Smallville Episode 9.17 ‘Checkmate’ Review

Posted on April 9, 2010


TVSummary: A rather tepid exercise for an episode that was supposed to be so plot-heavy for the season arc.
Rating: 7/10

Review Trailer
The quick skinny on the episode.

Tess is activated for a Checkmate mission in which she captures Green Arrow so that Checkmate can recruit him. While investigating Ollie’s brief disappearance, Clark runs into J’onn J’onzz who is running his own investigation for some mysterious, unseen outside force. Clark, Ollie, Chloe and J’onn are introduced to Amanda Waller. Waller captures Chloe as leverage to get the heroes to join her cause against the possible alien invasion.

** Note: Review contains spoilers if you have not seen the episode.**

Feature-Length Review after the jump.

Feature-Length Review
The in-depth review.

I’ll cut right to the chase. This episode was disappointing. What should have been a plot-heavy game changer (or game strengthener) was strictly an exercise in style over substance. To say Tim Scanlan‘s directorial debut felt like the overkill a lot of first-time directors put into their work would be an understatement. Yes, there was a polish to the episode, but for the most part the stylistic choices were too jarring to make the episode engaging. Which is sad for me because I did like how they were shaking things up the beginning of this season from the traditional look and feel of the show. This just went too far in the opposite direction.

I actually loved the pacing of the episode and felt like the plot structure was set up to be a better episode. The rather sketchy writing and the directing dropped the ball, though. Everything felt like posturing, like everyone was peacocking without anything solid behind it.

The slow motion ass-kicking at the beginning dragged on far too long. I hate slow motion to begin with; it’s lost all effectiveness as far as I’m concerned. And the slow-stop motion fighting variety was old before it really took hold in 300. It’s one of the things that turned me off to the new series Spartacus: Blood and Sand initially before they got wise and limited its use in subsequent episodes. That all would be bad enough except Scanlan compounds it with the stroboscopic freeze frame rescue of Chloe later on. I could see how it could be cool but it completely detached me from the scene and the episode. The style was just too much.

The two consistent bright spots were J’onn J’onzz and Amanda Waller, especially the scene the two share. They felt grounded, real and commanding. J’onn I’m always happy to see. Phil Morris imbues him with such nobility with a soft undercurrent of vulnerability that makes him such a surehanded and fatherly force that the show really seems to need. Morris should be recruited to full-time or 13-episode player next season to help anchor the series. J’onn was also such a badass, making full use of his powers, including the rather aggressive telepathic mind-probing. The mindwipe on Waller was especially shocking — and so it begins. Plus, I got a kick out of the scene where he impersonates Waller.

It seems so strange to think that Pam Grier has only been in two episodes now this season. Her presence has been largely felt since she premiered in Absolute Justice and it was welcome to see her again. This was definitely her best outing as Waller of the two episodes, giving the character a levelheadedness that was both steady and also quite freaky. In some fashion, you can see how she makes some sense, which even Clark (Tom Welling) saw briefly. That makes her all the more dangerous. It’s not the most subtle play on the climate of not trusting the government but it was effective. Pam also helped everyone she acted opposite bring their A game, which is the mark of a true pro. I hope we get to see her again this season and I’d love to have more opportunities to catch her next season too.

That said, Checkmate already feels a bit tiresome. I get the whole chess board motif and I know it’s from the comics but the plethora of chess pieces showing up all over the place is wearing. The most ridiculous had to be Tess’ knight. How stupidly convenient was it that Clark would find that piece and immediately connect it to Tess. And why the hell would Tess use the piece that was out of her conspicuously present chess set in her office?

If there’s one thing that could be said about ‘Checkmate’ it’s that it was full of conveniences. That chess piece; J’onn just happening to stand right where Waller’s fire cage was at; the whole hospital scene leading to Chloe’s abduction – seriously, how stupid was Chloe (Allison Mack) in that scene?; Oliver (Justin Hartley) awaiting Tess at the LuthorCorp building after just being at the mansion – guess the chopper’s always on immediate standby and flies at supersonic speeds. And the mother of them all, the cheesy Batman Returns-esque reveal of Ollie’s Green Arrow identity to Tess. Like he couldn’t have played that off. I’ve watched the episode twice now and I’ve had to groan at all of these.

Clark was odd to me tonight. He felt both essential to the story and sidelined during it. It was good to see him be proactive and the Blur really seems to be a big ‘get’ for Waller, but I couldn’t shake the feeling this was a Chlolliess – how’s that for a three way? – centric outing. Chloe dresses down Clark yet again, this one about not “checking in”. Even though she’s somewhat right she comes across so shrill, which was a huge letdown after seeing a softer Chloe last week. And of course, not only is Chloe the leverage to drag all of the heroes to Waller, Clark is once again apologizing to her. Thankfully, Chloe made some sense about where Clark holds her in regard to her Watchtower duties. I do look forward to Chloe’s house of cards falling down, though. It’s inevitable at this point.

I’d forgotten how much I like Ollie and Tess (Cassidy Freeman) together. Justin and Cassidy play off each other so well and their scenes were charged tonight. Justin looked like he was having fun this episode and he got to play just about all of the aspects of Ollie: the rogue, the jackass, the lover, the hero. His escape from the armored car was fun and I did give in to the “They’re not tights!” business. Chlollie still feels odd. I get the angle at some points but there are many times it feels like Justin and Allison both don’t buy into it. Obviously, Oliver’s looking for more out of this thing and I’m wondering what that sets up for the rest of the season.

Tess began to feel very superfluous. Her part in the Kandorian story seems to have died out by ‘Pandora’. She shuffled around for a bit, loosely hanging on to Zod, and then suddenly she was thrown into the Checkmate storyline. It felt very desperate, a way to keep the character around, and didn’t really jive with the backstory we’ve had on the character. I do have to say I was relatively satisfied with the story they gave about her indoctrination into the organization and her involvement with LuthorCorp. It felt more natural and less of a retcon than it could have. I also have to commend them for pushing Tess right out the other side of Checkmate. Leaving her broken and scared sets up a nice mini-arc for her heading toward the finale. It still feels like they don’t quite know what to do with her but this falls into line with things Tess is supposed to do in the next few episodes per the spoilers.

And am I the only one who finds it very dark and freaky that Clark seems to beat up and throw Tess around on a frequent basis? He’s never treated anyone else like this and it’s disturbing that it’s with a woman. Come on, Clark. Have some class.

I was really looking forward to ‘Checkmate’. It seemed after ‘Escape’ that things were really going to ramp up pushing toward the finale. They did break the story and plot right but first-time writer John Chisholm didn’t quite write to the potential of the story. Coupled with Scanlan’s direction, I can’t help but feel let down by the whole affair. A true highlight on the production side was Louis Febre’s score, which was percussive and propulsive. It fit with the pacing; it’s too bad the majority of the episode didn’t. ‘Checkmate’ wasn’t a bad move, but it wasn’t and exceptional one either