Ok, yes, yes, it's bad, but I low key love it? (A Halo post)
The newest television adaptation of Halo, currently airing on Paramount Plus, is not good. And yet…I kind of low-key love it. Well, no, that’s not quite accurate. I love a very specific part of it. Fortunately, it happens to be an important part.
To be very clear, the show is bad. It’s is constantly making bad choices, from the pilot so stuffed with lore that it becomes unintelligible to the pointless sub-plot about a rebellion to the “I guess they spent all their money on the Halo license”-level special effects on display for most of the season. (They do get better as the series stumbles along, thankfully.) Halo is fighting your interest at every turn, doing its absolute best to encourage you to stop watching. Oh, the scientist in charge of the supersoldier Spartan project is keeping secrets, you say. John 117 aka Master Chief touched an alien artifact and it unlocked childhood memories that inspired him to rediscover his lost humanity, you say.
I cannot even imagine how boring the show is for anyone not already invested in Halo to some degree. The audience is not given reason to care about anything that’s happening. Not the search for the artifact, not the rebellion on Madrigal, not the alien Covenants’ motivations, none of it. It’s not much better for Halo fans either, though, as the show clumsily lurches from event to event, peppering in (it desperately hopes) enough recognizable names, events, and guns to if not earn its name, then at least be in the same ZIP code as it.
But at the heart of this admittedly mediocre program are Master Chief and his AI companion, Cortana, and for everything else the show screws up — which is most everything — it gets them right. I stopped playing Halo after the third game, so I can’t speak to how pinpoint accurate they are lore-wise (was Cortana developed from a clone of Dr. Halsey? I neither know nor care), but their interplay as a couple is spot on, and I love watching it.
In case you’re not familiar, Cortana is the “voice in Master Chief’s ear,” a way for the game of Halo to provide direction for the player without destroying immersion. Video games need to communicate all kinds of information to the player on a regular basis; one way to do that is to give the main character a companion who can provide observations, fill in necessary plot information, subtlely nudge the player when they get stuck and so on. Cortana does all of that but also provides Chief with a conscience, if not a moral center. Their agendas don’t always match, but as an AI she has no choice but to do his bidding, which leads to a far more interesting dynamic than simple partners.
Pablo Schreiber is just this side of loveable as the monolithic green-armored Master Chief in Paramount’s Halo . He’s not given a lot of room to emote, but he nonetheless manages to slide just enough charm in through the gritted teeth to make you root for him. Jen Taylor has perhaps the best performance in the show, reprising her role as Cortana. She has a distinct advantage in that she’s been playing Cortana for years, so not only did she come in fully understanding the Cortana/Chief dynamic, she’s also used to having to convey a range of emotions using nothing but her voice. As a result, she brings ease to scenes that are otherwise stiff and overwrought.
But beyond basic acting ability, both bring a commitment to Halo that elevates their scenes above everything happening around them. I couldn’t possibly care less about whatever secret Halsey is hiding or whatever the Covenant are up to (and don’t get me started about Miranda’s familial issues or literally anything Kwan is doing) but I do care about Chief and Cortana. Simply put, I like them. I like them together. Chief is earnest and Cortana is more than her programming and the two of them together make a highly watchable team. I’d watch them do laundry. Which, frankly, would be a better show than the one they’re currently in.
Unlike the other characters in the show, who say things while looking at each other but never emotionally interact, Chief and Cortana relate to each other. She responds to his behavior and he to hers. The way they say things, from the tone of voice to the words they choose, changes as they get to know each other. He wakes up with a person in his head, she assumes he’ll be thrilled to have her there. As they navigate their unique situation, they begin to understand each other a little better. Chief’s never really had a friend, because the Spartan program altered his brain and suppressed his emotions. Cortana was the one who told him how to get them back, and then helped him do it. Is she a friend? Well, no. But I enjoy watching Chief start to discover that there’s another way to relate to someone than determining their threat level. And again, to be clear, it’s not the writing that’s providing that subtext, it’s the performances of Schreiber and Taylor.
So I have to put up with Halo’s plodding narrative in order to watch Chief and Cortana get to know each other, I will. I just hope that season 2 (assuming there is one) makes paying that toll a little less painful.