I am a fan of Halo. I have played all of the games (not all to completion, but I have played them all, even the mobile ones) and have read most of the novels. I have been looking forward to the Halo series, although passively as it has gone through production Hell since it was first announced many, many years ago. Today, the first episode has aired on the pay-walled Paramount+ “network”, meaning that many folks won’t get to see it; considering how unsure I am about what the pilot episode means for the rest of the series, that might be for the best.
This is not the Halo people would be expecting. I don’t even know what it is, really, as it throws a whole lot of Halo canon out the window…or does it?
Note that this post is going to contain spoilers, so if you’re interested in watching the series for yourself, I’m going to have to ask you to look away. If you’ve got no interest in the series outside of knowing about it from an untrustworthy voice on the Internet who only asks that his entertainment be, you know, entertaining, then buckle up…we’re going in.
The Cardinal Sin
The episode opens on the planet of Madrigal, where we are introduced to a separatist enclave of deuterium miners. They are violently opposed to the UNSC, who has been strong-arming independent colonies like theirs in the name of “for their own good”. Far out wherever Madrigal is, the war with the Covenant is considered to be just a rumor spread to explain why the Spartans — the UNSC’s super-soldiers — always show up where independent colonists end up dead.
Early on we meet Kwan Ha, daughter of the leader of these separatists, who is venturing outside of the mining camp with several young friends. Kwan has a superpower: finding hallucinogenic plants in the wild. After securing and distributing some of these drugs, Kwan stops short of taking some herself because she sees something unusual on a nearby ridge: a Covenant dropship.
Panicked, she attempts to get her friends to turn back to the colony, but trippin’ balls, the teens decide to head off to whatever it was that freaked out their friend so badly.
At this point, the show commits what I’d consider to be the inviolate “cardinal sin” of entertainment. Without warning, a Covenant blast obliterates the head of one of the kids. Not implied, and not even telegraphed. BOOM. Headshot.
Now, understanding that they are in danger, the rest of the gang attempts to flee. During this scene, we are shown some pretty graphic deaths. One of the kids is turned into a bloody mist by an explosion. Another has her leg shot off, sending her face-down into the dust. In the end, only Kwan escapes after having launched a flare which alerts the colony to what they would assume to be a UNSC landing party. She barely makes it inside the colony walls before they close the door and take armed positions throughout the enclosure.
I was completely unprepared for the level of brutality that opened this episode. In all honesty, it scared the living shit out of me. For the next 30 minutes, I sat watching with fists clenched because I simply could not believe that the showrunners actually executed kids (teens, really, but still). I assume it was to show how brutal the Covenant could be expected to be in forthcoming episodes, and if that was their intent, mission accomplished. It was also over-the-top and possibly done in the most gratuitous manner imaginable.
The Halo Multiverse
It has been admitted by the show’s creators that this treatment of the IP would not be 1:1 with the Halo that fans know and love. I don’t know the complete reasoning behind this, but the admission of such surely divided the fan base even before the series began. That’s a pretty hefty grain of salt that we have to take when discussing the series, for good or for ill.
Of course, it wouldn’t be Halo without the Spartans, specifically the Master Chief, John-117. Spartan “Silver Team” drops into Madrigal soon after the colonists prove to be ineffective against the Covenant (wielding AK-47s and hiding behind 1970’s era station wagons somehow transported to the 26th century). This is where I think a lot of Halo fans are going to lose it, mainly because there’s a feeling of disconnect between what we start to see in the episode and the expectations provided by 20 years of Halo video games. There are also a few face-skewing visual effects, although for the most part the action is about as good as we should expect for a TV series. It’s just weird to see Spartans fighting in third person. The showrunners also lower the segment to “Hardcore Henry” territory by framing several scenes in the familiar “inside the helmet” view of the Master Chief. We even get to hear the “no shields” alarm, as well as the subsequent “shields recharging” sounds. We get it; this is all based on a popular video game franchise, and a lot of “games to movies” do stuff like this, unnecessarily IMO, as a wink and a nod to those who know. Pandering at its finest, I guess, as such bon mottes are completely over the heads of those who know nothing about the source materials.
From this point on, the show seems mostly connected to the Halo franchise, but only where it needs to be in order to legitimately call itself a “Halo” property. The series does take place before humanity (and the Covenant) have actually found the first halo installation; in fact, the Covenant are on Madrigal excavating what we recognize as a Forerunner artifact, which I assume will lead everyone to information about, if not actually to, that first halo. Because of the timeline shift, the writers have a lot of latitude in the way they approach the franchise, although not all of it aligns with what the canon has actually established about the IP during this time — and takes some serious liberties with what the games have labored hard to instill.
We meet Dr. Halsey, mother of the Spartan program, based on Reach and who is apparently flirting with becoming persona non grata among the UNSC because of her “progress at any cost” mentality. In fact, we see what we later learn to be her first stab at Cortana; a physical clone of herself kept in a pod in a closet, after the…UNSC President? Admiral? Head honcho at least…tells Halsey to “dispose” of it. I know that Cortana was modeled after Halsey, but I do not know if Cortana has always been a live clone in the previous lore or if she just started out as a hologram. Either way, I’m not super concerned about this Big Reveal.
The “Silver Team” of Spartans who land on Madrigal are completely different from the ones we know from the Halo novels and the later games. “Silver Team” is apparently made up for this series, which is odd considering there was no good reason to do so as “Blue Team” existed in Halo 5: Guardians and consisted of other Spartan-II soldiers who originally trained and fought with John-117 early on in their careers. I am confused as to the reason behind this unnecessary deviation, but I doubt I’ll get any explanation in the body of the series. This is resulting fallout of this “Sliver Timeline” that we were warned about, and maybe we’ll get some explanation in ancillary materials like interviews; Paramount+ likes to do vignette shorts going “behind the scenes” of their tentpole series, so hopefully we’ll get some of those.
