Arrow: 516 “Checkmate” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
The cat finally came out of the bag last episode: Adrian Chase, Star City’s Direct Attorney, is Prometheus, the villain who’s been psychologically tormenting Oliver all season. And this week’s instalment wasted little time in following through on this reveal. Oliver finds out the truth about Adrian before the title card has even rolled in, setting the stage for a taut, tense instalment of mind games and brutal battles. Checkmate is a confident episode, snapping Arrow back into form with pace and clarity after a meandering run of episodes that allowed some of season five’s carefully built momentum to drift away. It’s streamlined and direct where previous episodes were convoluted, which finally allows the season’s arc to click into high gear. However, it does fray a little at the edges with some continuing subplots that inherit some old flaws, and it lacks the thoughtful and precise thematic focus of season five’s best early episodes.
It was a long wait to Prometheus’ reveal, and there was always a danger that the villain would lose his creepy, intangible appeal once he was unmasked, as Zoom did over on The Flash. Conversely, however, Prometheus becomes a more compelling antagonist now that we know the man behind the mask because it makes clear just how intricate his form of villainy is. It’s easy to make villains into an artificially powerful threat with near-supernatural abilities of prediction and manipulation, but Chase works as a villain here because his prescience is quite clearly just the result of incredibly meticulous planning that’s factored in every angle of attack he could face, which makes his complete supremacy over Oliver all the more impactful. Josh Segarra’s performance as Chase has always exhibited a weird, off-beat kind of intensity, which initially seemed like a quirk to play into the commonly-accepted notion that he was Vigilante. Now that he’s able to play the full extent of Chase, however, that intensity is now re-contextualised as a single-minded rage against Oliver that has consumed everything in his life. It recalls Manu Bennett’s perpetually furious take on Deathstroke in the sense that both villains visibly, palpably, hate Oliver, which makes them a far more immediate and engaging threat than the more distant foes who perceive Oliver as a simple blockade to their own agendas and full life.
The best statement of Chase’s chilling single-mindedness is the effectively jolting scene where he kills his own wife in order to remove Team Arrow’s only piece of leverage. It provides a small flicker of the capability for affection that has long since been buried by his fury at his sworn enemy, simultaneously humanising Chase and characterising him as the scariest kind of villain – the kind who has absolutely nothing to lose and will use any and every move possible to come out on top. Time will tell if Chase will continue to compel all the way through to the end of the season given how much of his appeal here rests on the jarring reveals of who he really is, but this was certainly a good way to place him back at the centre of the show, rejuvenating Prometheus as a threat at just the right time.
The game of chess that Oliver and Prometheus play provides the drive of Checkmate, and it’s a well-constructed back and forth that palpably drives up Oliver’s desperation as every move in the book is stymied by Chase’s meticulous planning. Oliver’s journey into despair is therefore convincing for someone who prides himself on his ability to always find a way out of a predicament yet finds every route blocked, and Stephen Amell plays his growing panic engagingly in a way that meaningfully brings home just outmatched Oliver is in a way we very rarely see. Less effective is the personal struggle over his attachments to his friends that Prometheus’ mind games brings about. Oliver’s conflict between his instincts to work alone and shut others off versus a need to include his friends as a way to tamp down his worst instincts is well-trodden, and Checkmate fails to really do anything new with it. For one, it hangs on the continually unconvincing idea that Oliver cares about Susan Williams, a character who has always felt like a romantic stopgap and little more enough, to fall into despair at her predicament, and his conflict formulaically proceeds through some brooding, a heart-to-heart, and an abrupt affirmation of his faith in his allies that has no real pay-off considering how little Team Arrow does in the final showdown. Checkmate can be thematically engaging with its motifs of chess as Oliver and Chase circle each other, but the more interpersonal drama feels a little tacked-on and repetitive.
One of Checkmate’s most surprising developments was its unveiling of a second major villain in Talia al Ghul. Given her significance in the canon, it makes evident sense that Arrow has chosen to do more with her beyond her limited role as mentor in the flashbacks, but I wasn’t expecting her to return as a fully paid-up villain. While her introduction is a little rushed, she slots in well as a second antagonist for Oliver because her villainy stems directly from Oliver’s own choices, in this case his decision to kill Ra’s al Ghul (something that was never explored, but always felt like a surprisingly violent solution). Lexa Doig’s poised performance that lets her fury simmer below the surface provides a variety of threat when compared to Chase’s intense demeanour, but they both complement each other as antagonists because they’re motivated solely by hatred and vengeance. It’ll be interesting to see if Talia will stick around through to the end of the season, because there’s potential to explore the consequences of a period of Oliver’s history that feels far more recent and recognisable than the violent season 1 persona that created Chase. And given how Ra’s never really landed as a compelling villain in season three, perhaps this is a chance to do right by the al Ghul family as villains.
