Superman on Television

Smallville: Episode Reviews

Season 9 - Episode 17: "Checkmate"



Reviewed by: Julian Finn

I'm tempted, in light of this episode, to downgrade "Escape" from a FAIL to an EPIC FAIL. Not because "Checkmate" was so much better (it was; even the stuff I didn't like was still better than last week's shipfest, with one notable exception) but because in it we discovered exactly why we got these two episodes in this order.

"Checkmate" should have been the first episode to air after the hiatus. It was a big, sweeping (occasionally messy) effect laden and fan servicey bonanza that felt like the type of episode that we normally get months of advance hype for. "Escape," by contrast, was in most places a FOTW/soap opera installment of the type the show should have grown out of four seasons ago. So why did we get "Checkmate" second? Because, without "Escape" we wouldn't know that Chlollie are well and truly a couple now and that, friends, shows us exactly who this show is written for most of the time.

But we knew that, didn't we?

"Take a big chunk of The OMAC Project, take the concept of "Who Watches the Watchmen?" and throw in some James Bond and you've got Checkmate." - Greg Rucka

I have a feeling these quotes from Wikipedia are going to become a weekly staple of this review. I'm starting to believe that, as the show winds down and the well of ideas is starting to go dry, the producers of Smallville have employed a team of poorly paid hamsters to do endless Wiki searches of anything to do with Superman and churn those nuggets out into plot summaries. Take a good look at that quote from Rucka. Can you hear the conversation that went on in the writer's room? I can.

Producer: (reading from a crumpled piece of paper smeared with hamster poop) What the heck is OMAC?

Writers: (in unison, while pounding their heads violently into a boardroom table covered in Checkmate Volumes I and II) Red Rum. Red Rum.

John Chisholm: (from across the room where he's emptying waste baskets) I believe it stands for "One man army corps," sir.

Producer: Hmmm. We own the rights to Watchmen, don't we? And Bond too I think.


John Chisholm: I think MGM owns Bond, sir. But maybe one of the non-essential background characters could be a stand-in?

Writers: One of us, one of us.

Producer: Oooh I like that, Janitor...

John Chisholm: Actually sir, I've been an intern here for about six years now and...

Producer: Right. Janitor, you write and I'll direct.

Writers: Gooble gobble, gooble gobble.

But really, "Checkmate" was just an expanded version of that one sentence quote. What was surprising was just how effective that translation was.

"Checkmate," more so than any episode in recent memory (yes, even Absolute Justice) felt like a comic book adaptation. Rookie writer John Chisholm did a fantastic job capturing the sensibilities of this genre, while also unfortunately falling victim to many of the shortcomings that are built into it.

Right from the start we get hit with a steaming pile of cheese that's poorly disguised as COOL VISUAL CUES. The castle Checkmate's operations are based out of? The biggest tower is shaped like a chess bishop. Amanda Waller, the White Queen? When we meet her she's one step away from cackling manically over her center piece chess board, all the pieces representing assets to the agency. Smallville, I know you don't do subtle very well or very often but allow me to point something out. If you're telling a story about a government agency so covert that no one knows they exist, please refrain from having its leaders slinking about in the shadows flinging clues everywhere like drunken baboons. That's not cool, it's not covert; it's just plain silly. Every time I saw a character turn over, pocket or vomit up a chess piece of some kind while mugging for the camera I groaned. But again, that's one of the negative side effects of writing an episode that is slavishly devoted to its comic book roots; there's going to be some telegraphing that's about as subtle as being stepped on by an elephant.

I thought I would like Pam Grier as Amanda Waller more than I did. I found myself disappointed, I think in no small part, because of how hammy she played the role. There was a real opportunity here for a morally complex character to be introduced; one for whom the ends justify the means and for whom tough choices are a burden shouldered heavily. And we see the odd glimpse of this spread out through the episode, but it's buried under layers of snark and hackneyed pie. Just once I'd like to see a new "villain" introduced that doesn't walk through every scene with a sign around their neck that says I KILL PUPPIES FOR FUN. Just once. Please?

