Halo’s first season felt like an old-school video game adaptation: desperate to be taken seriously and terrified of all of the specific oddities about its source material that people actually love. Sure, there were firefights, Spartans, Cortana, and Master Chief, but there was also a shoehorned romance plotline, a forced theme of trauma, and not nearly as many aliens as you’d hope. The good news is the first few minutes of season 2, which premieres on Feb. 8, are a perfect encapsulation of everything the Halo series could be, and light years better than anything from season 1.
Season 2 starts with Master Chief and his team of Spartans trying to save a village of humans on a planet called Sanctuary. The Covenant are closing in on the planet and on the verge of glassing it, but that won’t stop the Spartans from trying to rescue anyone they can. There’s a scene of Master Chief charging headlong into unknown odds, and eventually taking on dozens of Sangheili. Despite the occasionally iffy CGI, the fight is exciting, intense, and a great showcase for what makes Master Chief and his fellow Spartans special — plus, there’s even a brief Arbiter tease thrown in for good measure. It’s the kind of fighting you can imagine him doing in the games, if they weren’t first-person shooters that kept you glued to the stock of a rifle the whole time.
But the quiet that follows Chief’s harrowing encounter with the Covenant is even more interesting. As the alien spaceships rain fire down from the sky in preparation for destroying the planet, Chief has a conversation with a woman from the village who opts to stay and die on her home world rather than run. She explains her reasoning calmly, looking directly into Master Chief’s amber visor with only her reflection looking back at her. She questions Chief’s own relationship with death and sacrifice, then she walks into the fire, accepting her death.
Despite the fact that all of this happens with Chief’s helmet on, exactly like it would in the video games, his emotions are no less clear than if we had a close-up of Pablo Schreiber’s face. Chief is startled, conflicted over his failure to save someone and complete his mission, but also over the idea that there exists a kind of heroic sacrifice that could feel so foreign to him. Schreiber’s physicality in the bulky Spartan armor is excellent and communicative, and more effective than Chief trying to work any of this out in words could ever be. In that moment, it’s instantly clear that Chief is still profoundly human and grappling with the vulnerabilities that the UNSC training programs couldn’t fully remove from their almost-perfect soldier.
This brief few minutes is the entirety of a great Halo show on a micro scale. It’s got action, it’s got energy swords, and more importantly, it pulls in one of gaming’s most iconic blank-slate characters and literally uses his visor as a hyper-polished mirror to reflect his own broken humanity back at him. It’s everything the games want to do but better, more complicated and more human, thanks to Schreiber’s fantastic in-armor performance. The only downside is that the rest of the episode can’t match its quality.
After this fantastic opener, the show turns back into Paramount Plus’ Halo, at least mostly. The dialogue is noticeably better, the action is smoother, the sets and VFX are better, but it’s still mostly a show about bureaucratic time-wasting and people who refuse to talk about the very cool aliens that are trying to destroy humanity. None of this is awful, it’s just a tremendous letdown after the opening scene’s high bar. At least, to the show’s credit, it’s all a lot better than season 1, and a promising start to the season as a whole.