Paramount’s Halo TV show has gotten a lot of … well, somewhat deserved hate. I mean, I know I’m not the only person who looked at Halo and asked myself, “Did the writers of this show forget everything we learned from The Mandalorian about how to film a helmeted, faceless character?”

Still, I don’t think the TV series has gotten enough credit — largely because many of the criticisms are focused on how it’s different from the Halo games. But the show is telling a story that, in some ways, is fundamentally different from (and, at times, better than) that of the games.

Halo Is Like A Rough Draft For Game Of Thrones

iron throne from game of thrones

One way the show surpasses the games is that it attempts to tell a sociological story. To (significantly) oversimplify: in a sociological story, a social institution is at the center of the story, and the storyteller constructs the plot and characters on that basis.

The plots of the Halo games are all heavily focused on, and driven by, individuals. (Really, it’s almost always just Master Chief.) These are called psychological stories. A major problem with them is that in a story (typically speaking), you want characters to drive forward the events; and you want to be clear and logical about how those characters do so, and why particular characters do particular things. In short, you want character development and character agency with understandable, logical explanations for each.

GoT had this in abundance thanks to being a well-written sociological story centered on a particular social institution: the Iron Throne. Whether we liked them or not, just about every character who was more than an extra had clear, relatable reasons for their actions and beliefs that typically traced back to the political reality of Westeros.

Conflicts weren’t won by deus ex machina or plot armor, but by forms of social power — violence, scheming, and so on. Things didn’t just happen, either; the characters weren’t always in control of the course of events, but their choices had consequences, and the ultimate state of the world logically followed from those choices and consequences. The wide-ranging and pervasive state power represented by the Iron Throne influenced the direction of the plot and each character’s ideas, goals, and lives — like a main character, really.

Power Is Power

halo tv show unsc council meeting

And where GoT has the authoritarian Iron Throne, Halo has the imperial, militaristic UNSC. Where GoT has the political ruler yet caring parent Cersei Lannister, Halo has the corrupt military leaders Margaret Parangosky and (caring parent) Jacob Keyes. Where GoT has the terrifying, invading White Walkers, Halo has the Covenant. Where GoT has the oppressed, rebellious Daenerys, Halo has Kwan Ha.

Halo doesn’t really do any of this as well as GoT did: the dialogue is never quite as smooth or organic; the characters and their relationships are rarely as well-developed. But then again, unlike with GoT, the writers had very little to draw on: the source material is a thoroughly psychological, hyper-individualist story; and there were few sociological stories out there for them to learn lessons from.

But I’ll always remember the harrowing scream Makee lets out as she’s tortured by a UNSC soldier, right in front of the impassive faces of three of the show’s main characters. I’ll always remember how she flashes back — in that moment, right after she has just turned the corner on her redemption arc — to the exact same thing happening to her as a child.

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No Halo game has presented a character arc nearly so complex, relatable, and heartbreaking. There are still very few sociological stories out there to learn lessons from, but this show is one of them.

The UNSC Is An Empire (Because Duh, Of Course, It Is)

vinsher grath on Madrigal in halo tv show

“Governor Vinsher has control of the situation on Madrigal, but perhaps with somewhat more of an iron fist than we anticipated when we put him in charge.”

“Vinsher’s crude, but he’s a reliable business partner. The deuterium will soon be flowing, and the relative calm has had a positive effect on fuel prices across the galaxy.”

Yeah, Vinsher’s not the only crude one.

As a sociological story, Halo’s central institution is the UNSC. As the above exchange from episode 2 demonstrates, it’s often a heavy-handed story. A neocolonial tyrant, a metaphor for oil, a burgeoning insurgency later on … What’s a four-letter proper noun for recent U.S. imperialism?

Like the MCU, the Halo TV show is part of mainstream media’s recent, slow-growing ambivalence toward a couple of different aspects of the U.S. response to 9/11. This characterization of the UNSC as an empire is a huge improvement over the games. There was little, if any, explanation in the games for:

  1. Why the UNSC existed before the Covenant arrived.
  2. How does it exist? (i.e. How is it funded and structured? What is its relation to the rest of the government? Etc.)
  3. Why it created Spartans (and kidnapped children to do so).
  4. What are the post-war plans for the Spartans (and the rest of this massive military power).

And so on.

In real life, militaries aren’t a product of nature, like gravity or the rise and fall of the sun. Regardless of what answers you might give, it’s extremely dangerous to hand-wave away questions like whether or not we need them, who profits from them, and what the people who control them intend to use them for.

Disastrous, imperialist policies like the invasion and occupation of Iraq 20 years ago could occur primarily because, prior to that, the U.S. military-industrial complex was built up into its current state through a half-century of Cold War jingoism.

‘Deuterium’ was — and, judging by the history of imperialism, will likely continue to be — the reason. The military was — and, judging by the history of imperialism, will likely continue to be — the method.

The Halo franchise’s UNSC is the military arm of an empire. Duh.

Sociological Stories & Unrepentant Individuals — Halo’s Catherine Halsey

As mentioned earlier, the plot events of the Halo games have always been driven by individuals; and typically just a few individuals. As such, the games have always struggled with having an interesting ensemble cast of characters.

Across all the games, about the only one to get decent character development was Cortana; and only in Halo 4. In Halo 5, the seven new characters of Fireteam Osiris and Blue Team are all one-dimensional and forgettable compared to Master Chief, the franchise’s (barely even two-dimensional) main protagonist.

