This HALO review contains spoilers.
Halo Episode 5
At last, Halo has figured out how to combine its emotional core with a bit of action. It’s a pity that core doesn’t shine a bit brighter, but hardcore Halo fans might find this episode worth it for the action alone. Feats from the games, and what looks like some polished-up animation, make the final battle a lot of fun, although some character beats still lack polish.
Most of the secrets are out. After touching the newly-discovered artifact, Master Chief now knows his own story: that Halsey recruited him (and presumably the others) to the Spartan program by kidnapping him and replacing him with another child. (In the game canon, that replacement was a short-lived clone; the show doesn’t go into so much detail about that. Yet.) The revelation finally jolts him out of the cycle of being manipulated and then comforted by Halsey. John attacks her, and Cortana shuts him down like a computer needing a restart. Conveniently, the Covenant attack. Emotions run high as Halsey chooses to put herself in harm’s way for Miranda. Kai discovers shell-shock, and John’s attempt to rescue her results in the Covenant stealing the artifact.
And all of that takes place in about the last twenty minutes. Prior to that, the episode is much slower, although still pretty much working on the intrigue level. Soren and Kwan’s bike breaks down, leaving them stranded in the desert and a frustrated Soren ready to kidnap Kwan into his pirate crew as payment for the ship he lost. When their conflict comes to blows, Kwan sneaks up on the former Spartan and knocks Soren out.
Soren and Kwan feel less and less connected to the main plot as the series goes on. Her burgeoning teamwork with John has been pretty much abandoned, as has her grudge against the Spartans. Or, at least, those things don’t appear in the script. It’s pretty easy to imagine that Kwan might see Soren as yet another Spartan who ruined her life, or that he might see his predicament as one more way in which the Spartan program messed up his life. Despite their conflicting motivations, they do still both have reasons to hate the UNSC, and I wish that was voiced a little bit. It could have gone either way, bringing them together before a betrayal or continuing to push them apart. Instead, they are yet another instance in this show where I wish the relationships were a little stronger, whether through dialogue or through chemistry.
Another example of that: Halsey and Keyes. It turns out Keyes was also on the visit where Halsey found out about tot John. Keyes’ involvement seems to be saying something about the UNSC as a whole. He isn’t a master manipulator like Halsey. (Her ability to lie straight-faced continues to be very entertaining.) Instead, Keyes may be a UNSC true believer, retreating into military formality when pressed for parental support by both John and Miranda. His role as father figure is juicier in this episode than it has been before, and I wish we got some more interiority about why.
The lack of chemistry between him and Halsey doesn’t help, but it’s not just that I wonder how these people ended up having a kid together. It’s also that Keyes’ lies don’t seem to come from as selfish a place as Halsey’s do. We know she wants to keep the UNSC brass off her back so she can continue to receive funding and carte blanche. Does he just want to be a good soldier, or is there something deeper there?
Meanwhile, a brief flashback gives us a much clearer look at John’s home and history than before. It turns out both Halsey and Keyes visited him when he was a small boy living with his parents. This scene is an adaptation of one from The Fall of Reach by Eric Nylund, probably the one Halo book to pick up for this series. In the book, John forcefully wins a “king of the hill” game with other kids. In the show, he rescues a falling classmate. Either way, this scene shows Halsey that there’s something special about John. In fact, he’s more ambiguously heroic in the book: she seems mostly interested in his martial prowess, while the show suggests it’s his selflessness and effectiveness that catch her eye.
Makee is also back in the fight at the very end of the episode, this time doing her “harmless human captured by the evil aliens” act for John himself.
Overall, I remain both fascinated and frustrated by the way the TV show (and the attendant Silver timeline) treats canonical facts as if they were spoilers. It’s like spending five episodes of a Star Wars TV show as Luke Skywalker investigates who his father might have been, while also making Luke and Leia soundly dislike one another, as TV’s John and Cortana do. The ambiguity around that is one of the reasons I can’t fully embrace this show as something that makes me keep coming back every week.
The direction in this episode continues to be unremarkable, the visuals thoroughly serviceable. That action scene at the end, though, raised expectations. Is it just me getting used to it, or does the armor look more convincing every episode? Ground-level shots also effectively show off vehicles, weapons, and alien gore. Lighting is used to great effect, clarity giving way to one intentionally confused struggle happening in dusty silhouette. At last, we get to see combat that looks pretty much like it does in the game, and see some pretty nice-looking examples of previously-unseen Covenant species. I’m dying to see Chief go toe-to-toe with that Brute with the gravity hammer.
The Waypoint Radio episode about the first few episodes of the Halo series asked a great question. What makes Spartans all that different from marines? Does the show actually convince the viewer they’re superhuman? Episode 5 certainly gives it the college try, showing how Spartans can throw their weight around, switch effortlessly between weapons and simply take more enemy fire than the people around them (some of whom even survive in their shadows). There’s a great shot of Halsey’s assistant, Adun, looking up as John marches past him that reminds me of the fun Chief-Pilot dynamic in Halo Infinite. Perhaps Spartans are best when there’s someone else in the scene to contrast them. Overall, both the action and the character dynamics in this episode could all use some more contrast. I sure did enjoy watching those explosions, though.