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Halo TV premiere review: Uneven start saved by a stellar Chief

Promotional image for upcoming Halo TV series.
Enlarge / Actor Pablo Schreiber dons Master Chief’s iconic armor in the new Halo TV series, and in its first two episodes, he is the show’s saving grace.

Halo had to reach its fifth full-length video game before toying with the idea of Master Chief being a bad guy.

The Halo TV show, debuting March 24 exclusively on Paramount+, gets there within its first 55 minutes. And this moment is representative of the dark, series-pivoting stakes that the new “silver timeline” is gunning for—eager to pry back the shiny, military-good-guy veneer of the video games and explore the darkest corners that have hidden within Halo games all along.

That alone may be reason enough for series fans and newcomers alike to tune in—but goodness, does Halo‘s TV series need all the help it can get. I’ve seen the first two episodes so far, and the casting, acting, script, and often stagnant pacing struggle to keep this Warthog on the road between some memorable highlights.

“Spartans aren’t human”

The <em>Halo</em> TV series revolves around a "silver timeline" that introduces three new Spartans. But these non-Chief combatants don't figure largely into the first two episodes that we've seen thus far.
Enlarge / The Halo TV series revolves around a “silver timeline” that introduces three new Spartans. But these non-Chief combatants don’t figure largely into the first two episodes that we’ve seen thus far.

Paramount / Amblin

As I previously wrote at Ars, Halo‘s TV version exists in an alternate “silver” timeline. The basics remain the same as the primary games-and-books canon (Master Chief in iconic green armor, Cortana as an omnipresent AI, the Covenant are alien beings, etc.), but other major events and characters can emerge or change. And the first TV episode is a good example of this creative decision turning out well… for the most part.

The pilot episode toys with surface-level Halo expectations by landing in an unexpected scene: a rebel outpost. Everyone here hates the series’ iconic human military force, known as the UNSC, and they really hate those power-armored soldiers. “Spartans aren’t human,” one rebel says during a rowdy scene in a bar. “They keep killing.”

New series character Kwan Ha (Yerin Ha), who comes from a rebel settlement, quickly becomes Master Chief's most unlikely ally in this TV series.
Enlarge / New series character Kwan Ha (Yerin Ha), who comes from a rebel settlement, quickly becomes Master Chief’s most unlikely ally in this TV series.

Paramount / Amblin

This opening sequence is a brisk-yet-thorough world-building that is neither confusing nor overwrought. Most sci-fi TV series would kill to launch with it. And that’s before all hell and lasers break loose. This rebel compound on the planet Madrigal is soon overrun by a conflict that demands intervention by the Spartans—and while the resulting battle confirms that Master Chief is a Covenant-slaying badass, it also shows him falling short of the archetype that fans and novices alike might assume him to be.

In one midcombat moment, Chief silently nods to a UNSC-hating rebel leader in a way that feels pitch-perfect—we may disagree, but now is not the time, the nod seems to say. Yet the combat winds down with the surviving rebels not necessarily being a priority. A dramatic camera zoom on one survivor emphasizes this point, as if to shout to viewers: don’t trust the UNSC. And that’s not the last time Halo suggests this to viewers, even as we enter the series assuming Master Chief is supposed to be the Good Guy.

Over-the-top violence—yet not much of it

By the way, parents: If you’ve enjoyed Halo games with kids ages 10-17 and have excused its colorful violence as a milder alternative to the military-combat likes of Call of Duty, rethink your assumptions. Halo‘s TV series began life as a Showtime project, and its violence is in “premium-cable” territory. Covenant monsters sometimes die with visceral gore and unflinching footage of point-blank gunshot wounds, and a second-episode sequence includes a military execution in which a despot bags prisoners’ heads before popping each with a pistol.

Despite this warning, the first two episodes of Halo don’t have very much combat. They add up to 110 minutes, yet they only include one game-caliber showdown, along with a fine-if-toothless space flight interlude (in which Chief masterfully flies through an “impossible” asteroid field, because, duh, of course he’s not going to crash and die this early into the show).

Familiar character Dr. Halsey figures prominently in the <em>Halo</em> TV series' noncombat portions.
Enlarge / Familiar character Dr. Halsey figures prominently in the Halo TV series’ noncombat portions.

Paramount / Amblin

Halo‘s handlers clearly want viewers to invest in the politics and in-fighting of the UNSC’s inner circle, one where military leaders butt heads with the researchers who lead the Spartan project. That shouldn’t surprise fans of the series’ many books, which have dug into the UNSC’s machinations, and there’s meat on the bone of premise like, “with great Spartan armor comes great responsibility.”

With the right casting and script, perhaps the show could have gotten somewhere near a Halo spin on The West Wing. But these overlong UNSC sequences drag with overexplained plot and dead-faced actors, and their apparent heart, Dr. Catherine Halsey (Natascha McElhone, Californication), never manages to connect with her SyFy-grade castmates in a way that flexes her acting muscles. The character of Halsey has always juggled responsibilities and ambition due to her intense connection to the Spartan supersoldier project, and when we see her finally sit down with Master Chief (portrayed here by Pablo Schreiber, Orange is the New Black), her eyes light up.

But that’s more the exception than the rule for Halo‘s UNSC-focused moments, and the soap opera-like results are better described as Dawson’s Reach.

Schreiber mostly makes up for the blatant Dune rip-offs

There's surprising life behind Master Chief's mask, aided largely by Pablo Schreiber's performance.
Enlarge / There’s surprising life behind Master Chief’s mask, aided largely by Pablo Schreiber’s performance.

Paramount / Amblin

Thankfully, Schreiber handles the seemingly impossible job of taking the Master Chief character—defined by the plot as a necessarily emotionless husk of a human—and imbuing life and empathy into him without betraying his origins. I’d go so far as to say that Chief is the Dark Souls of real-life acting challenges. While Schreiber’s voice and cadence diverge from the stoicism of the games’ long-time voice actor, Halo‘s TV version rarely leaves viewers startled or annoyed by the fact that this timeline’s Chief has more to talk about.

The best part about Halo thus far is how eagerly it leans into real-world military parallels. Most military-gaming stories tend to gloss over this stuff. How many humans are caught up as collateral damage in the military-industrial complex’s march toward its goals? What happens when an armed force stops calling certain populations “survivors” and begins calling them “insurgents”? For soldiers caught up in a conflict, at what point does “duty” deteriorate into “control”? These questions all trouble Master Chief in ways that his Mjolnir superarmor can’t deflect. That conflict, along with how Schreiber visibly struggles with it, has me optimistic about what’s to come in future episodes.

All that being said, however, Halo echoes what Frank Herbert did in Dune decades ago. When Halo isn’t aping that series’ “the spice must flow” rhetoric, it’s showing Master Chief plagued by increasingly revealing dreams or following rebel teens into a secret cavern, where they discover that their planet’s native plants double as an LSD-like drug. At this point, Paramount+ may as well hire Zendaya for a brief walk-on role and seal the deal.

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