Spoilers follow for the first episode of Halo, “Contact,” which premiered on Paramount+ on March 24.
We all know what Pablo Schreiber’s face looks like. He was the agonized Nick Sobotka on The Wire with a hangdog expression communicating both that the Baltimore port was in its death throes and that his family was being torn apart by that economic collapse. He was an easy-grinning drug dealer on Weeds; a scarred serial rapist, stalker, and murderer on Law and Order: SVU; a mustachioed and sadistic prison guard on Orange Is the New Black; and a fiendish leprechaun on American Gods. The man can carry an array of looks and lewks, so his casting as Master Chief Petty Officer John-117 in the Halo TV series was a slight cause for concern. Choosing to hide that face behind a mask … Why?
Halo premiered Thursday on Paramount+. Its arrival has taken nearly two decades of work, $90 million, and a creative approach to figuring out how to distill a first-person-shooter video-game series with dense lore and a sprawling canon into an hourlong TV series. The most zealous fanboys might not be happy with how blatantly Steven Kane, the first season’s showrunner, distanced the series from its most well-known source material. “We didn’t look at the game. We didn’t talk about the game. We talked about the characters and the world,” Kane told Variety in an explanation of the series’ new “Silver Timeline.” And there could certainly be bad-faith complaints about how many of Halo’s driving characters are women: pulled from canon corners like United Nations Space Command admiral Margaret Parangosky (Shabana Azmi); portrayed by BIPOC actors including Olive Gray’s Dr. Miranda Keyes; and made entirely new such as teenage refugee Quan Ah (Yerin Ha), who dares to stand against the UNSC’s imperialism.
But while Halo hasn’t exactly worked out all its kinks yet, those are silly protests you can feel free to preemptively ignore. The team behind Halo is trying some stuff out, and here is the most important change of all: showing us the Master Chief’s — excuse me, John’s — face. You do not make Schreiber your star and then hide all that expressivity from us! The Mandalorian already did that with Pedro Pascal, and we’ve suffered enough!
Thankfully, Halo does away with this silly conceit within its very first hour, and in doing so makes clear that this first season (of two that have already been ordered) will ask questions about who John is, his place within the Spartan program, and whether humanity can coexist with the UNSC’s campaign of stripping colony planets for their natural resources and waging endless war against the Covenant alien force. In the series premiere, “Contact,” the Master Chief is the lead of the Silver Team of Spartans, and although he and fellow Spartans Kai (Kate Kennedy), Vannak (Bentley Kalu), and Riz (Natasha Culzac) neutralize the Covenant forces invading an outpost on the planet Madrigal, they also kill every human there — except for the adolescent Quan.
In a nod to the video games’ first-person-shooter style, our perspective aligns with the Master Chief’s in this early fight scene: Text inside his eye guard informs him of damage suffered and threats still outstanding; a “scanning” message evokes waiting for an old dial-up connection. But once he touches a Covenant relic that unlocks his hidden childhood memories, that tactic falls away. We are seeing through John’s eyes now, not the Master Chief’s, and the helmet that runs his diagnostics, command, and control systems is just a tool, not an identity. This fracture is how Quan is able to confront him with his UNSC-ordered murder of her insurrectionist mother and to plant a lingering question about the morality of the organization. In response to his concern about how free will causes you to “question everything,” she scoffs, “Someone told you that’s bad? Of course they did.” And so when the UNSC sends the order that he kill Quan, he violates procedure.
He turns off the ship’s signal to try to confuse the UNSC about where they are. He tweaks the atmosphere control to fix oxygen levels so Quan can stay conscious. And when Quan points a gun at him while he stands in his suit of enhanced-titanium Mark VI Mjolnir armor, he tells her, “You won’t even dent it. If you want me dead, you’ll need to aim up here” — and he shows her his face. “I think he just took off his helmet!” someone panics back at the UNSC headquarters, and yeah, he did! (And so will the other Spartans; Kai, Vannak, and Riz appear unmasked in the second episode, “Unbound.”)
But back to that Master Chief reveal! This moment is perhaps unintentionally amusing because “Contact” director Otto Bathurst initially frames Schreiber from the front as he disconnects the helmet, then from the sides as his hands grip it, then from behind as he takes off the helmet nearly in slow motion, and then lingers and zooms in on the actor’s face as if this is a massive, built-up sequence, not one that comes 50 minutes into an hourlong premiere episode. What is the sense of proportion? Heightened!
To be fair, for Halo players, this is the first time any version of the Master Chief character has been unmasked. The function of the character in gameplay is to be a cypher who stands in for the player; anyone and everyone who powers up Halo, takes their place alongside the sentient artificial-intelligence being Cortana, and faces the Halo Array could be the Master Chief. As Kane said to Variety, “He’s you, he’s me, he’s a 6-year-old girl, he’s a 15-year-old person in a different country. Whoever plays the game is him.” (Why is a 6-year-old girl playing a first-person-shooter game, sir?) But the essence of Kane’s statement stands, and certainly this scene will be a climactic moment for a certain subset of viewers. For the rest of us, though? It’s just a relief.
Hello, Pablo! Nice to see you again — and to see you consistently for the next eight hours. Next time you call Pedro for a birthday message for your kid, can you please tell him about the benefits of showing us his face?
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