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The latest ‘Halo’ episodes deliver on the show’s initial promise

(The Washington Post illustration; iStock; Paramount+)
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The last two episodes of “Halo,” including this week’s “Solace,” promise a long, exciting future for the Paramount Plus series.

The TV adaptation of Xbox’s flagship sci-fi video game series had a lot of convincing to do, launching immediately with dramatic reinterpretations of several characters, including our hero Master Chief John-117, played by Pablo Schreiber. After a few minutes of just one action set piece, the first four episodes were all about building up the characters and exploring this new version of game’s iconic cast.

This slow pace frustrated many fans of the games — myself included. We know the backstory of Catherine Halsey (Natascha McElhone) and her use of kidnapped children for the Spartan soldier program that created the Master Chief. Except in this series, Master Chief is kept in the dark of his adopted mother and creator’s sinister machinations, and the United Nations Space Command, humanity’s authoritarian military power, is also unaware of Halsey’s most dehumanizing, illegal experiments. His discovery of this scheme plays out rather slowly, and given that lack of action, the dramatic tension felt repetitive to knowing fans of the games’ story.

Then the fifth episode, “Reckoning,” dropped.

The episode sees all the characters head into a direct confrontation, with Chief now aware of his origins and the United Nations Space Command demanding results from this expensive expedition. As a small army led by Chief and Halsey excavate another piece of an artifact that leads to a sacred ring called Halo, the Covenant alien species, which has declared holy war against humans, descends upon their location, and we finally receive the large-scale, chaotic combat that distinguishes the games from any other series.

A large suite of alien characters from the games make impressive debuts in the show, chattering in comical and menacing ways as they enact gory violence upon a hapless human force. The battle even stays accurate to the video game experience, with Chief hijacking enemy vehicles and picking up different weapons just as he runs out of ammunition — just like a “Halo” player might.

This entire sequence was praised by even the highly skeptical r/halo subreddit, which until then had been a hub for many of the aforementioned criticisms of the show’s pacing. If the show’s creators were able to stage the action this well, deploying explosive, practical effects and large-scale set design, maybe there’s more to look forward to down the line.

After so much action, the next episode was destined to be a bit of a breather, probably returning to a slower pace. Not so, at least dramatically.

Now, having fully processed his origins, Chief and Halsey confront each other in a shocking dramatic scene that is not just a payoff for new viewers, but for longtime fans as well. In the games, Halsey rarely receives her just deserts for her dastardly deeds. This series, by contrast, not only forces the characters to reckon with the consequences of their actions, but provides impressive emotional closure to not just Chief, but the audience as well, no matter their knowledge of the game’s story. Chief proves that, even off the battlefield, he is still humanity’s most effective and dangerous weapon, and he will not be manipulated.

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Episode director Jonathan Liebesman, who also helmed last week’s celebrated episode, displays impressive storytelling chops. The cinematography is lyrical, showing Master Chief staring at the artifact through a thin window, and transitioning to another similarly framed scene of Halsey, representing her narrowing options.

The episode ends with a tantalizing glimpse of where the story is headed. For fans of the game, this may be predictable, but that’s part of what makes it so exciting. We inch ever closer to what really makes the Halo series sing and distinguish itself as captivating popcorn science fiction. And for anyone who’s new to the ride, it’s still an impressive sight, teasing a literal world of possibility.

The episodes also minimize the subplot of Kwan Ha, the young rebel girl rescued by Chief in the first episode. Yerin Ha’s performance is not the weak link here; she plays the role believably and with passion. But her narrative arc feels more like a narrative line so far. Her motivation to return to her Madrigal home — political freedom — isn’t just puzzling, it feels unrealistic. Her entire livelihood was decimated by the Covenant in minutes; her worldview should have shifted by now. But as other characters have developed, she hasn’t. Hopefully the series still has some surprises up its sleeve for Kwan.

The last two episodes point to a great, promising future for the series. Seeing Miranda Keyes (Olive Gray), an underused but popular character from the games, grow into her known role is inspiring. Then there’s Schreiber’s turn as the Master Chief. While he’s been predictably great at portraying this version of humanity’s most powerful weapon, he’s faced an uphill climb: The show prominently features his face, whereas the games keep the character’s face hidden.

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Schreiber’s pained expressions perfectly capture Chief’s fluctuating and confused emotions. This Chief, newly aware of his humanity, struggles to control himself; we often see him burst into shocking, violent fits. Sometimes, as Schreiber brutally and repeatedly punches various walls and aliens, it feels as though he’s pummeling this new version of Chief into our brains. We have no choice but to see his anguish, beaming out at the audience.

In the sixth episode, Chief’s confidence wielding his emotions seems to be building, and the series becomes a showcase for Schreiber to act his master cheeks off in a variety of situations, displaying intelligence as he conducts a few tense interrogation scenes in which he firmly grasps the upper hand. It will be rewarding to see Chief grow into the knowing, wise and effective soldier that’s made him one of gaming’s most celebrated icons.

He even showcases stern but warm kindness to Kai-125 (Kate Kennedy), whom he so coldly dismissed just an episode earlier. Kai is still coming to grips with her station in life and laments how it was all a lie. But that’s not quite true, Schreiber’s Chief reassures her.

“We’re still Spartans,” he says without a shred of doubt. Six episodes in, it’s easy to believe him.

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