When I first got screeners for Paramount+’s Halo, I opted out of reviewing it. Not only was I unimpressed by the premise of the series, but also because I had not seen the whole season or even the majority of the season and I didn’t want to pass judgment before that. Having now seen all nine episodes of the first season of Halo, I feel like I can safely say that the major flaw in this series is not the lack of accuracy or loyalty to the source material (though that certainly hurt it) but it is the lack of heart in the series.
Now, sure, you might say that a show based on a game that features a faceless supersoldier named Master Chief doesn’t need that much heart, but that’s where you would be wrong. Unlike in a video game, where you can physically put yourself into the setting of a game, where you have agency for your own choices, a television show needs an emotional core, and Halo never fully identified what that was. And it wasn’t for a lack of choices, the series had a wealth of opportunity but that worked to its detriment.
While it was controversial for some, the logical heart of the show should have been Pablo Schreiber‘s Master Chief, especially once he removed his helmet. Getting to see Master Chief’s face might seem to be an obvious choice given the length of the show, but for devotees of the game, it is unheard of. So, when the series began and we not only saw John (aka John-117 aka Master Chief) take off his helmet, but disregard orders in order to save a teenager named Kwan Ha (Yerin Ha), it made sense that the series might then be about the journey of John and Kwan, perhaps forming some kind of pseudo-parent-child relationship.
But, soon Kwan was dumped on a Spartan deserter, Soren (Bokeem Woodbine). As the story continued to split and grow, adding in a human adopted by the alien race and raised in the Covenant, the political conflicts of the UNSC, and the development of another Spartan soldier, Halo quickly got out of control. Each episode spent far too much time world-building, rushing to explain every bit of the world when it didn’t need to. Instead of focusing the story on John or Kwan or the human raised by aliens named Makee (Charlie Murphy), the show can’t figure out who it wants to put at its center.
As a result of being pulled in so many directions, John’s characterization falls to the wayside. There is a desperate attempt to make us care about his upbringing, the betrayals he faces, and the emotional upheaval he feels, but it never fully translates. Although Schreiber has been praised in the past for his performance on shows like Orange Is the New Black and American Gods, his performance as John is flat. Gaining Cortana (Jen Taylor) as his guide and companion adds an extra layer to him as does his brief romance with Makee (something the show should have laid the groundwork for so much earlier in the series), but none of it is enough.
John serves as a foil to all of the characters around him. He rarely has much agency, often existing for other characters to react to. And, because the plots involving the UNSC are so complicated and painfully unnecessary, instead of focusing on what John is good at, we spent a whole season struggling alongside John to get our bearings.
By the season’s end, there isn’t much to glean from the direction the proposed second season will take. If Makee is dead that would make her another woman fridged, which is quite disappointing given the fact that her perspective was a unique one. Kwan met some people in the deserts of Madrigal, but her plot is so painfully uninteresting and removed from John’s and the UNSC that it feels like the show didn’t know what to do with her. Dr. Halsey (Natascha McElhone), the only interesting character in the executive branch of the UNSC, is on the run, and as reprehensible as she is, at the very least she is interesting.
Will John lead the UNSC into the stars to battle the Covenant more? The show seems to be trying to achieve a kind of space epic like The Expanse or Battlestar Galactica, but honestly, it should try to be more like The Mandalorian instead. A show drilling down and focusing on John and Cortana is a simple concept but one that would allow the story to dive deeper and not wider. Watching Cortana evolve as an AI, gaining respect for John, and caring for him was one of the highlights of the series. One hopes that the second season will have a less grandiose vision and learn to focus more on character work (and, honestly, character dialogue), but time will tell.