is the ‘Forrest Gump’ of chess?

But the Vulture critic had even harsher words for the mega-popular series.

The Queen’s Gambit might as well be the Forrest Gump of chess,” they wrote, referencing the 1994 film that places its main character in increasingly-unbelievable world-altering moments in history. “It is what one friend dubbed a ‘fake deep period piece.’”

From beginning to end, this reviewer simply wasn’t buying it. Vulture again:

The Queen’s Gambit begins almost as a parody of history: a disheveled Beth wakes up in a sumptuous hotel room in ‘PARIS 1967,’ as a lavender intertitle boldly announces. The wallpaper, curtains, and décor here scream fin de siècle excess.

In other words, it’s trying too hard to be too characteristic of its time. But again — without diving into what it means to be alive in that time.

“Nice wallpaper doesn’t necessarily hurt — but a period piece’s aesthetic immersion is typically meant to jar with the world’s imminent collapse,” the critique continued. All those “vintage beer cans” and “coiffed hair” styles do is “provide visual pleasure,” the piece argues, and perhaps would have more value at “some hipster bar today.”

The series ending also ignored the Cold War time period

Vulture simply can’t stop dragging the show, noting that the production and costume designers’ “only crime might actually be doing their jobs better than the show’s writers and directors.”

While the Cold War aesthetic is everywhere in The Queen’s Gambit — amid “the muted color palettes, geometrical patterns, claustrophobic wallpaper,” once again, historical context is almost absent.

“… [The Queen’s Gambit] never delivers any sense of global suspense associated with its historical moment,” the Vulture critic explained.
Instead, it offers a different vision of the Cold War — a happier, less paranoid one.” This is more than evident in the series’ ending — which appears to exist completely outside of the era in which its set.

“That it ends with a Beth who is only more happy, beautiful, and safe — when everything about her personal life and her historical moment suggest otherwise — feels like wish fulfillment,” the critic wrote.

Twitter discusses ‘The Queen’s Gambit’: is it good, or just pretty?

A similar conversation to the issues brought up in the Vulture piece came up recently on Twitter. Screenwriter Bess Kalb tweeted that her family was engaging in a spirited debate: “Was “The Queen’s Gambit” good or was it extremely dumb but shot beautifully?”

In the Twitter thread, Kalb pointed to several lines of dialogue from the series to make her point.

“This is real dialogue from The Queen’s Gambit: ‘I’m not your guardian angel. I’m not here to save you. Hell, I can barely save me,'” she tweeted.

Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon in episode 2 of The Queen's Gambit
Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon in episode 2 of The Queen’s Gambit | Cr. KEN WORONER/NETFLIX © 2020

RELATED: ‘The Queen’s Gambit’: Is Beth Harmon a Real Person?

Writer Matt Goldich chimed in on the Twitter convo: “Exceedingly well-acted, beautifully shot, interesting subject matter and a timely, welcome escape from the real world.”

And perhaps pretty, entertaining, and escapist is all a series needs to be at this point — a bleak time in American history in which the future is entirely unpredictable. (Not unlike that Cold War!) Still, we shan’t pretend that The Queen’s Gambit exists as anything but period fiction — emphasis on the fiction.