Halo season 2 feels less like a video game — in a good way

The minds behind Halo season 2 have seemingly learned their lesson. The first episode, which premieres on February 8th on Paramount Plus, is in stark contrast with season 1’s pilot. The plot is sharper and more focused, while Master Chief (Pablo Schreiber) and Silver Team feel more in line with the Spartans we’ve seen across two decades of games. That combined with improved visual effects, correcting the previous season’s error of making the Covenant aliens look plasticky and fake, makes for a season premiere that feels not only like a course correction, but something even the most dubious of fans will enjoy.

The first episode, dubbed “Sanctuary,” starts on the gloomy planet of Sanctuary. Master Chief is there with his Silver Team unit — Riz-028 (Natasha Culzac), Vannak-134 (Bentley Kalu), and my favorite, Kai-125 (Kate Kennedy) — on what starts as a routine mission babysitting rank-and-file marines as they evacuate the planet in advance of approaching Covenant warships. When a unit of marines goes missing, Master Chief is sent out to find them. But when he does, the soldiers are ambushed by a cadre of Covenant elites in a fight that finally makes the aliens the superior force they’re supposed to be.

Watching elites yank unsuspecting soldiers into the fog transformed them from the odd-looking jokes they were in season 1 into something legitimately terrifying. In the Halo games, when we first meet the Covenant on Reach (yes, I am aware humanity’s first contact with the Covenant happens in Halo Wars, but work with me here) we don’t see them at first, only the bodies they left behind. And when we do see them it’s a visceral “Oh shit!” moment. That feeling is echoed in “Sanctuary.” Also, seeing a bunch of plasma swords appear out of a fog cloud is legitimately cool. Ultimately, Halo is about a bunch of unstoppable super soldiers vs. immovable aliens — it doesn’t work if they don’t look cool.

Ultimately, Halo is about a bunch of unstoppable super soldiers vs. immovable aliens — it doesn’t work if they don’t look cool

While Halo hasn’t wholly abandoned the plot points introduced in season 1, they do seem to be diminished in order for more important plots to step to the fore. One of my biggest complaints of season 1 was that Riz and Vannak never got the chance to show a bit of personality the way John and Kai did. “Sanctuary” immediately corrects this error. Vannak shares with Kai that he removed his emotion chip and, as a result, now enjoys watching nature documentaries in his spare time, even quipping at John that a sheer cliff he has to scale would mean nothing to an ibex — which pointedly doesn’t have the advantage of the Spartan’s power armor.

Halo shines when Silver Team works together.
Image: Adrienn Szabo / Paramount Plus

Spartan teams have been the beating heart of the series: Reach’s Noble Team, ODST’s Helljumpers, Halo: Guardians’ Blue Team and Fireteam Osiris, and even John and Cortana themselves. Season 1 didn’t have that, and Halo feels more like Halo should when John’s playing off his comrades, keeping them in line especially against other Spartans or their commanding officers in the UNSC.

Elsewhere in the episode we get to catch up with Soren-066 (Bokeem Woodbine) and Kwan-Ha (Yerin Ha). Soren’s still running his fiefdom on Gibraltar — a space station attached to a giant asteroid akin to Mass Effect’s Omega — while Kwan Ha eeks out a living. I do like Soren’s story as it’s interesting to see who and what a Spartan becomes when they have a chance to be selfish, but this B-plot feels like a marine in Halo 3 who has a gun you want — highly susceptible to an “accidental” case of friendly fire.

When John and Silver Team return to Reach after managing to save only one of the missing marines, they are put on stand-by, effectively grounding them. The team finds out that’s on the orders of the show’s new villain James Ackerson (Joseph Morgan). He’s meant to be a meaner Dr. Halsey (who went MIA at the end of season 1) and effectively gaslights John’s recollection of what happened on Sanctuary.

While some fans treat it as anathema that John has taken off his helmet at all, that Pillar of Autumn sailed

I understand that there is a wealth of media, including the Halo games’ depiction of Master Chief, where characters express a full range of emotion from behind a helmet. And while some fans treat it as anathema that John has taken off his helmet at all, that Pillar of Autumn sailed way back in season 1 episode 1, so it’s high time we recognize that Pablo Schreiber plays an effective character no matter if we see his face or not.

Getting carried by Master Chief in full Mjolnir armor would fix me fr fr.
Image: Adrienn Szabo / Paramount Plus

There’s a great scene in which he visits a VR parlor where he vents to a hologram that he’s made to look like Cortana (Jen Taylor). There is a deep longing in his confession that he feels part of him is missing now that Cortana’s been yanked from his mind, and a profound pain in his face when the VR doesn’t respond to him like the “real” Cortana would. The helmet, then, becomes an effective demarcation line between Schreiber’s two characters: the stoic Master Chief Petty Officer John-117 who doesn’t abide Silver Team’s banter while on a mission and John the human experiencing human emotions for the first time. To quote the kids these days: “Let him cook.”

In fact, based on this first episode, I’m willing to extend the adage to the showrunners. Last season’s pilot was too concerned with aping the details of the Halo games. There were extended first-person action sequences complete with a HUD that looked almost exactly like Halo’s UI, sounds of gunfire and armor recharging ripped directly from the game, even a gory plasma pistol insta-kill. It felt like they did all that with the thought that it’s those bells and whistles Halo fans want to see coming at the expense of conveying a story worth coming back to (even though I still did and still enjoyed it).

This premiere feels like the showrunners finally understand that while they don’t have to hew too closely to the games to tell a good Halo story, it’s worthwhile having at least some of that knowledge. The previous season felt like playing a video game. But this first episode feels more like Halo, and I can’t wait to see more.

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