After many years of anticipation by the Xbox player base, Halo the TV show is finally premiering today on Paramount+ with its first episode, “Contact.” Is this a contact to save on your phone, or should you block the number and call the police?
I already gave my general impressions on the show. Now that we’re getting into specifics, I’ll be looking under the hood and getting into more detail about plot elements and story structure. SPOILERS ahead folks.
We open on the planet Madrigal, which the show is kind enough to name in a title card. Usually, I find that to be a pretty lazy way to establish setting, but I appreciate anything that makes research easier.
We arrive at what looks to be a gated village with some sort of mining tower structure at the center. We meet a lot of people who are about to die, or so they believe, at the hands of the Spartans, the UNSC’s top soldiers. Madrigal is at war with the UNSC, a galactic human government.
The next scene introduces us to Kwan, one of our main characters. She’s having a pleasant time in the woods with her friends when they hear a sound: It’s alien soldiers from an organization called the Covenant who proceed to violently kill nearly every member of the village.
Halo gets off to a rough start
So in my general impressions article, I mentioned that the writing was too impatient. This opening scene is what I was talking about. We barely know Kwan at all, or any of these other characters, before the action starts. Usually, the idea is to get me to like some of these characters before making me feel sad about them dying, but the show doesn’t have time for that. I feel that the writers are being very manipulative in trying to get the audience to like the show’s main character, Kwan. All we know about her beforehand is that she wants to leave her planet, and she’s a stoner. We get maybe two minutes of info before tragedy strikes. Am I supposed to like her just because her friends and family got mowed down by aliens?
And those deaths don’t make much of an impact. The brutality and suddenness is shocking, sure, but there’s not much gravity or weight; the massacre of these people is treated as another action set piece.
The goriness isn’t the problem, it’s the lack of proper focus. For example, do you remember the first episode of The Boys? When the main character’s girlfriend is obliterated by A-train running through the street? Remember how long that moment lasted? It was stretched out so we felt the impact and remembered it. Not in Halo.
But even if the deaths were handled appropriately, they still happen far to early in the episode. Those Covenant aliens should have appeared halfway through the episode, not in the first five minutes. Let me finish pouring my tea before you drop the bomb.
There are other weird choices in this opening scene. For instance, when the Covenant enter the village, one of the human soldiers tries to retreat and ends up revealing where the sheltered population is. The alien soldier uncovers them and proceeds to shoots them like rats trapped in a closet. Then Master Chief appears.
This was a real head scratcher for me. Why would you write the hero appearing right after a hundred innocents are killed? Is this supposed to be the writers subverting my expectations by failing to do a save-the-cat moment? Is it somehow important that Kwan is the only survivor? I’m all for writers thinking outside the box, but there has to be a point to the digression. This just strikes me as a failure; we don’t think Batman is a hero just because he beats up the bad guys, we think so because he saved someone by doing it.
It takes a village to make a TV show, even a bad one
There are a lot of other details that bother the ever-loving hell out of me. Why does a gatling gun, established to be completely ineffective against the Covenant when they first burst through the main gates, suddenly shred them apart because Master Chief holds it? Why does the General, after seeing hundreds of his people killed by this one alien soldier, decide that Master Chief is a priority and aims for him? I get “the logic” behind it — their states are at war — but let’s be real here; who would seem like the greater threat at the moment: Master Chief, who just showed up, or the alien that just killed fifty people in a bunker?
Anyway, Master Chief and the rest of the Spartans naturally stop the Covenant forces (better late than never, I guess) and scout the Covenant’s landing site. They find a cave where the alien army was excavating something. (Another annoyance: if the Covenant’s priority was this important artifact, why did they waste time and resources attacking a village?) Master Chief, looking to retrieve the artifact, makes contact with it. Doing so awakens something long dormant within him. Memories.
From there, we get more scenes with the higher-up members of the UNSC, who are discussing the pros and cons of the Spartans, especially with Master Chief showing signs of self-determination. These scenes are a little boring, but I get that the story needs them. Dr. Halsey is the head scientist behind the Spartan program, and she needs external threats to motivate her to look for remedies that will surely affect the plot.
However, the characters she talks to…zzzzz. They have this way of talking that is so flat, revealing no depth as far as character. For instance, one of Dr. Halsey’s main antagonists in this episode is Admiral Margaret, who has strong, unique lines like, “I’ve given you a long lead, doctor. Don’t hang me with it.”
Putting the cart before the space horse
Meanwhile, as Master Chief flies the artifact and Kwan back to the UNSC, Kwan has a conversation with someone from the government, Dr. Miranda Keyes, who wants to persuade Kwan to speak on the horror she had just witnessed in hopes of boosting support for the Spartans and convincing other colony planets to join them. Kwan refuses, saying that she intends to lie about what happened to hurt the UNSC’s legitimacy. This is the point when Keyes could say something like, “Okay, well I guess we can also kill you instead. Would you rather follow our orders or be dead?” But instead, for whatever reason, Keyes thinks Kwan has leverage here and asks her what she wants in order to convince her to go along with her plan.
Now, this technically isn’t a hole in the story. As it turns out, Dr. Keyes is a moral person who would not use aggressive and unethical methods to get what she wants. However, we only learn about her personality later. If Keyes had been introduced as a character first and not a random UNSC member, her attempts to be diplomatic would have made sense in the moment, not just retrospectively.
And the UNSC figures the easiest way to deal with Kwan is to kill her anyway. They give the order to Master Chief just as he and Kwan are having a nice chat. It’s an interesting twist in the story and the first strong bit of dramatic tension. However, it really bothers me how quickly Kwan falls into the role of the humorous sidekick, making light conversation even when everyone she loves has been murdered and some of their blood is still on her face.
Master Chief rediscovers his humanity in the most contrived way possible
Okay, so Master Chief is ordered to kill Kwan. However, after touching the Covenant artifact and awakening to himself, Chief is able to deny the order. The UNSC decides to do it themselves by removing the oxygen from the ship. Kwan, choking from the lack of air, points a gun at Master Chief, suspecting him to be behind this
Humor me with a game of “Here’s what I’d do.” If I was writing this scene, Master Chief would have realized that his masters are capable of draining the oxygen from the ship remotely, even as he can remain breathing with the help of his suit, which has covered him from head to toe this whole time; we still haven’t seen his face. Figuring that he’s too valuable to kill, Master Chief removes his helmet. Not only do you get the obligatory face reveal, but you get it as part of a heroic act, as Master Chief puts his life on the line in an attempt to force the UNSC to refill the oxygen levels, and from there the two heroes plan their manual override of the ship’s autopilot.
What happens instead? Master Chief magically withstands being deprived of oxygen, summons the strength to lift a panel off the ship, and flips the “Do not die” switch conveniently placed beneath. The show gives us the dumbest possible solution to the problems it creates.
I’ve been very negative in this review, but there are things I enjoyed. I like the idea of Master Chief reclaiming his humanity and Kwan reclaiming her planet. I’m intrigued by whatever mischief Dr. Halsey is cooking up. I like the big picture, but when I look at the details, I can’t help but get frustrated by the lack of thought, subtlety, and creativity.
However, it’s just the first episode. With eight more to go, there’s room for the show to get comfortable with itself. But as far as the first episode goes, I’d go back to a previous save file.