It only took one Speilberg exit and one decade of development hell, but a show based on Halo is finally here. I can’t believe I’m typing this: It’s actually good. Surprisingly so, though it’s not absent any cause for concern.
Perhaps this is a case of low expectations. Initial trailers teased a bloated project that looked as low-budget as a YouTube fan film. In recent remarks made to Variety, the show’s creator seemed to write off the source material entirely. Sure, some initial feedback has been glowing, both from fans and critics, but I, a diehard fan of the games, still had my doubts. I fully imagined Halo would be the sort of show you half-watch with your friends while cracking jokes. And indeed, that’s how it started.
“Oh, great, another show set on Tatooine.”
“You can tell this isn’t based on the game because the plasma pistol is actually useful.”
“Wow, these randos are even worse shots than Ari!” (Er, no comment.)
The good-natured ribbing stopped short, though, as Halo quickly established itself as a show that is not fucking around.
Halo: Not the Game: The Show opens with a group of teenagers dropping space acid in the woods. A friend quipped how brave it’d be if the show chose that moment to introduce the Covenant—extraterrestrial zealots who serve as a primary antagonist faction for the games—who’d then likely do what the Covenant do best (kill every human in sight). No way, I thought. There’s no way a show based on a beloved property of best-selling video games would be so bold. It’d have every plot point meticulously curated so as to not frighten off even a fraction of its audience.
Nope. The Covenant really do appear right then. One kid is blown to smithereens. Another has their limbs blown off. An extended fight scene later on is even more excessively violent, showing decapitations, impalement, charred skin from energy weapons. Halo does not hold back in putting stomach-churning brutality on full display. For 20 years, the Halo games have shown you its universe, and its enemies, through the first-person lens of a supersoldier, called a Spartan, protected by nigh-impenetrable titanium armor, where the futuristic small arms fire from enemies practically bounces off you. To see the Covenant in action against regular people is to see pure terror.
Between the gunfire, a message comes through crystal clear: Halo the show is emphatically not Halo the game.
We see a bustling metropolis on the planet of Reach, in the year 2552, not reduced to a sheet of glass by an interstellar armada. We get a glimpse of the Covenant base of High Charity, only to learn it’s also home to what appears to be a human—in an ostensible leadership position, at that. At a UNSC command center, we see Miranda Keyes, who remarks, in a line of painfully ham-fisted exposition, how Dr. Catherine Halsey is her mother.
If you’re not up on the narrative of the Halo games, those statements mean nothing to you. If you are, though, you understand the lengths to which the show differentiates itself from its source material.
Key is how the UNSC, the primary human faction in Halo games, is portrayed. In the games, the UNSC are the infallible heroes. They’re fighting the good fight. They can do no wrong against the existential threat of plasma weapons and energy swords. (Remember, the first Halo came out in 2001, at the height of modern-day hoo-rah American jingoism.) But in Halo, the show, the UNSC is anything but virtuous, veering into objectionable territory that’s not just some gray area. It’s abjectly awful.
It’s territory the games would never—could never, really—address. But in TV format, where you’re not actively running missions side-by-side with these soldiers, all fighting for survival, Halo can take these risks. Yes, this results in some truly groan-worthy dialogue, stuff about how we can’t “protect humanity” if we “sacrifice our own” and blah blah blah, but it’s a welcome deviation. (It’s also in line with depictions of the UNSC from second-string source material, the books and comics and such, that fill in Halo lore outside of the games.)
Less welcome of a deviation is Mr. John Halo himself, the Master Chief. Actor Pablo Schreiber is believable as a Spartan supersoldier, just not the particular Spartan supersoldier we’ve come to know through the games. To be fair, some of that is a fault of the script. (The Master Chief, at least when we meet him in the premiere, follows orders to a tee, even when it comes to murdering civilians without question.) Some of it, though, is Schreiber’s line delivery, perhaps on order from director and showrunner Otto Bathurst. (During one tense moment, he actively loses his cool and panics.)
In any case, this guy is nothing like the Chief we’ve come to know through six mainline video games. I applaud the show’s break from the tone and lore of the games elsewhere, but to focus on a Master Chief who differs so heavily from our deeply ingrained sense of who Master Chief is feels misguided. Why even have him be the main character? Why, other than the obvious interest boost gained from plastering “117” all over the marketing, lead with such a well-established character if you’re not going to adhere to what made that character so well-established in the first place? Why, in an adaptation that goes where no Halo has gone before, not feature a Spartan we’ve never met? By centering Master Chief—any take on the character—the show implicitly invites comparisons to the games, and it’s a comparison that seems doomed to disappoint fans. Naturally, the Chief that’s been around the block for two decades has the leg up as the definitive version.
If anything, that’s what gives me the most pause. In many ways, Halo stakes out that it’s fully willing to break from the mold, yet it’s still held back by the same mold. For me, the lingering question after the premiere isn’t where the plot will go next. It’s whether or not Halo, the show, can pull off being something different than what it’s based on. One episode in, the answer is still up in the air, obviously. But somewhere between the slickly produced title sequence and the hammer-drop of its credit crawl, I found myself eager to find out.