Smallville 9.17: "Checkmate"




From what I understand, the Checkmate organization has quite the history in the DC Comics continuity. So it’s a worthwhile question to ask: are the writers once again assuming that the audience has prior knowledge of Checkmate, its goals, and its structure? That’s been one of the biggest issues with the series in recent seasons, after all, and a few good steps in the right direction don’t preclude a backward slide.


I think it’s clear enough that Checkmate is similar to all the black ops groups sponsored by LuthorCorp earlier in the series, only funded by the government. And it would make sense that the government, once aware of the potential threat posed by aliens on Earth, would want to put together a small metahuman army to mount a defense.


The desire to protect Earth from outside threats was always a compelling argument for the kinds of projects run by Lex and now the government. Many times, I wondered why the writers didn’t shoot for a little more moral ambiguity by strengthening that argument. Instead, it has always been tied to immoral activities, so the audience has reason to see this threat to Clark as inherently corrupt and evil.


But isn’t there a case to be made that the vast majority of alien activity, and even metahuman activity, has been a problem for the mass population? Looking back on the history of “Smallville”, a lot of people have been hurt, despite the best intentions of Clark and his allies. Checkmate has a reason to exist, and they even have a reason to bring well-vetted metahumans into the cause.


However, blackmailing them into the cause, or otherwise assaulting them as a recruitment tactic, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. For one thing, while they have information that is convenient to the demands of the plot, the gaps in their database are fairly large. They also seem to have remarkably loose surveillance on their wayward operative if Tess Mercer can be bedding down the increasingly threatening leader of an alien cadre without Checkmate knowing a thing about it!


But the part that seems most ludicrous, however important to the story, is the utter absence of the “soft sell”. Checkmate makes no attempt to recruit Clark or the others with a more positive approach. They go right for the throat, and immediately put the heroes on the defensive. Is it any wonder, then, that Checkmate seems to be gathering villains for their work, more often than not?


Of course, it’s hard to know if my impressions of Checkmate are accurate, because the writers were going for mysterious and ominous, and ended up with vague. It doesn’t help that there’s apparently another organization in competition with Checkmate. I get the feeling this is an ongoing problem for the writers. They know that Clark should be interacting with a much larger and more complicated world at this point, but they really don’t have the budget to make it happen. As a result, a lot happens off-screen.


It would be more of the concern if there wasn’t a tenth season to expand on some of the ideas introduced now. As it is, there are a lot of balls in the air as the season swings towards its conclusion. If the usual pattern holds, Major Zod and the Kryptonians will see their story come to an end this season, leading into the next big thing. Maybe the writers are using the Kryptonians as a bit of a red herring. While it makes sense to assume that Checkmate is meant to counter Zod’s plans, it could be preparing for something much worse that Clark and the others don’t know about yet.


This could help to clarify Tess’ motivations, which are still all over the map. While she is still nominally protecting Clark as the assumptive future savior, she’s hedging her bets with Zod. Is she trying to position Zod and his people as allies in some battle Clark will need to fight, something she’s aware of because of Checkmate? The point is that Checkmate needs to have a reason to exist within the story of “Smallville”. Being a part of the DC universe is not enough.

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