Halo TV series’ first episode is weird, uneven, campy fun

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The first episode of the long-awaited Halo TV series has premiered at last on Paramount Plus and it’s delightfully weird. I don’t know if I’d call it good. It’s a strange mix of shiny, movie-level production values interspersed with serial camp. There are fierce shootouts and gore and some very bad tactics and deployment that someone thought would look good for TV.

It’s a bit uneven, balancing worldbuilding at a breakneck pace for newcomers, while also throwing some lore curveballs at fans thanks to its Silver Timeline. I enjoyed most of it but is it good TV? I don’t know. The weirdness of this mix that may have kept me invested through the rockier bits of a 57 minute first episode of Halo.

Immediately Halo sets a grayer moral shade than the games, with the United Earth Government at war with outer colony separatists wanting to break free from Earth’s grip. The terror weapon keeping them in line? The Spartans, power-armored supersoldiers that are the mailed fist of the UNSC.

It’s an opening state of play that owes more to the background complexity of Halo’s fiction than the more straightforward military jingoism of the mainline games, and a choice beat to start with. When the separatist outpost at Madrigal comes under attack though, it’s not by UNSC marines, but by an unexpected alien threat, the Covenant.

Halo first episode

It’s an absolute bloodbath, and the only thing that stops the Covenant attack is Fireteam Silver, a contingent of Spartans led by the Master Chief, John-117. When the dust clears, the lone survivor of Madrigal, teenager Kwan Ha realizes to her dismay that the Spartans aren’t there to save the people of Madrigal, they’re in theater to find out what the Covenant were after: an alien relic excavated from a cave at the edge of the outpost, an artifact that responds to the Master Chief’s touch.

With artifact and Kwan in tow, the Chief takes a long shuttle ride back to the UEG fortress-world of Reach, while the ramifications of the massacre and the alien artifact come into play. On the Covenant flagship High Charity, the Prophet of Mercy informs a mysterious collaborator that the Covenant were beaten to the punch by the Spartans, and that the artifact responded to the “Demon” Spartan’s touch.

On Reach, Dr. Catherine Halsey, the delightfully amoral “mother” of the Spartan super soldier program, tries to find out more about the artifact and its reaction to the Chief. Halsey also bargains for the future of her Spartan supersoldiers and her other project, Cortana, with one Admiral Parangosky. When a clumsy attempt by the UNSC to reach out to Kwan Ha and make her a propaganda mouthpiece goes horribly awry, Kwan is marked for death. The order makes the Chief balk, and propels a series of choices that throw the story in an unexpected direction.

Halo TV Silver timeline

The show’s Silver Timeline throws some delicious lore curveballs and characterization and casting choices. Natascha McElhone makes for a wonderful Dr. Catherine Halsey, brilliant, iron-willed, self-assured, determined that she knows what’s best for humanity and for her Spartans, and just shady enough to get her way, consequences be damned. Shabana Azmi isn’t given much room for nuance and subtlety in her role as Admiral Margaret Parangosky, a merciless intelligence chief with a matronly bearing in the books who seems more straightforward and bureaucratically evil in the show.

A lot of the weight of Halo rests on Pablo Schreiber’s performance as the Master Chief, John-117, a famously laconic game protagonist with armed with well-timed quips that don’t overwhelm you as say an MCU hero might. I’m cautiously optimistic. Schreiber’s performance mixes quiet professionalism with human presence and occasional vulnerability. There’s even a dad joke in there that feels right for this version of the Chief, and the rapport between him and Yerin Ha’s Kwan is going to be something to look at down the line.

Is this good TV? I don’t know. It’s probably too early to tell based on the first episode of Halo. But it is entertaining even through the uneven bits. The gravitas and attempts at serious political thriller themes feel at odds with some strange kitschy moments. And while the action sequences can be thrilling, the military bits sometimes take a turn for the dumb, clearly being staged for TV effect.

Halo first episode

There’s a sense that Halo doesn’t quite clearly know who it’s aiming for. It’s not streamlined enough to onboard newcomers to the universe. The lore curveballs are neat, but could alienate more rigid fans. Still, it lands an interesting middlebrow balance between these axes. I’m delighted enough to see the Chief in live action and I’m looking forward to seeing where they’ll take this.

The Halo TV series is available for streaming on Paramount Plus. Nine episodes are set to drop every Thursday for its first season. A second season has already been greenlit.