About half-way through the episode, we get to see one of the Covenant “Prophets”, the Prophet of Mercy, at the coalition’s citadel of High Charity. Overall, I am very pleased and impressed with the Covenant design and execution; all of the characters look exactly as expected, and that we get some really good close-ups of creatures like Mercy that we never did in the games is just icing on the cake. However, in what I consider to be the weirdest non-Halo-lore scene in the pilot, we are introduced to Mercy as he floats on in to converse with a shady figure at High Charity, who we quickly discover to be a human woman. I have no idea who this is, why she’s sided with the Covenant, and why a Prophet would be relaying information to her as if she outranked him, but I suspect it’s something we’ll discover throughout the course of the series. I hope.
There is truth to the Madrigal colonist’s distrust of the UNSC, which Captain Jacob Keyes admits to his daughter, scientist Miranda Keyes. The UNSC leans into their suppression so hard that they issue Order 72 direct to the Master Chief, who has left Madrigal with Kwan Ha — the only surviving colonist — in tow: after she refuses to say good things about the Spartans on a galaxy-wide broadcast, the UNSC orders John-117 to terminate her. But because of some flashbacks to his pre-Spartan-program childhood courtesy of the Forerunner artifact he’s returning to Reach, Master Chief decides to go rogue, protect Kwan, and try to escape the UNSC. Halsey, always playing her own game, instructs the rest of the SIlver Team to protect the Chief at all costs — even if it means mowing down the hangar full of UNSC marines who are waiting for the Spartan to arrive. Halo 5: Guardians has already established that the Chief’s team members are fiercely loyal to one another, so this tracks perfectly, even if Halsey hadn’t been the root of the order in this case.
Ultimately, John-117 re-activates the Forerunner artifact which takes control of his dropship and launches them out of Reach’s atmosphere towards “points unknown” — probably the first halo, or some Forerunner precursor that leaves the actual halo reveal until the end of the season.
Usually when we hear about adaptations of a popular franchise, the first thought people seem to have is one of “I hope they don’t screw this up”. Screwing something up is really in the eye of the beholder because success or fail is really about our individual expectations and how tightly we cling to the source material — and how willing we are to let it branch out from what we know and love.
Halo has a lot of lore spread out across various media but is mostly known though the narratives provided in the video games. The series was probably already on the backfoot with the announcement that they would only use established Halo lore “where it made sense”, because why? Why not tell other stories informed by the lore we know and love? Because of this, I think the series is playing fast and loose in ways that aren’t going to sit well with “Halo afficionados” who know the IP primarily through the games, and who have been yearning for a “Halo: Combat Evolved, but live action” treatment.
The Halo games, though, are their own beast. The character of “Master Chief” was probably never intended to be a “Mario” or “Sonic” or “Cloud”. He was a shell that the player could inhabit like the Mjolnir armor that the Spartans wear. He has very few lines and never engages in idle conversation which as a mechanic keeps him a “blank slate” that players can project themselves onto. As such, no one has ever asked for “character development” where the Chief has been involved, yet this Halo series seems intently focused on providing us with exactly that to the point where the Chief removes his helmet in the last 10 minutes of the episode. The fact that the Chief never removed his helmet in the games carries the significance of the character’s training, duty, and is even a metaphor for a loss of a sense of self; whether we call him Master Chief (a rank) or John-117 (a designation), the character is never a “somebody”, but rather an “anybody” or even “everybody”. In the course of the games, having the Chief remove his helmet would put a face on the character and would thereby negate the whole “you are the Master Chief” vibe that the games spent years cultivating. For a TV series that needs the characters to carry and drive engagement, interest, and the overall plot, humanizing John-117 is a necessity that The Mandalorian had already proven: having a character in an unremovable mask sounds like a badass, mysterious idea, but as we are visual creatures who rely on facial cues, and since we’re always only ever observing characters in a TV series and not benefiting from direct interpersonal interactions with them, being able to see their faces is important.
This is one massive reason why I think so many Halo fans are going to take exception with this series: it’s attempting to humanize the shell they have been inhabiting for so long, and that humanity is shown to be someone completely not-them. Halo: The Series is establishing itself as something less “shooting, with a story attached”, and more “character development, and maybe some shooting to appease the fans”.
Focusing on the Chief’s back-story in a new medium (it has been covered in other outlets) that many fans have been waiting years to see is going to be a difficult road to walk for the series. While the key characters are present — John-117, Dr. Halsey, the Keys, Cortana, and important members of the Covenant — it’s pretty obvious several new liberties are being taken, some of which might fill gaps left in the Halo lore, but some which might be complete, ninety-degree turns from many of the things that Halo fans have ingrained as canon. Can Halo be Halo if it’s more than “large man in armor blows up aliens”? Other IPs have moved beyond their initial, thin plots (one of the prevalent criticisms of Halo is that the overarching plot isn’t very deep) and have been successful. Will Halo fans be OK with some of the “liberties” that the series takes as early as the first episode? Knowing people as we do “through the Internet”, I’m going to say that there’s going to be a massive backlash against this series “on principal”, I’m personally interested to see how things suss out because at the end of the episode, I didn’t feel that my time was entirely wasted; Halo is now on the clock, as I usually don’t make a go/no-go decision until after the third episode and I can’t remember a series where I’ve been as interested in seeing if it makes the cut as I have been to see where the series itself would end up.