Okay, so now we get treated to another COOL VISUAL CUE. Tess gets activated by finding an overturned white knight in her office, assembles a gun that's been broken into about a dozen pieces, and then Batmans down a garbage chute into skin tight leather, high heels and a wig. Cool scene, very stylish and it certainly fulfills the James Bond requirement of Mr. Rucka's synopsis but:

a) Why is the gun in pieces? Would it not be more convenient to have it pre-assembled for security purposes? Later in the episode Clark uses x-ray vision on the walls in Tess' office and sees an arsenal of ready to use weaponry that would make Master Sergeant proud. Is this a special, mandatory pistol that must never ever be assembled except for use in non-lethal combat with a non-powered billionaire wielding a bow? Shrug.

b) Why oh why, when everyone shadowing her on the street (including the guy she beats into submission; I hope he got danger pay) is in on the operation, is Tess wearing a Femme Nikita costume? The only person she's trying to disguise herself from is Ollie, and it's night. Couldn't she really oh, I don't know, use the crowd of people and the dark to obscure herself long enough to draw him in?

I dug the fight scene. I did. I know it was supposed to be another COOL VISUAL CUE, but it worked for me. Maybe it's because I loved the visual styles of both 300 and Watchmen but, even though it was derivative, it was still enough of a neat departure from the normal Smallville action sequence to make me stand up and take notice. I just wish the slow down effect on the voices hadn't sounded so much like the people being hit had gastrointestinal problems.

The sound design team really needs to find a new way to distort Ollie's voice. During the whole, "Black on black," conversation, I found myself cringing from time to time. That voice box works only in small doses; in full conversation it's ludicrous.

I know I should be griping about the fact that Ollie shoots a man with a crossbow bolt at close range and it doesn't go right through him, but Green Arrow is a fundamentally silly character in both the comics and on this show; he's useless without arrows and arrows are mostly fatal, so I'll bow to suspension of disbelief on this one: Ollie tasering a man at close range with an electric cross bow bolt gets a pass today.

Clark in Watchtower: Did I go blind or was he not wearing the S shield? That faded shield was the only thing that tied any of his behavior to the greater arc of his supposed transformation into Superman; without it he just looks like an angry Goth kid. I loved the effect of Clark speeding town to the train tracks on Chloe's monitor. I wasn't, however, so crazy about the adversarial exchange between Clark and Martian Manhunter. This is one of the serious flaws I'm having with how Clark is being written lately. Yes, Superman is an oft times serious character and yes, he has a very rigidly defined moral code and speaks his mind when he suspects wrongdoing.


I do not understand how the writers have taken those characteristics and turned them into this... this blundering bull, charging into situations and acting as if everyone is keeping things from him. You don't keep allies by treating them like criminals, especially not ones who've gone above and beyond for you over and over and over again. J'onn J'onzz gave up his powers and condemned himself to a human existence as a beat cop to save your life, Clark. Going Lana on him, accusing him of keeping secrets and then x-raying him (without even offering a lead shield) to prove your point? John should have face planted Clark in the dirt and then flown away as an extra flip of the bird. Being a twit is not the same as being heroic folks; please stop inserting brainless aggression in lieu of genuine tension.

Ollie's escape is great, even if it is reminiscent of the air surfing scene in Batman and Robin. It's made even greater later in the episode when Waller dresses down Tess for not securing and searching him properly. Actually, I damn near clapped at that point. There has typically been a lack in this show's writing of dramatic situations that actually make sense; this was a rare instance of a writer not just pointing out the stupidity of a character's actions but actually lambasting them for it. I loved it.

Yarghhh, a suicide pill in the tooth scene! Another Bond moment and one that works despite its silliness because it gives Martian Manhunter cause to use his telepathic abilities instead of just posturing and asking questions.

I actually wrote into my notes this line:

"Sigh, why didn't John use telepathy to find out what he wanted to know?"

And then I was promptly forced to erase it when the power use was actually written in. One of the things I noticed about this episode was the fact that, for the first time I can remember, each powered character actually got to use their abilities in appropriate and often amazing ways. Either John Chisholm is just the first writer in ages to figure out how to work with the toys he's been given, or the producers managed to free up some money for the effects budget; either way I don't care, it was awesome to see.