The game tries to make us identify with Spartan Locke, its co-main protagonist, as much as we do with the series-regular Master Chief — and completely fails. But stories like GoT, or even The Last of Us Part II, show that it’s possible to introduce and develop new characters in such a way that they rival established protagonists.

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Fundamentally, the problem is that when the absolute center of your story is individual characters, you forgo showing the influence of overarching social institutions upon either the characters’ development or the events of the plot. Without such a wide-ranging, pervasive story element to guide and explain things, there’s no time to organically, and logically include several full and interesting characterizations.

On top of that, there are only so many characterizations you can include. Since the characters are the focus of the story, they’re also much of its substance; so identifying with them — liking them — is just about the only way your audience can get immersed in the story.

But one of the ancillary benefits of telling a sociological story is that the Halo TV show didn’t have to make a character like Catherine Halsey repentant or redeemable. Halo 4 introduced her as an unrepentantly ends-justify-the-means scientist who’s obsessed with ‘human advancement’; but then Halo 5 made her an ally of the protagonists in order to further demonize Cortana, the villain who hates her and tries to kill her. Halsey goes from bad guy to good guy for no good reason, and with no character development shown on-screen.

But the show doesn’t have that problem. Halsey can be unrepentantly arrogant, authoritarian, manipulative, and sociopathic — it all works! Because we know that the UNSC is imperial and militaristic; we know that it’s so power-hungry that it kidnapped and tortured children simply to crush political resistance and acquire resources; and from the very first episode, we know that however much the Covenant really is a legitimate and unavoidable threat, the militaristic and power-hungry nature of the UNSC as an institution is a big part of what makes despicable propaganda tactics seem necessary to even its most well-intentioned members, like Miranda — Halsey’s own daughter.

The audience doesn’t need to like Halsey in order to get immersed in the story; in fact, Halsey’s evil actually enhances the audience’s engagement and enjoyment — it further demonstrates what the UNSC is like! The story isn’t about individuals; it’s about the institution.

Some LEGENDARY Action Scenes

Though I’ve talked a lot about the plot and characters, most of the criticism of Halo has been directed at its action — which certainly is, in a word, scarce compared to the action-heavy games. In this case, though, I think the show partly makes up for it with novelty and creativity.

Recreating the action of the games has always been the major roadblock to making live-action Halo media. The best (and almost the only) example was animated, yet also instructive: Red vs. Blue. From its eighth season onward, the popular web series brought Halo fans back for rewatch after rewatch (speaking from experience here) because it brought imaginative, realistic action scenes to a franchise whose fans had gotten very accustomed to “headshot-grenade throw-reload-rinse and repeat”. Spartans were meant to be supersoldiers; and yet, this was pretty much the first time any of us got to see them sprint or throw a punch, much less anything more exciting.

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Halo took that possibility and gave us live-action versions. I mean, I understand wanting the show to be more like the games — there are only four or five action scenes across nine episodes. But in the games, if you fly a banshee into a phantom, the phantom pretends like nothing happened and you blow up, die, and reset to the last checkpoint to do the “headshot-grenade throw-etc.” dance all over again.

In the show, Master Chief jumps off a cliff, grabs onto a banshee, and forces it to fly into the side of a phantom that’s overrunning his friend — crashing that phantom into the ground and earning us all a huge, fiery explosion (and some vicarious badassery). It’s the sort of thing I always wanted to be able to do in the games, and I still go back to rewatch it. It was just that awesome.

Cortana’s Voice Actor Returns

I can say a lot of negative stuff about the development of Cortana and Master Chief’s bond in Halo — one of the most crucial, and heartwarming, aspects of the story in the games. Trust and devotion between the two becomes increasingly essential over the course of the games; to the point where, despite (and arguably due to) being soldiers, protecting each other becomes their primary motivation.

But in the show, the development of those two key factors — handled relatively well earlier — is rushed in the final episodes, resulting in a big emotional climax that doesn’t feel earned at all. The relationship just isn’t given enough screen time to develop organically. (That has the further downside of putting emphasis-by-absence on Cortana’s only other relationship: her dependence on Halsey — the aforementioned manipulative sociopath, whom Cortana is not terribly fond of in the games.)

However, there is one part of Cortana’s character that works, and it works great: her lines. Barring most of her interactions with Halsey — which, again, are pervaded by an understandable, though nonetheless discomfiting, dependency and naivety — Jennifer Lee Taylor, the original voice actor for Cortana in all of the games, does a phenomenal job of bringing the exact same mix of charming arrogance, sarcastic attitude, cleverness, and humor that made Cortana the most human of all the characters in the games. Most of the character’s lines in Halo are similarly well-written and well-delivered.

Without Taylor, none of the stuff that works for this character would work as well — especially, but not just, for people who’ve played the games.

Conclusion

Most of the criticism of Halo has focused on how it differs from the games. But that’s not the only metric by which to judge a work of art — especially one that’s in a different format from the original. Halo — for all its flaws as an adaptation, as a story, and as a TV show — tried to do something new and engaging with its source material, and deserves credit for succeeding.

1 Comment

  • Matt
    Posted June 5, 2023 4:32 pm 0Likes

    While you’ve made several great points that I appreciate it’s abundantly clear you’ve never read the Halo novels and have made several incorrect statements in this article because of that. Blue Team as characters predate the first Halo game, as the book they first appear in does. Many of your questions about why the UNSC have done certain things are also answered in the novel series. This would be such a perfect article if you had just done more research

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