Outside the Prometheus drama, Felicity went deeper in her alliance with the hacker group, Helix. There are some interesting moral quandaries to be found here, and it’s easy to believe that Felicity would become ensnared with their ‘quid pro quo’ policy pulling her further into their debt every single time she needs to find something. It does feel like Arrow has figured out how to use Felicity as a character without making her into a love interest, giving her an individual storyline that still feels thematically relevant to everything else that’s going on. The only problem is that Arrow is having to take a few unconvincing leaps to make Helix relevant. Felicity’s moral compromises are convincing emotionally, but on a logical level, she’s making great sacrifices to find out the kind of information that she previously could find quite easily on her own (think of how many times Oliver’s allies have been kidnapped, and the 100% success rate of finding them again). It’s narrative inconsistency that hampers the Helix storyline as the organisation’s function as a moral crucible for Felicity is too exposed when there’s no explanation for why it’s suddenly necessary.
One of the most problematic elements here was the continuation of a recent issue that’s dogged Arrow. Season five has, for all its flaws, fixed a lot of what was broken in the past two seasons, and a clear example of that early on was the flashbacks. Oliver’s trip to Russia started off compellingly as a companion piece to the present day material that reflected and contextualised his current moral struggles, and even past the winter break, Arrow was beginning to engagingly unfurl Oliver’s real origin story as the Hood. Since then, however, the flashbacks have steadily declined into the humdrum filler material they were before, and Checkmate seemed to indicate why that is. The flashback scenes, in which Oliver and Anatoly take back the Bratva from a corrupt captain, are exciting this week in the sense that there are plenty of well-directed action scenes that illustrate a decent amount of creativity (the ice rink setting is a striking contrast from the usual murky aesthetics of this show). Despite that, however, they feel airless and unengaging because there’s no reason to care about the conflict. After the promising partnership of Talia, the Bratva drama feels both convoluted and simplistic, blandly checking off crime drama tropes in a way that barely relates to Oliver’s personal journey that provided so much intrigue early on this season. When he suits up as the Hood to take down Gregor, it’s impossible to care because it’s in service of a thinly-drawn arc that just feels like a meander in the road before Dolph Lundgren’s villain returns, and before Oliver finds his way back on the island to be discovered by that boat. It’s the same malaise that the flashbacks succumbed to last season in which they only seem to exist because they have to, and not because they serve a tangible narrative function.
Checkmate ends on a cliffhanger that’s both intriguing and concerning. Oliver being captured by Chase is a natural conclusion to an episode predicated on exposing his vulnerabilities in every sense, and the prospect of some substantial face-time between the two men that lays bare the specifics of Chase’s vendetta is definitely one worth looking forward to. The only problem here is that this is episode 16 of 23, and Oliver’s not going to stay locked up for long. Arrow is going to have to face an uphill climb in making a convincing case that this detour is narratively necessary and not just a pause button on an arc plot that received such a burst of energy this week. If it does it well, this could be a gripping chamber piece, but if not, then Arrow will have squandered its return to form.
This isn’t Arrow at its best, or even season five at its best. The uninvolving flashbacks are continuing a slump that began several episodes ago, while Oliver’s angst about his friends being his vulnerabilities is a symptom of season five’s recent difficulties in breaking new ground for character development after the first half of the season took such a comprehensive deep dive. Still, this is the best episode the show has had in several weeks, perhaps even this year, because it displays that unbridled intensity and propulsive momentum that can rocket Arrow through any rough patch in storytelling. Its excellent characterisation of its villains, both Chase and Talia, indicates a confidence in an area of the show that’s been lacking since Deathstroke, which puts the final run of episodes in this season in good stead. But there are some significant challenges that season five’s endgame will have to face in keeping up this momentum, and next episode seems like a good test of Arrow’s mettle: a flashback-heavy instalment alongside a face to face with Prometheus. Let’s see how this goes…