Waller's none too subtle threat to Tess in the next scene played well, but Tess seemed almost happy that Green Arrow had escaped. Which makes no sense, unless she already knows who he is. Which we're told she doesn't. I'm getting more than a little tired of the flip flopping with this character; it feels like no one knows what to do with her so they just fill her up with random emotions and reactions wherever tension is needed. It's arbitrary and ultimately distracting.

I have a question. Chloe brings up (and I remembered) that Sylvester Pemberton named Checkmate as being the ultimate destruction of the Justice Society, which means they've been active for decades. If that's the case, where the heck have they been over the nine years of this series? We've had alien invasions, escaped Phantom Zone detainees, Zod/Lex blacking out Metropolis, Kryptonian symbols burned miles high into the surface of the planet and freaks of the week ad nauseum; in short the world has been significantly scarred and almost destroyed dozens of times in the last decade. If Checkmate's mandate is to monitor and regulate the activities of superhumans while protecting humanity from their excesses, they've been doing an incredibly poor job. Of course, this is just the result of this storyline being shoehorned into the shoe with the magic wand of the retcon, but it really sticks out here as a gassy hiccup in plausibility.

Oh, and now that we've established how edgy and mature Chloe and Ollie's relationship is because they're "not in a relationship," now they're acting like they're in a relationship. Yuck.

The unmasking conversation between Tess and Ollie is an almost perfect replica of the Catwoman/Batman reveal in Batman Returns; this is the third direct rip off of a Batman movie in the first twenty minutes of this episode. I'm now tempted to find out if John Chisholm is a pseudonym for someone long associated with Warner Brothers who may have committed some horrible travesty of writing recently. John Peters, perhaps?

Clark snoops around the morgue and finds that bloody chess piece and I laughed out loud when he immediately made the connection between the knight piece and Tess. I'll come out and apologize if anyone can find a reference at any point, in any episode, that Clark is privy to information that would make him take that leap in logic. I think the inference was supposed to be that he recognized the piece from Tess' board in Luthor manor, but it's a plain, wooden, white knight; I've personally seen thousands like it in my lifetime. This just felt like a case of, "Clark needs to be moved from the morgue to the fight scene between Tess and Ollie, so for two and a half seconds he needs to be clairvoyant. Go." Again, I'll apologize if I'm wrong, but this just felt lazy.

The use of fire to capture Martian Manhunter was great and all, but how did Waller know he'd be standing right there? What if he'd been over half a square, would she have risked incinerating him? That was a very specific trap that made almost no sense, but it was cool so they put it in. Again it was a very James Bond, shark with lasers strapped to the head kind of moment, but this was that kind of episode so we just roll with it. I don't know how Waller is expecting to recruit any of these guys voluntarily; if she's done her research she should know that menacing and "subtle" threats probably won't work, but at every moment she seems about as friendly as Glenn Beck on Health Reform Sunday.

Chloe's kidnap scene made me giggle. The whole, scan/counter scan bit reminded me both of the horrible movie OS used on computer displays in the late nineties and, to a slightly lesser but no less enjoyable extent, the Spy vs. Spy comic strips in MAD magazine. The whole conversation between Chloe and the doctor seemed cribbed from the Rachel Dawes/Dr. Crane exchange in Batman Begins, and Chloe suddenly buying his change in tone and demeanor makes her the dumbest person alive. Which, considering her role in relation to the Justice League, puts the whole planet in danger. Yipeee.

Now we come to the great hairy, cancerous mole that almost ruined the episode for me.

First, before I really get into it, let me say this; Tess, flat out, would have told Clark what he wanted to know. This was bad characterization from the start of their conversation.

"Stay out of this, Clark," she says, like she's not about to go into a fear induced coma when he bursts into the room. And I'm a billionaire. Three episodes ago Clark damn near incinerated this woman (granted while under the effects of gem kryptonite, but still) in a murderous rage. She knows that she's standing between a man who can shoot fire from his eyes, who hates her with the kind of passion usually only found in Greek epics, and the information that will lead him to his kidnapped friend. Is anyone honestly going to tell me that this woman would try and tough it out for even a millisecond before folding like limp noodle? But we have to believe that Tess is tough, that Tess stands up for her principles and keeps her oaths (even though we've been given evidence time after time that she doesn't) and so we get treated to a scene that even crap would turn its nose up at.

