This year’s Emmy race for Best Limited Series is highly competitive, and while acclaimed shows The Underground Railroad, WandaVision, Mare of Eastown, and I May Destroy You all vie for the top prize, the chess drama The Queen’s Gambit is far and away the frontrunner. The miniseries has been obsessed over since its debut last October, with praise centered around the articulate writing of showrunner Scott Frank and the remarkable central performance by Anya Taylor-Joy as world chess champion Beth Harmon. The breakout series was so popular it actually reignited national interest in chess.
The Queen’s Gambit’s popularity made it an Emmy frontrunner, but while the series received eighteen nominations overall, one name was surprisingly left off its final tally. Bill Camp wasn’t recognized in the Best Supporting Actor race, a surprising omission considering he’d been previously nominated at the Screen Actors Guild awards, which combined lead and supporting performances for limited series and television movies into one category. It’s an unfortunate snub, as Camp delivered a powerful performance that resonated throughout the seven-episode run, despite his limited screen time.
Camp co-stars as Mr. Shaibel, a stoic janitor at Methuen Home for Girls who is isolated from most human interaction. Similarly alone due to her irritation with fellow classmates and the aftermath of her parents’ sudden death, a nine-year-old Beth (Isla Johnston) engages with the older man, who she watches silently play chess matches against an invisible opponent. After her persistence wears down the aloof custodian’s patience, he reluctantly agrees to teach the game to the young child.
Shaibel is not a typical mentor, and Camp captures the weariness of a man who finds his only solace in the study of the game. Camp’s steadfast grimace is only broken when he’s engaged in a game, and it’s clear that chess isn’t a pastime for him and he treats its rules with the utmost reverence. Seeing Camp’s subtle change of energy once he begins moving the pieces is a perfect way to introduce Beth, and the viewers at large, of the potential of chess as a complex strategic competition and not a silly game of amusement.
The honesty that Camp brings in these first scenes standouts compared to the plasticity of the other Methuen Home employees, and his performance continues to feel novel as Beth meets competitive, eccentric characters within the competitive chess world. While Camp bluntly (and with a touch of humor) expresses that he has no interest in coaching a novice, his surprise at her inherent abilities allows their relationship to proceed.
Shaibel treats Beth with the respect he would a contemporary, and he has no idea how important this is for the traumatized girl at this stage in her childhood. Shaibel is the first adult that Beth meets who doesn’t talk down to her or trivialize her idiosyncrasies as “quirks” that she’ll eventually grow out of. Camp resists the temptation to become overly warmed or show obvious signs of being impressed, but the subtle narrowing of his concentration establishes how exciting chess can be, a theme that the series would expand upon once Camp’s character fades away.
Camp is also instrumental in establishing a reverence for the game, as his calm demeanor grows vexed by those who dismiss its value. His interest in Beth’s development as a civil player is the first sign that the austere man has a personal stake in watching her succeed, but it’s also important for the series to show a storied history of chess with respect between players.
Throughout his first two episodes, Camp doesn’t get any expository moments where he “opens up” to Beth about a history that would play as an obvious sympathy card, but the crusty janitor becomes quite charming. He doesn’t force social engagement on her; the two communicate through chess, a trait Beth would adopt and retain for the rest of her life. While Shaibel quickly learns that Beth’s skills far outmatch his own, he does teach her a respect for the game that he feels is important to her development as a player. Camp doesn’t approach these lessons as Shaibel transforming into a more nurturing, inspirational mentor figure, but as one player explaining the game’s virtue to another.
Camp’s role in the second episode “Exchanges” exemplifies a feeling viewers would be accustomed to later in the series: the thrill of watching Beth outwit her opponents. While Camp doesn’t instantly become some cheering spectator who watches from the sidelines, the kind look in his eyes indicates he knows that his role is fulfilled once she is entered within the tournament. As any of Beth’s sneering opponents learn within moments of beginning a game, her brilliance speaks for itself.
Camp’s steadfast reserved nature keeps Beth grounded; he compliments her when she makes inventive moves, but he’s never overtly celebratory. Shaibel never labels Beth as a “genius,” and by not exaggerating her prowess, he drives her to improve. It’s this lesson that there will always be room for improvement that lays the groundwork for Beth’s abilities to grow for the rest of her life. There’s an awkwardness to the way Shaibel views success and Camp’s hindered ability to express pride, a trait that would become a hallmark of Anya Taylor-Joy’s acclaimed performance.
While Camp’s primary role is within the first two episodes, his presence is felt throughout the series. He was Beth’s gateway into the world of chess, and the show’s visual callbacks to moves Shaibel taught her help visualize the intricate details of the game that could be confusing for even viewers that are experienced chess players. The title The Queen’s Gambit is itself a term that Shaibel coins.
Shaibel’s off-screen death comes at a crushing point for Beth during the anticipation to her match against the Soviet-Russian world champion chess player Vasily Borgov (Marcin Dorociński) in the finale “End Game.” Beth is at her most anxious and struggles to communicate to those that show her empathy, and losing her paternal figure only heightens her disparity ahead of the climax. Camp doesn’t need to show up in a sentimental flashback to remind the viewer of what he meant to Beth, as his performance early on is powerful enough to keep that memory intact.
Camp is one of those veteran actors whose face is familiar given how many great films and shows he’s appeared in, but a role like this showcases him in a way that’s unprecedented. Bringing in a famous face to play Mr. Shaibel would’ve detracted from the focus on Beth, and like the characters they portray, Camp allows Taylor-Joy to take the spotlight.
During the thrilling final match, it’s hard to not feel like Shaibel is still watching Beth, silently stirred by her recognition as world champion. An actor who can be so present regardless if they’re on screen is rare, and Camp’s excellent performance deserved to be shared within the awards that The Queen’s Gambit receives.
KEEP READING: See How ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ Was Made in 14-Minute Making-Of Documentary
The Hulu series will be co-written by Park.
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