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August 30, 2022

The Queen’s Gambit: TV Show Breakdown

The Queen’s Gambit is a coming-of-age drama about a young chess champion, set in the 1950s and 60s. It is one of the most successful Netflix series of recent years; in fact, it saw record sales of chessboards with one company seeing an increase of 1000%. But what was it about this series that captured the world's imagination and how can you emulate its success in your writing?

Free screenplay of The Queen's Gambit

Don't forget to check out our free screenplay of The Queen's Gambit. It will help you to follow along with our breakdown and it will also serve you in good stead when you come to format and structure your own TV series. Download it here.

What is The Queen’s Gambit about?

The Queen’s Gambit follows Beth Harmon, an orphan from Kentucky. Following the death of her mother, she is taken into care.

She struggles with addiction to prescription drugs she is given at the orphanage to subdue her. Beth is soon taken aside by the janitor Mr. Shaibel who introduces her to the game of chess, teaching him everything he knows.

Beth is later adopted by a couple who could not have children and wins her first chess championship, dominated by men. Despite being initially skeptical about her adoptive daughter’s chance of success, Beth’s adopted mother supports her in her ambitions. Her adopted father leaves the home.

Beth slowly progresses through the ranks, attending chess championships all around the world, earning prize money, and encountering allies and love interests along the way. Beth’s addiction to drugs and alcohol continues.

The series culminates in Beth traveling to Moscow to face the world champion amidst a media frenzy.  

What are the major themes in The Queen’s Gambit?

The major themes in The Queen’s Gambit are triumph over the personal adversary and self-discipline.

Throughout the series we see Harmon struggle with addictions of all kinds including alcohol and drugs. We see the impact this has on her mental health and the strain it puts on her friendships and relationships with men. It also nearly costs her the dream of becoming a world champion as her performance slips.

Beth Harmon in thought as she participates in a chess championship game.
Sales of chess boards soared as a result of The Queen's Gambit.

In many ways we can say The Queen’s Gambit is a classic bildungsroman as Beth grows up before our eyes; when she is orphaned she is forced out of her normal existence and into the adult world to grow up like the teenage caveman leaving the tribe to enter the jungle and fend for himself.

Is The Queen’s Gambit based on a real-life story?

The character of Beth Harman is fictional and The Queen’s Gambit is not a biopic. However, the character has some similarities to Bobby Fischer, a teenage chess champion in the 1950s and 60s.

Like Harmon, Fischer also studied Russian to better prepare himself against Russian champion Boris Spassky.

Anya Taylor-Joy who played Beth.
Anya Taylor-Joy received praise for her role as Beth Harmon.

In general, however, the series is a work of fiction drawing on different figures from the world of chess. It is based on a novel of a relatively obscure novel of the same name first published in the 1980s.

Is The Queen’s Gambit based on a novel?

The TV series is based on a novel by Walter Tevis, first published in 1983. The novel was not massively successful during Tevis’ lifetime - he died in 1984.

A reprint in 2003 brought it to the attention of new readers and garnered reviews in the national American press. This led to several attempts to adapt it for the screen in the early 2000s, one of which was said to include Heath Ledger.

Ultimately, however, it didn’t get turned into a series until 2020.

How many episodes of The Queen’s Gambit are there?

There are seven episodes of The Queen’s Gambit series. This is unusual for a TV series. The most usual format is to have 6 episodes. This generally fits nicely into a three-act structure with two episodes per act.

If we analyze the series using the Save the Cat format then episode 5 generally ends on a cliffhanger after the ‘All Is Lost’ beat to create tension and jeopardy before the conclusion.

A mini-series generally consists of three episodes with a simple setup, mid-point, and conclusion structure with a four-episode mini-series sometimes used to fill out the midpoint and create extra jeopardy.

A 10-episode series format used by a drama such as The Crown lends itself more to an episodic contained drama, in which each episode stands much more on its own and contributes to a wider narrative that is only concluded in the final episode.

The inclusion of a seventh episode may well have come later in the planning stages. It is possible The Queen’s Gambit started as six episodes but with too much story so it was extended to include a further episode.

It’s clear that episode 6 ends with a Dark Night of the Soul story beat, with Beth entering a days-long alcohol and drugs bender after being forced to buy her house from her adoptive father. The appearance of Joelene at her front door leaves us on a cliffhanger for the final episode, bringing back a character we haven’t seen since episode 2.

What structure does The Queen’s Gambit use?

The structure of The Queen’s Gambit is that of a classic bildungsroman. Our protagonist Beth leaves home - the orphanage or her parents - and is forced out into the world. Chess represents her escape.

She replaces her absent father (Allston) with a surrogate father, Mr. Shaibel. In episode 2 he sends her $5 so that she can enter the chess tournament.

In this new world of chess, however, she finds she has different problems and obstacles to overcome, mainly to be taken seriously as a woman playing chess.

At the midpoint of the narrative in episode 5, Fork, the B story involving her love interest in Harry Beltik unravels when he realizes she is so obsessed with chess that the two of them could never have a meaningful relationship. Her obsession with chess mirrors her addiction to alcohol and prescription drugs.

By the final round of the final game against Borgov, Beth is finally able to beat him without having to rely on the drugs, having overcome her addiction, with the support of all the chess players she has met along the way who come together to analyze her game for her in the break.

What are the key takeaways from The Queen’s Gambit TV show breakdown?

The Queen’s Gambit is a classic triumph of adversary story. Beth Harmon is the underdog outsider. Separated from her parents, as an orphan she seeks our surrogate parents. Sent into the unknown (the world of Chess) to fulfill her destiny and become an adult, she overcomes her battles by channeling her addictive personality from alcohol and drugs into chess.

The Queen’s Gambit explores inner conflict and character arcs well and we can take note of this.

The Queen’s Gambit is also highly structured. Each episode is largely centered around the different chess matches that take Beth to different countries where she meets harder and new opponents that create new dynamics and force her into confronting her internal conflicts and addictions.

Think about what external factors you can use to your advantage to structure your series. If you are writing a police procedural or a crime drama generally each episode revolves around a new case.

Happy writing from the Arc Studio team.

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The Queen’s Gambit: TV Show Breakdown
Harry Verity

Harry is a professional writer. His first novel The Talk Show was published in the U.S and the U.K by Bloodhound Books in 2021 and he is currently working on adapting it for screen. He's also written for Media Magazine - a UK magazine for students of A-level Film, Media and Television Studies. In addition, he was a senior ghostwriter at Story Terrace from 2015- 2021, the private memoir firm.

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