The Halo series never cared about aliens, and so it never got weird
[Ed. note: This post contains spoilers for the final episode of Halo season 1.]
“We lose the artifact, we lose the war,” a bloodied John, neé Master Chief, tells his comrades. “No matter what [the UNSC] has done to us, we’re all we have now.” This is supposed to be a big moment for him — not a “just had sex” kind of big moment, but rather rallying his fellow surviving kidnapped-children-turned-supersoldiers to fight their true enemy.
But after nine frustratingly bad episodes, we understand so little about the Covenant that there’s not a lot left to hope for in this Paramount Plus show. In its season finale, Halo endeavored to explore the repercussions of John finally attempting to be human. But what they should’ve done by now is show us the depth of being an alien.
There’s the obvious reasons: Aliens are, famously, sick as hell. A collective like the Covenant, the straightforward, hyper-religious adversaries from the Halo games, held promise even in a show as bewildering as Halo was in its the early episodes. With Halo restructuring of the lore of the game, the opportunity seemed ripe to reevaluate the antagonist and play around with every aspect of their alienness.
But no! The show opted instead to (mostly) focus on Master Chief’s trauma. But since everyone who propped up the corrupted UNSC regime that made his life depressingly possible justified their actions by pointing to the Covenant threat, the show repeatedly fell into the vacuum of its own creation.
Perhaps no one embodies this better than Makee (Charlie Murphy), the woman raised by Covenant aliens who saw her potential as a “Blessed One” in their doctrine. Her arc had the promise to be deeply, truly bold: A human raised by aliens to hate humans could certainly express her hatred of humanity on her own body. If not through actual body horror (as we saw in episode 8, when she pulled out her nail sword and the cuticle along with it), then at least through costuming, makeup — anything to indicate that she wanted nothing to do, physically or spiritually, with her own kind. Makee could’ve been fucking weird. Instead, she’s a conventionally attractive woman for Master Chief to love and lose.
Makee’s story, like so much of Halo, feels like the most boring version of what it could be. If you were to take the very building blocks of lore that made up the Halo universe and play with them, what could be on the table? Certainly something more than what Makee and the rest of the cast is left with. As her exposure to a Halo ring and John make her more sympathetic to humanity, her double-cross — and, later, triple-cross back to the side of the Covenant — means little since we have only a small grasp of what actually compels the Covenant at all.
This means that the show’s ostensible Big Bad, the threat that characters constantly feel bearing down on them, is virtually nonexistent. For all its faults, Game of Thrones feels instructive here: Moments like the Battle of Hardhome are powerful reminders of the enigmatic, existential terror the White Walkers actually pose, and the show is littered with characters struggling to fight and figure out their motivation. Halo has no such visceral sense of its enemy, much less consistency to its premise. It’s a major problem, and one the show made no attempt to shore up, despite letting the alien threat be 90% of the motivation for characters like Halsey, Keyes, and Admiral Parangosky.
Ultimately, Halo’s alien problem feels like a symptom of the show’s biggest problem. As each character cites the Covenant threat as a reason for their actions, it becomes clear how shallowly Makee and the aliens actually loom over the narrative. It is so deeply incurious about the ideas defining these characters’ lives that they become virtually meaningless. So the Spartans’ danger as brainwashed supersoldiers becomes easily neutered with a rallying speech from Chief, and Miranda is simultaneously curious and slow to act until she hears a recording. Even John himself — having spent most of the season defying and struggling to understand the depth of villainy he’s complicit in and controlled by — gamely runs back into battle.
The pep talk the admiral gives him about leaving “John” behind to be “Master Chief” should be shocking, but Halo hasn’t quite found that gear. Otherwise it would know that the Covenant deserved to be more than a faceless horde. It deserved to be explored as a force unto itself, interrogated as to whether it really was the worst of two evils enough to justify ruining Master Chief’s shot at a normal life. At the very least, we deserved aliens that were fucking bizarre. Instead, as ever, Halo was maddeningly more of the same.