After an intense but unsteady start to the Halo TV series, the second episode, “Unbound,” gives us a more sure-footed narrative with room for characterization and a better look at Master Chief, John-117, especially in contrast to Soren-066, a Spartan who took a road less traveled.
John-117: “I don’t have dreams.”
Soren-066: “That’s what I’m here for! I’ll do the dreaming for the both of us!”
The second episode of Halo kicks off with a flashback to early days of the Spartan program, as a young John-117 confronts another trainee, Soren-066, who has been plotting to desert. John tries to make Soren stay, but in the end, lets him leave. Now, years later, an older John-117, now the Master Chief of the Spartan program, flees to the asteroid haven of the Rubble, a fugitive Kwan and a Forerunner artifact in tow, looking to Soren for help. Soren gives Kwan refuge, while also serving as a look at what life might have been for John-117 had he chosen to leave the Spartans: freedom, independence, a loving wife and an adorable child. Soren isn’t particularly subtle about it, reminding John about how the same implants that keep the Chief focused and calm in battle also regulate his emotions and literally keep him from feeling.
Bokeem Woodbine’s Soren-066 absolutely steals the show, an easy-going renegade with an expansive, charming personality that fills every scene he’s in. Soren is an excellent foil to Pablo Schreiber’s John-117. Still, Schreiber’s portrayal is really growing on me. Reserved on the surface, Schreiber tries to get a lot across with non-verbal cues, small gestures and body language, though you might miss the quiet moments of laconic humor. Thank gods the Master Chief did not end up being written like an MCU character with a quips per minute quota.
“What does one do with a superhuman you’re not sure you can trust?” -Fleet Admiral Lord Hood
On other narrative fronts, the repercussions of John’s decision continue to ripple out. On the UNSC fortress-world of Reach, Dr. Catherine Halsey deftly takes advantage of the situation to outmaneuver her superior, Admiral Parangosky, and push for her next project, a means by which the UNSC can ensure the loyalty and pliability of its Spartan supersoldiers through an AI control interface, the Cortana Project. This is a fascinating lore twist to Cortana’s intended purpose in the Silver Timeline, and I’m really interested in how it plays out. Natascha McElhone’s Dr. Halsey continues to be endearingly manipulative, as is the very old boy suaveness of the newly introduced Fleet Admiral Lord Hood played by Keir Dullea.
At this point, really, should come the realization that the members of the UNSC Security Committee are all evil bastards fighting a dirty two front war against colonial insurrection and alien invasion. I am charmed that there’s no pretense of making a gentle narrative arc from “oorah we’re the big damn military heroes” to “wait, are we the fash?” The Silver Timeline just goes straight to “let’s liquidate a teenager and put a puppet warlord in charge” in almost the same breath.
On High Charity, Makee, a human working for the Covenant known as The Blessed One, makes the case to the High Prophets that she needs to be the one to infiltrate the UNSC to recover the Forerunner keystone, because she can move among humanity in ways the other Covenant cannot. Makee, as a human convert to the Covenant is one of the more interesting additions to the Silver Timeline, and I’m very intrigued to see how she’ll play out as the show progresses.
“You don’t understand what you are, do you?” -Reth
A glaringly problematic aspect is the second episode of Halo is its insane asylum sequence. John, Soren, and Kwan visit Reth, a survivor who managed to escape from the Covenant. There’s a freakshow menagerie aspect to the entire asylum sequence. It doesn’t sit well, leaning into the stigmatizing stereotypes around people with neurodivergent conditions, even as it’s framed as a refuge for mystics and misfits. Further complicated by Reth’s insane clarity magical negro presentation and, well, it doesn’t look good.
Still, Reth’s insight into the Forerunner artifact and how it’s a map to the sacred ring is what eventually drives John to return to the UNSC. The prospect of freedom is enticing, but duty calls John back to bring the artifact to Dr. Halsey, given the terrifying prospect of the Covenant acquiring an ancient weapon in a genocidal war they are already winning. Soren makes one last attempt at getting John to stay, calling out the fact that Dr. Halsey is manipulating John and the other Spartans, but John falls back on his training and convenient disciplinary platitudes. John makes Soren promise to give Kwan refuge, and then returns with the artifact to Reach. The episode ends with a quiet conversation between John and Dr. Halsey, showing just how vulnerable and child-like the Spartans are to their mother-figure, and just how adept Halsey is at using her influence over her supersoldier children.
The second episode of the Halo TV series is a much better watch than the first. There is more of a focus on who characters are under the armor/uniform/sacred mantle, and gives us more to work with for characters and the world. I was on the fence at the end of the premiere episode, enjoying the ride but also worried about unsteady writing. Now I’m sold, and I’m definitely looking forward to the rest of the season.