Why the Halo TV Show Unmasks Master Chief

The man underneath the MJOLNIR armor, Pablo Schreiber, discusses Master Chief’s big reveal in Halo episode 1.

Pablo Schreiber as Master Chief in Halo
Photo: Paramount+

This article contains light spoilers for Halo episode 1.

Ever since Halo: Combat Evolved arrived on Microsoft gaming console Xbox in 2001, the first-person shooter series and multimedia franchise has been represented by one character above all others.

John-117 or “Master Chief” is the perfect video game protagonist. Stoic, powerful, and visually iconic, the Spartan super soldier in green MJOLNIR Powered Assault Armor is an ideal player avatar. Not only does the guy look cool as hell but he never breaks kayfabe by taking off his bulky helmet with a shiny gold visor. Master Chief is committed to his cause of defeating the Covenant alien alliance and in battle there’s no time nor reason to remove one’s helmet. 

Periodically the series has offered glimpses of the human head underneath that hard hat. Fans have seen brief shots of Master Chief’s eyes and in one instance even gotten a full look at the Chief as a child before the UNSC turned him into the perfect killing machine. But other than that, the helmet stays on. It could be anyone under there. Hell, it could be you, dear gamer. And that’s undoubtedly the level of storytelling investment that Halo studio 343 Industries was trying to create.

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Now, however, Halo has a TV series, which just debuted its first episode on Paramount+ on March 24. Narrative on television works quite differently from narrative in games. It’s not the viewer’s Xbox controller that’s maneuvering John-117 around the plot but rather a team of writers, directors, and the actor Pablo Schreiber. If the show can’t cede control of Master Chief to its audience, then there’s only one other way to humanize him. 

That’s right: the helmet has to come off. And so it does near the end of Halo episode 1 “Contact.” Master Chief takes off the iconic headwear in the presence of Kwan Ha Boo (Yerin Ha) to illustrate that he really is a human being under there. In the process, the show is communicating the same thing to the audience. Prior to the series’ premiere, Pablo Schreiber spoke with Den of Geek about the gravity of the major unmasking moment – a moment big enough that Halo franchise development director Frank O’Connor and 343 Industries transmedia studio head Kiki Wolfkill were on hand to witness it.

“It was a loaded moment on set,” Schreiber says. “Everyone could just feel on that day that it was something massive that we were doing and it was a moment that was gonna live in Halo franchise history for years to come.”

In many interviews prior to Halo’s arrival, including his conversation with Den of Geek, Schreiber has been adamant that the show intends to honor the franchise it spawned from rather than completely reinvent it. That careful stewardship of Halo lore extends to the  unprecedented face reveal.

“From the moment I got the job it’s been incredibly clear how big a moment this is for so many people,” Schreiber says. “I always knew it was going to be a loaded moment fraught with a lot of feelings, both positive and negative. And that’s great. I’m incredibly honored to be in the position that I am. To be the person who gets to carry this on. And I’m very respectful of the fact that Halo is a massive fandom with as many people as there are opinions. We’re not going to be able to satisfy everybody. Not everyone is going to be happy.”

Schreiber and the show’s producers didn’t approach the decision to remove Master Chief’s helmet lightly, but it became clear early on that it was the only logical route for the show to take to build up the character for a new medium.

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“It does feel particularly important that this was the step that we took to tell a longform television story for multiple seasons,” he says. “Without getting the helmet off and without getting access to the face you really are not able to take an audience on the long journey we want to take them on.”

The removal of Master Chief’s helmet is not a one time thing for the series. The character is set to go with and without head protection throughout the first season’s 10 episodes. That raises an interesting question: will characters refer to the character as “Master Chief” or “John” more frequently?

“It’s close,” Schreiber says. He’s referred to as Master Chief mostly when he’s in his MJOLNIR and he’s referred to as John somewhat frequently by characters who know him well and have a long history with him.”

Though many viewers likely already have a long history with Master Chief, Paramount+’s series may be the right opportunity to get to know John.

Halo premieres new episodes Thursdays on Paramount+.