Batman doesn't rescue kittens from trees.

Green Lantern doesn't run away from fights.

The Flash doesn't break for pedestrians.

Are you picking up what I'm putting down? Superman does not bully people with no powers into confessions by threatening them with death by gravity. Doesn't happen. This was terrible butchering of the character and it underscored just how intensely the people writing this show don't understand him. And then it gets better as Clark shoves Tess into a wall at super-speed. This is the opposite of forward progress. It's not cool, it doesn't make Clark more grounded in the real world, and it's not gritty. It's simply horrendous characterization for the sake of creating drama and it flat out sucks. It's not quite as bad as the twin towers scene in Persuasion but it's close; these people do not understand how Superman works as a character. Which is confusing to me; they're clearly figuring out Martian Manhunter, they don't mess up Ollie too bad, they've got Zod down, the Smallville portrayal of Lex was inarguably the best live action version we've seen, so why do they keep trying to turn Clark into Batman? Just utter garbage.

Moving on.

The use of shape shifting to trick the guard was terrific; I can't stress enough how much I loved the use of powers in this episode.

This exchange between Waller and Clark borders on brilliance in places. This is one of the places where you actually see what Amanda Waller could have been, absent the hammy mwah-ha-has. I especially loved the use of, "step out of the shadows;" Waller means it literally, she wants to see his face, but the secondary impact is one we all feel; we want Clark to step out of the shadows and take on the mantle of Superman. We want him to pick a side and, even as part of us wants him to tear Checkmate apart, there's a delicious irony in one of its leaders voicing our desires out loud. This whole scene is well played until Waller ups the ick factor with that creepy up-and-down glance and come on line before asking for Clark's loyalty.

This might wind up being controversial, but I absolutely loved the rescue scene. It looked like a stop motion comic and was filled with all kinds of iconic goodies, right down to a good old fashioned bullet catch. I know some people will think it was cheesy, but I thought it was a great effect that really allowed you to appreciate the fusion of comic book and live action, which is what this show should be at its best.

All things being equal the show wraps up pretty well. I loathe the fact that John erases Waller's memories; ignoring all the ethical issues that brings up, the fact that we've reset to the status quo undoes all the jeopardy that was introduced in the episode. It kind of makes me feel like there was no point. But the setup for what I assume will be the introduction of Maxwell Lord looked good; I think that they're using the "Martian Manhunter infiltrates Checkmate to bring it down" story line that acted as a side arc in 52. I might be wrong but that's the feeling that I get.

Oh, and we also got to see Chlollie holding hands.

This one was tough; the ledge scene almost sank it, but ultimately there was too much fun and too much cool here for me to slam it.

Verdict: PASS (but just barely)

My apologies to John Chisholm. You are probably neither a janitor nor a six year intern, I just couldn't find any other writing credits for you and, knowing Hollywood, this is not an entirely implausible scenario.

And where did she find someone to design that foam insert with each piece of the pistol cuddled in its own precise niche. Can you order those on Amazon?

That's blatant Batman theft number four for those counting.

And Identity Crisis covers it in far better detail than I can here, go read it if you haven't.



Reviewed by: Douglas Trumble

Super short run on sentence summary: Checkmate springs a trap on the Green Arrow leading to the capture of the Manhunter and Watchtower which doesn't last long thanks to The Blur busting in, kicking butt, and taking names.

Now that's more like it!

I liked this one. It had drama, action, and some pretty big plot progression along with some fantastic interaction between this universe's big four currently active Supers (Blur, Watchtower, Green Arrow, and the Martian Manhunter). Heck there was even shout outs to other supers in the growing list of active heroes which is always nice to hear now and then.

I am also greatly impressed with the way this episode was shot. It was new and something different and, while I liked it a lot, even if I hadn't I would still be impressed with their willingness to give it a shot.

