Original Airdate: November 19, 2015
Written & Storyboarded by: Ako Castuera & Jesse Moynihan
Checkmate is likely my least favorite episode of the Stakes miniseries. I don’t think the story behind it is completely awful; I actually like the Vampire King’s decision to de-vamp himself because he strictly wants to change up the status quo of the world and alter the destiny that has been predetermined for him. He even gives a neat little speech about it, which reeks of Moynihan headiness. But by God, so much of Checkmate feels like mere plodding. About 3/4ths of the episode revolves around the main characters deciding on whether or not they should stake the Vampire King, even though he is clearly surrendering himself and does not want to fight. It would be alright if this was presented as an actual thought-provoking dilemma: whether or not a person can change, or if they should even be allowed to change. But Checkmate would rather focus on the gang being as goofy and comically useless as possible.
My criticisms and compliments towards each episode in this miniseries are becoming a bit redundant by this point, so I’ll sum up what I’ve already talked about in the past couple reviews relatively quickly and then get into the newer stuff:
Peppermint Butler continues to be the best aspect of these episodes, as his absolute adoration for the Vampire King is both kind of cute and also hilariously disturbing. I love his little back-and-forth with himself on whether or not he should actually be so excited to see a person of the Vampire King’s nature, and his absolute psychological freakout when he finally does encounter the VK is priceless. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I will never get tired of Steve Little’s up-pitched voice.
Finn and Jake continue to be useless in this episode, and this is probably the worst example thus far. Finn getting in the middle of Marceline and Vampire King’s fight was more random and goofy than anything. Because, ya know, that book that Finn mentions that he never even read must have come in handy for advice a good three years after it was demolished completely. Also, this is likely the boys at their most incompetent. I enjoyed Finn thinking that his grass thorn would activate by a simple battle cry (though, the thorn senses that he isn’t actually in any danger), but him really thinking that lightly kicking VK in the groin would hurt him and shouting “stake you!” makes him seem like he’s not even really trying. You had the past two episodes, where the threats felt legitimate and taxing on the main characters involved, and here it feels like there aren’t any stakes at all. No pun intended. In addition to that, we had the painfully unfunny “fart code” sequence which once again feels like a half-assed attempt at understanding the silliness between Finn and Jake’s relationship between each other, but fails pretty badly. Moynihan went from writing Finn at his most mature to being the writer that portrays him at his absolute most childish. And hey, since you kids at home loved the “bacon pancakes” song so much a few years back, Finn sings his own version “makin’ stake-a’s” in this episode!! Seriously, I hate any instances that feel as though the show is directly pandering to the AT audience of whom only know or care about “bacon pancakes”, the buff baby song, or Bubbline.
Going back to my earlier complaints, I think the VK’s issue could have been way more well-represented if he wasn’t interrupted by people trying to stake him every five seconds. Nearly every attempt at humor in this episode is just the various wacky ways the characters are trying to stake the VK while he remains completely unwilling to fight. It gets old really fast and puts me in a mood where I just want everyone to shut the fuck up and to hear the guy out. He has legitimately insightful stuff to throw down, but he’s only able to get a word in after everyone around him stops trying to attack or stake him. I mean, PB’s technology was able to resist Empress from moving in the previous episode, couldn’t she have just restrained the VK and then interrogated him that way? I don’t think the characters are necessarily wrong for not trusting him, but it gets frustrating when it’s pretty obvious to the audience that he’s being truthful, while the typically rational characters that we love come off as bigger annoyances than the guy who is supposed to be the villain. And even then, VK suffers from his own quirky moments that seem completely out of place. I was really getting into his speech, and then he loses entirely me when he’s portrayed to be a complete baby who pouts in his underwear, and is left to be nothing but a comedic foil for the rest of the episode. It’s a shame, because I feel like the Vampire King ends up being my least favorite of the vampires, simply because he ends up being the most complex, yet the most shallow vamp at the same time. This episode elaborates on his desire to change the world around him and the pathway that is presented to him… but that’s kind of it. He’s supposed to be presented as this big important figure, but they kind of neglected to give me a reason to actually be interested or invested in him as a person. All of the other vamps are equipped with strong personalities and charisma, while Vampire King exhibits practically none of that in his one star episode.
Annnd, after everything that happens with the Vampire King, we’re left with a mere transition into the next episode, as the “vamp juice” explodes into epic proportions and forms into a cloud monster seeking destruction. VK turning into a lion was… interesting, I suppose? It’s an idea that I still kind of struggle to wrap my head around completely… like, how did the vampire essence within him cause himself to mutate and become humanized so intensely? It doesn’t really make sense to me, but I usually just end up brushing it off.
But yeah, Checkmate is a pretty low point for me in this miniseries. It really emphasizes a lot of overarching issues, and introduces some new ones as well. A concept and character that should have been really interesting and significant ends up feeling like an unfunny slump. It isn’t entirely without its moments; I liked Jake’s brief exchange with Pepbut at the beginning and Marcy’s first meal in forever was a nice little bit. And, as I said, parts of Vampire King’s speech were really neat. But other than that, Checkmate is mostly just frustrating.