The Queen’s Gambit begins like a gothic fairy tale. An orphaned child arrives at a group home where gray, windblown branches scrape against windowpanes as though it’s the British moors and not Kentucky outside. Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) may turn out to be an American chess prodigy, but she starts out like Jane Eyre, watchful, quiet, alone. The Queen’s Gambit, a show about chess, engages in its own kind of gamesmanship: The first move is only the beginning. The orphanage may dope the girls up on the tranquilizers that Beth will come to rely on, but it’s not the chattel house of abuse and horror we’ve been primed to expect—just as the creepy, watchful janitor isn’t a predator but a chess teacher, the evil stepmother isn’t evil at all, the condescending chess nerds aren’t vindictive misogynists, the Communists aren’t heartless automatons. Most delightfully of all, the overconfident string bean anachronistically decked out in Keanu’s Matrix costume isn’t the living worst. Instead he’s the series’ stealth romantic lead.
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In the scheme of the show, Benny Watts, the legume in question, is no more important than the janitor or the stepmother, but he’s got way more swag. Watt is played by the 30-year-old actor Thomas Brodie-Sangster—which means the kid in Love Actually has grown up to have BDE (also an unexpected quality from a seer on Game of Thrones). When Benny’s first introduced, in the third episode, he’s holding court, confidently opining about various chess strategies to a group of hangers-on. He looks like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s Mike Teavee after he’s been stretched back out, wearing a wide-brimmed felt almost-cowboy hat and leather trenchcoat, with a dagger bound around his thigh. Despite his macho posturing, he has literally brought a knife to a chess fight, and as Beth sizes him up as high on his own supply, so do we—even though he beats her handily at the end of the episode.
But Benny, just like everyone else on The Queen’s Gambit, is not what he first seems to be. Despite his alpha-male accoutrement, he’s not sexist or fixated on his own dominance. He likes challenging, but he also likes being challenged, at least by Beth. When the two meet again, he noses around her. He talks a lot and she less, but they take to sauntering around each other, different kind of birds slyly showing off their plumage. (Whatever you want to say about his outfits, it’s not that he doesn’t care!) After he hustles her in multiple games of speed chess, she runs back to her room flushed with a look of glee-anger-excitement-exasperation-disbelief that adds up to: horniness. An episode later, she’s agreed to train with him in New York City, where he ditches the hat and the shoes and slinks about his basement apartment with feline grace, their roles reversed. Beth destroys Benny in multiple games of speed chess and he takes it like a man. Turned on by her excellence, he gets horny too.
The show puts a lot of nice snappy reversals into the two-episode stretch when it’s mostly just the Beth and Benny show. When they sit down to play at a tournament, the camera immediately cuts away and picks up at a bar afterward, when Beth has beaten him. They move beer bottles around like chess pieces and he convinces her to let him train her for her trip to Russia. The episode ends with him making a surprising power move: Forget about sex, it’s not gonna happen. But he’s not the only one playing this game. When they do go to bed together, the camera cuts away just as it did from their chess match—for them, a similarly intimate exchange.
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After Beth blows her match in Paris and won’t go back to New York, Benny, though hurt, sticks with her, encourages her, pushes her to go. He’s too self-assured to lash out and does right by her, even when she doesn’t seem to much care about doing right by herself.. The most sports-movie moment in the whole show comes when Benny and a whole gang of lesser chess boys whom Beth has defeated and who, instead of resenting her, adore her for it, call long distance to Russia to help her pull off her final match. Benny is, of course, the leader: It’s his apartment, it’s his phone call, he’s the better player, but he got the team together for Beth. In the end, she has to win it alone, but the group’s joy and Benny’s understated happiness upon learning of her victory is one of the climactic feel-good moments. The gothic orphan finally found her family, and maybe her fella.