This HALO review contains spoilers.
Halo Episode 4
For a show based on a science fiction shooter game, the Halo TV series offers more intrigue than action. Whether that’s a matter of budget or choice, episode 4 is rich with weighty conversations and sorely lacking in alien combat. Even the titular Halo ring is still just a barely understood goal to be chased. The most alien vista in “Homecoming” is more Dune than Halo. Still, we’re back to the family relationships I praised in episode 2, with the episode trading action for some more solidification of the way Halsey messes up all the people in her orbit. Episode 4, “Homecoming,” almost feels like a reset, a save back to the beginning of the level where you’re reminded what the show is doing in terms of its focus on parent-child relationships.
At the core of the episode is Master Chief’s return home. At his childhood house, Cortana helps him piece together memories of his parents burying his drawings of alien artifacts. The memories lead them to another artifact buried nearby, a possible link in the chain that will lead them to the coveted Halo ring. The memories are blurred, but a revelation in this episode is that Halsey’s treatment of the Spartans was even worse than previously thought, including possibly intentionally picking John for the program before his parents’ disappearance.
Back at the UNSC, Kai-125 has also removed her inhibitor chip. With her newfound emotions manifesting mostly as enthusiasm (and a DIY hair dye job), she works with Miranda to decode some of the Covenant language. The two bond over being “sisters” in terms of Halsey having raised them while being emotionally unavailable.
Meanwhile, when Kwan and Soren arrive back on Madrigal, they discover that Insurrectionist leader-slash-UNSC-puppet Vinsher Grath (Burn Gorman) has an iron grip on subjects who feel neutral-to-negative about him. Kwan is still a wanted woman, as evidenced by Vinsher dispatching an assassin, Franco, to kill her and her aunt. Soren fights Franco off, but it’s with a distinct sense of not having friends anywhere that he and Kwan set off into the desert to find “mystics” who inspired Kwan’s father’s own Insurrectionist army.
It’s a much less busy episode than last week’s, and this time it errs on the side of repeating information instead of piling too much on. We know Halsey is cold; we know Spartan training is inhumane; we know John is curious about his past. Cortana’s role in “Homecoming” is simply as a directional tool (as she often was in the games), and Kwan’s character development consists primarily of having more grief and trauma piled onto her.
I generally like John’s reaction to coming home. The show effectively layers his adult perspective on his childhood, such as when he uses a relatively militaristic term (“line of sight”) to refer to the fact that his mother was watching from above while he and his father buried his childhood drawings. His dive into his memories is both spiritual and literal, a vision-quest facilitated but not controlled by Cortana. I’m glad the script clarified that no one was entirely sure why or how this was happening, but the central emotional hook of the Master Chief trying to find out who he used to be still works.
As John learns what “anxiety” feels like, Miranda has her own learning experience working closely with Spartans for the first time. Now that I’m more used to the show’s take on armor, the weight of the Silver Team folks really works. Their physical presence is emphasized by Miranda’s slight fear around them. She effectively conveys that they can be both sneaky and looming, one after the other. I could roll my eyes at Kai’s rebellion manifesting as dying her hair, but it works for a couple reasons. First, she isn’t very good at it. Secondly, she’s effectively going through puberty, and sometimes, dying your hair during times of change is what you do. Kai could be a compelling character if she wasn’t stuck putting her personality together from the broken pieces even more than John is, but the glimmers of connection between her and Miranda promise that later on she might be.
That said, the lack of action does gall. The episode has some gorgeous shots of outer space and sci-fi trappings, but the Covenant are almost completely absent from this episode, leaving it without any classic Halo butt-kicking. Maybe it wouldn’t matter so much if there was more intrigue, too. As a Halo lore fan, this show is doing a bit of what I’ve been afraid of from the outset with regard to treating things like spoilers that were simply part of the background material of the games. We know how Halsey’s Spartan “recruitment” worked, and we know why John can activate Forerunner artifacts. There were glimmers of potential here where it looked like some of the Spartans might start actively rebelling, but neither John nor Kai follow through on that. Both actors do gamely nail weird, barely-restrained menace without saying anything.
It would still help a lot if the script didn’t feel like such a first draft. Dialogue is delivered even more coldly than usual. John’s confusion and openness — he seems to want to become a blank slate to build a personality back up from — are sometimes moving and sometimes annoyingly opaque.
The Madrigal sections in particular began to feel like they belonged in a different franchise: Dune, perhaps, or Firefly. Only the relatively modern-looking vehicles and Soren’s armor reminded me that this was Halo, not a generic bronze-hued desert planet. The mention of Kwan’s father being inspired by “mystics in the desert” in particular immediately calls up Dune‘s Fremen or Star Wars‘ Tusken Raiders, the respectively recent adaptations of which have garnered a lot of talk about non-native perspectives on nomadic or traditional cultures.
This episode tried some new things in terms of direction: voiceovers, the name tags differentiating the Spartans at the very beginning, some cuts between Kwan’s conversation with her aunt and the assassin approaching outside. Some of these feel like they were added in case the audience gets confused. The final one, Miranda’s explanation of Halsey’s coldness to her layered over Halsey and John exploring alien ruins, does bring the show back to what it does best: showing a whole bunch of competent children, all messed up in different ways by their mother.