Protecting Humanity in Paramount+'s "Halo"
When the Halo series was first announced for the Paramount+ streaming service, I was initially very excited. Halo has been one of my favorite sci-fi narratives since the original novels by Eric Nylund and William Dietz accompanied the release of the legendary videogame. Visions of the intense "Landfall" short film, directed by a pre- "District 9" Neill Blomkamp, and the excellent Halo 3: ODST live-action trailer entered my head. It had scenes of beleaguered humanity fighting against an overwhelmingly advanced alien force in terrain that resembles the aftermath of a gravel truck exploding in a sandpaper factory. It was Sci-Fi gritty-gritty-bang-bang, and I loved it. Now all I had to do was wait for the releases, and activate yet another streaming service with a Paramount+ subscription.
Then something extraordinary happened. My wife expressed interest in the show. She was someone who had no prior knowledge of the games, lore, or characters, but she saw how interested I was and there are only so many times a couple can re-watch Seinfeld. I was gearing up to giddily point out every reference, character difference, and incorrect usage of the MA5D when at this point the UNSC should obviously be running the MA5B or MA37 weapon platform. As the episodes started to be released on their weekly schedule, we waited a bit so that when we did have time to watch them, we could cue up multiple episodes, but in the meantime, my news feed was starting to look like a bloodbath. "Core fans" clearly had opinions on the new show and they were not kind, as in how Ghengis Khan was "not kind" to his enemies. I was crestfallen. The pain of Netflix's cancellation of their live-action "Cowboy Beebop" series was still fresh in my heart, and I feared Halo would soon see the same fate.
I set my expectations accordingly and settled in to watch the first few episodes with my wife, who had been insulated from the vitriol swirling the series. The show’s “Silver Timeline” immediately set about distancing itself from the core canon of the Halo universe. AI’s were everywhere in the original material, installed on everything from UNSC Battle-cruisers to sanitation hubs. Here the AI Cortana is the first. The major narrative pillar from the source material, that the humans as a race are all “Reclaimers”, beings able to access and utilize Forerunner tech, is instead changed to only a handful of special individuals being able to do so. The differences were major in my mind, and I started to question the show's intent halfway through the second episode. Then, my wife commented how Soren, a Spartan candidate that escaped after being left mangled by the program, seemed so much happier than the other Spartans. It wasn’t, “Soren is so sarcastic” or “he’s more flippant that the other Spartans”. He was happy. I started to look more closely at the characters and themes within only the context of the show, devoid of my preexisting franchise knowledge, and wouldn’t you know it, there is good sci-fi buried under all that fan expectation. At the core of the show, the main theme seems to be humanity, its value to our race, and how much of it we are willing to sacrifice for victory.
The easiest examples to observe are the legendary Master Chief himself, John-117, and his shadow, Spartan Kai-125. Throughout the show, we see them transform from what is essentially military hardware into full human characters. These are characters that had to discover and earn the humanity that was essentially stolen from them as children. Which, while it does require some questionable restroom spinal surgery, falls right in line with some standard elements of the cyberpunk genre. They begin to see the world anew. Contrary to what would have been an easy road to a common sci-fi trope, asking themselves why they fight to protect a system that did this to them, they come to realize exactly what they are fighting to protect. The hinted at destabilization of their role, Kai being temporarily sidelined due to being “too emotional” (the emotionally compromised female warrior cliche being subverted in this case), is flipped to show their effectiveness is bolstered. They fight against an alien enemy and their own institution to protect the precious humanity that they’ve gained, which makes John’s sacrifice of that very humanity in the season’s finale all the more potent.
The completely new character Makee, the human who lives among and works for the alien Covenant, has a little more on the nose journey of discovering her humanity. She is rediscovering what it is to be human after years of hanging around space gorillas and creepy, floating geriatric sock-puppets. Ironically, she sees the Covenant as superior to her species as the last humans she had contact with, well, didn't have any humanity, and are on the verge of viciously beating her when she is saved. It isn’t until she spends time interacting with John, in an attempt to manipulate him into leading her to the artifact, that she starts to see what humanity can be. This all leads to what I will call "the culmination of her and John's actualization of their humanity." and what the internet refers to as, "the most uncharacteristic sex scene in modern media". They are two people who have lived in service to others suddenly discovering and experiencing themselves for the first time in their lives This scene didn't come out of left field, the narrative framework for both characters is there. As for Cortana being a, uhm, "casual observer" to the whole affair, it was a definitive moment for her to experience what it means to be human as well. Which is a wonderful opportunity to talk about the value of humanity with my favorite antagonist in the series.
Dr. Catherine Halsey is one of the best portrayals of a mad scientist in recent memory. She never cackles as she reanimates the dead, hurls threats of menace, or even raises her voice. She is focused at all times, her eyes piercing and analytic even when smiling and lounging. She is always planning, executing, and scheming 4 steps ahead of everyone else in her quest to push humanity forward as a species. She is a cold, uncompromising genius, and she is a monster. She kidnaps children to turn the ones that survive her hellish program into literal mindless murder machines. Said children were secretly replaced with illegally grown flash-clones who are all designed to have horrible deaths so that their parents don’t wonder where their actual children went. She betrayed her own daughter’s trust and emotionally manipulated her to further her selfish goals. She cloned herself for the express purpose of creating an AI, a process that annihilated the clone’s brain while she was still conscious. That AI’s purpose was to replace the last shreds of humanity left in the Spartan soldiers to maximize their killing efficiency. She is a human who is prepared to sacrifice what it means to be human. In an unforeseen twist, even to a keen mind like Halsey, it is the very construct she intended to use to remove humanity, that ends up seeing the trait worth protecting. While Cortana's journey is more of a background element in the first season, it is still a journey that follows the show's main theme. In the end she becomes more human than the beast who created her.
I would have missed all of it, every in-your-face reference to a clear theme of the value of humanity, if my wife hadn't pointed out that it was nice to see a happy Spartan. I wouldn't have given the show its proper due, all because Master "no emotion" Chief took his helmet off in the first episode. Was this the best adaptation of the source material? It was for my wife, who eagerly awaits the next season, and is interested in learning more about the Halo universe because of it. It may not be what I had initially wanted from the series, but I’m now glad to have it. I look forward to seeing what the price the protagonists are willing to pay to protect what it means to be human in season 2.