The stop motion freeze frame idea was awesome. I am not sure if I'd want it every week but they did a really good job on it here. Especially in the Blur's rescue of Watchtower which was just fantastic. A real highlight in this episode if not the season. I admit with the neat action with Lady Lex and Green Arrow early on, I thought we might get ripped off on the Superman action in this one. My fear was unfounded as they had a fantastic pay off at the end with Clark getting the most bad ass scene of the bunch.

I know we've seen bullet time action many times but this was actual freeze frame and not just slow motion. I found it really gave the scenes almost a comic book panel feel. This really helped show the power of the heroes in action and, in a way, helped make the action feel bigger than maybe it really was. Anything that can up the action in this show is a plus in my book. I'll be interested to see if and how they use this style again. (Zod fight? Maybe? Please? Anything that makes it more epic than the Doomsday fight please).

I don't know if showing super powers in action are cheaper or more expensive to do this way but I would certainly not be opposed to them doing it that way a bit more (as long as they don't overdo it).

There were a couple of issues I had with the episode. All of them minor.

For one both the wife and I thought Tess knew Chloe was the Watchtower but it was pretty clear in this episode that she didn't. Something I found odd to say the least. It should be pretty obvious to her. She knows Clark is The Blur. She knows The Blur works with the Green Arrow and Watchtower and she knows Clark is very good friends with Oliver and Chloe. At the very least she should have suspected Chloe as being Watchtower and just went after her first. Plus she shouldn't really have been all that surprised to find out Oliver was Green Arrow.

I guess overall I found Lady Lex to be a bit inconsistent in this one. She just seemed a bit too emotionally vulnerable at times and her shock at finding out Oliver's secret was a bit too hard to believe.

Second thing was Waller (or the world for that matter) doesn't know that "The Blur" is from another planet? I thought Lois' stories on The Blur covered all that? If she did know then why was she talking about him picking sides against the aliens she suspects are coming? Wouldn't she just assume he was with them already? That bit of info wasn't clear to me. Minor issue since I guess we can assume The Blur's origins are unknown to the world at large but I honestly thought they were.

More bad on me than bad on the show but it was an issue noted by me so I mentioned it here. If anyone can point out to me when/where this was covered I'd appreciate it. My first thought is the Wonder Twins episode but maybe I am falsely remembering something from one of the alternate future episodes (with more than one of those it can get a bit murky which highlights the dangers of going to that well so many times).

The fact that Checkmate was after Watchtower and not the Blur was a neat twist. I admit I was expecting Clark to be their main target in the early portions of the episode. When it was revealed who their main target was it made perfect sense. Watchtower has all the info on pretty much all the known supers out there. She is the main cog in the young JLA at this time.

I'm interested to find out who J'onn is working with. Hawkman would be my first guess but I am not so sure. I did really enjoy how they showcased some of J'onn's powers this week.

Not sure if Clark was smart showing his face to Amanda Waller but I did like that he confronted her. I loved Clark's boldness in that moment. Facing the challenge head on and all that stuff. Overall Clark was on his A game in this one. He put all the pieces together on his own and took bold action when needed. Sure Arrow helped him a bit with a timely power outage but Clark took the initiative and used his abilities smartly to locate where they were holding Chloe hostage and sent a serious message to her kidnappers when he rescued her. I think they might think twice the next time they want to tug on Superman's cape or kidnap his spunky computer geek friend.

In addition I'm hoping now that Checkmate has seen Clark and Chloe's face they will both work a bit more on developing their secret identities.

This week's WTF moment: Lady Lex keeping her gun disassembled in her stash. You have an emergency weapons stash for quick access like that why exactly would you have it stored so that you'd have to take 60 seconds to put the thing together? I know weapons need to be broke down and cleaned regularly to be reliable but seriously? Totally What the Fudge?

So no filler at all this week. Major movement on the plot with Checkmate and their gearing up to fight the clones here. You really do not want to miss this one.

Great action, characters at their best, neat plot twists, and nice plot movement.

I give it 5 out of 5!

See you next week.


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