Halo Season 2 Levels Up in Every Way But One

The Paramount+ show still can’t figure out its Master Chief problem.

Originally Published: 
Inverse Reviews

It was a feature of the Halo video games that its protagonist, the towering super soldier named “Master Chief,” lacked both a face and a personality. If Mario is a plucky plumber thrust into the role of knighthood and Lara Croft an adventuring archaeologist with thigh holsters, then Master Chief is — to borrow from a certain big, inescapable hit movie from last summer — “Just Soldier.”

The intention behind the game’s anemic characterization of Master Chief was to let players imagine themselves as Earth’s hero in a futuristic fight for survival. In the live-action series adaptation for Paramount+, efforts to give Chief actual distinction — as necessitated by the innate differences between a video game and a serialized TV drama — renders the franchise’s staple feature into a bug. Even in its brightest moments, Halo cannot surmount the challenges presented in its protagonist’s glitchy point-of-view.

Halo Season 2 is marginally better than Season 1, but the character of Master Chief proves to be its biggest liability.


Two years after its 2022 premiere, Halo is back with its second season on Paramount+. (Critics received the first four episodes for review.) While the new season boasts plenty more action, some of it impressively directed, and an overall tighter focus on its core premise of humanity’s survival, Halo still suffers from frustratingly inert and indecisive storytelling. A disengaged lead character doesn’t help matters, with the Master Chief himself weighing down the series any time he grasps for individuality.

Picking up from the cliffhanger finale of Season 1, Season 2 resumes months later, when the super-intelligent A.I. Cortana (Jen Taylor, the only actor from the games to reprise her role) is severed from the superstar soldier of the SPARTAN program, John-117, aka Master Chief (Pablo Schreiber). Amid a dramatic change in command, including the arrival of the cocksure and confrontational James Ackerson (Joseph Morgan), humanity races to prepare for an imminent invasion of an alien alliance known as “The Covenant.”

Parallel to its tale of new regimes is Halo’s own behind-the-scenes creative changes: Season 2 is the work of a new showrunner, David Wiener, previously of Peacock’s flaccid Brave New World adaptation. Wiener replaces Season 1’s Kyle Killen and Steven Kane, whose fractured involvements with Halo spilled onto the screen with its identity crisis of disparate, derivative ideas; Halo Season 1 was often split between military action-drama, gritty sci-fi with sprawling worldbuilding, and a Manchurian Candidate-esque thriller with anti-imperialist themes. Few times did Halo feel like the game it’s based on, even fewer times was it fun to watch. Even with its laborious fan-service, including outright recycling the game’s sound effects and first-person visuals, the Pavlovian effect among elder millennial viewers had only a modest impact. (I speak as a 32-year-old man with a 16-year subscription to Xbox Live.)

Season 2 sees a change in leadership with intriguing ramifications.


By comparison, Wiener’s Season 2 is more coherent, and more entertaining. (And for more fan-service: The show’s theme song now riffs on Marty O’Donnell’s immortal choir-centric score of the games.) Halo isn’t terribly complex or imaginative — the show is still mostly “What if Jack Reacher was The Mandalorian?” — but it at least excels beyond being little more than live-action cutscenes of an Xbox game you can’t play. The simplified narrative keeps even the most passive viewers attentive, making Halo suitable for folding laundry or Sunday meal prep. I guarantee that when the bullets fly and alien blood spills, you’ll stop and watch, even if the repeated use of single-take techniques becomes artistically stale.

Ultimately, Halo’s few but grave failings still fall on the broad shoulders of Master Chief, who ought to be the show’s best asset, but is inexplicably its biggest liability. Though Pablo Schreiber can mean-mug to the camera like few in Hollywood can, he is still a charisma vacuum, an empty vessel even when he physically takes up half the frame. But most of the blame shouldn’t go to him, but rather the show’s writing, as Halo is still undecided as to the kind of hero it wants Master Chief to be. While it isn’t easy crafting an aspirational, square-jawed hero out of pure marble (especially when they are faceless like Master Chief, and it’s too late to cast Alan Ritchson), role models for such plainly defined heroism don’t not exist. Marvel Studios’ Captain America is a similarly noble figure who grills his own patriotism, while gunslingers like Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name and Din Djarin wield magnitudes of depth despite minimal expressions. It’s bizarre, then, that Halo insists on conventionally defining John-117/Master Chief. The game gave the Paramount series all the right ingredients, yet the show still stands in its own way at producing something sublime.

It’s not entirely star Pablo Schreiber’s fault that Master Chief does not work — it’s the writing, too.


Perhaps we must accept Halo has gotten off on the wrong foot with its lead, and it cannot reverse course around this foundational misstep. I don’t know if it would have been as simple as never letting Schreiber show his face, or to never explore his haunted origin story as a kidnapped child trafficked into military service. In fact, I think it’s commendable the series lifted elements from the legitimately-great prequel novel Halo: The Fall of Reach, as it gives Halo something resembling a brain if not a soul. John-117’s series-long resentment toward his own creation can, if only on occasion, feel like a conscious nod toward U.S. military propaganda in which the Halo franchise has participated. (As recently as 2021, the United States Marine Corps were major sponsors of the Halo Championship Series.) But then the shooting starts, and Master Chief is paradoxically the myth-making action figure he is manufactured to be.

With two seasons behind it, Halo is a case of a TV show wanting to have its cake and eat it too, and blow up the plate with a plasma grenade. The explosion may be, ahem, a blast, but they punctuate a wishy-washy sci-fi serial that wants commendations for bravery without actually finishing its fights.

Halo Season 2 premieres on Paramount+ on Feb. 8.

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