Who is the Halo series for? That question popped up time and time again while I watched the premiere, a decade-plus wait for Halo’s inevitable telly adaptation resulting in a Paramount show that, if we’re brutally honest, kicked off on pretty lousy footing.
I sat in a Discord call with seasoned Halo veterans and series newcomers alike, synced up to react to every goofy CG alien, every unearned character reveal, and every sly Mass Effect reference. Returning to that question dominated the call as we tolerated the first of nine Spartan-packed episodes. Paramount’s Halo is too much of a break from established lore to satisfy Halo fans, but it also has no desire to bring outsiders up to speed. Master Chief is here, he’s shooting guys, and it’s taken for granted that you think this guy is the coolest badass in the galaxy.
It is a poor adaptation, through and through. But the more I think about Halo, the more I reckon that Microsoft’s flagpole FPS simply isn’t set up for TV.
As a game series, Halo is great! It’s a videogame-ass videogame about a big green man cutting about massive ancient ringworlds and stomping on methane goblins with his size 30 boots. There’s a story, but it’s told with cardboard cutouts, a cast of legally distinct Colonial Marines surrounding a lead who is first and foremost a motocross helmet for the player to inhabit.
In a game, this is fine. Great, even! The first Halo has a sombre quality to its dead alien world, a subtle eeriness that pervades every level as you unlock Halo’s darkest corridors. As Bungie’s series goes on the roles of the UNSC, the Covenant and the Forerunners are expanded, but you’re still hopping from dramatic setpiece to dramatic setpiece, soaking in some stellar space opera vibes before painting them in Unggoy blood.
But in moving to television, Halo has to reckon with its gaminess in a way The Witcher or even Castlevania never had to. It has to be about Master Chief (he’s the guy, after all), but Master Chief is a videogame superhero who says little and punches hard. He doesn’t get in the way of the FPS spectacle, but that also means his personality begins and ends with a suit of armour.
Paramount tries to solve this by turning him into a sad dad, and having him betray the UNSC over its attempt to make him Order 66 a child. It’s hokey, but not much more so than 343’s attempts to humanise Master Chief by digging hard into his war crimes mom and uncomfortable emotional dependence on a naked blue hologram. In games and on TV, Halo’s caretakers are trying hard to make you empathise with a brick, and it isn’t working.
I Would Have Been Your Daddy
Paramount could have told a story that wasn’t about Master Chief, and there’s 20 years of precedent in novels and tertiary media to pull on. But even if this tentpole TV adaptation didn’t inevitably have to star Master Chief, Halo’s universe is packed full of so many bog-standard sci-fi tropes that any story told in it risks feeling soulless and generic.
Here’s a bold claim: Halo has never really been about story so much as a careful balance between vibes and lore. The former is a Bungie matte painting giving dramatic texture to the alien island you’re fighting over; the latter giving that island just enough weight to feel meaningful by hinting at the millenia of secrets hidden under its shores.
There is not a single vibe present in the Halo TV show. Rather than avoiding Halo’s more generic identifiers the first episode plummets towards them at full speed, touring a generic shanty town full of AK-47s and Toyota jeeps before spending the latter half of its runtime in the back of a van. But it shares Halo’s increasing obsession with its own lore, poring over the fascism of the UNSC and Dr. Halsey’s questionable ethics, even as it jettisons much of the existing world-building in favour of something that hasn’t yet justified its own deviations from canon.
Halo works best when it’s playing on mystery and grandeur, and with a new timeline, Paramount could have reset a universe that’s become too wiki-fied over the decades. Instead, we get an uncanny rehash of what’s come before.
These problems don’t begin or end with the Halo show itself. ]Halo is Microsoft’s Star Wars. It’s a series of brand identifiers (Warthogs, Spartans, Energy Swords) and it’s a story that, like Star Wars, will never be allowed to meaningfully end. It’s why Halo Infinite’s story ultimately amounted to treading water, the same reason that game’s attempt to capture the exploratory vibes of that 2002 original fell flat on its face.
One episode in, the Halo series feels like the ultimate end-point of this approach. It’s Halo without its own history, a generic story about a rogue soldier and his plucky child sidekick with just enough Halo’s iconography and proper nouns to convince fans to give it a shot. But it doesn’t put in the work to show newcomers why people fell in love with Halo, and long-time fans aren’t served by a show that rejects so much of what’s come before.
I don’t know, ultimately, who the Halo show is for. But it’s certainly not for me.