Halo has hit the reset button for its second season, though you might be forgiven for thinking it’s the panic button instead.
The ill-conceived romance between John-117 and Makee is out, while Cortana’s takeover of Master Chief at the end of the first season has similarly been jettisoned. In its place, a new showrunner, David Wiener, has been drafted in and the man behind the helmet – Pablo Schreiber – has been vocal about how this new season is far better than what came before.
Does the soft reboot work or is it all tantamount to re-arranging the furniture on a sinking ship? In truth, it’s somewhere in the middle, but the potential for improvement is certainly evident across the first two episodes.
Six months on from the events on Raas Kkhotskha, the Covenant are stepping up their assault by glassing planets and attacking the UNSC.
It’s here we see Halo season 2’s first noticeable change. The Elites that surround Master Chief (Pablo Schreiber) after a mission gone horribly wrong give off the air of a slasher movie, each one zipping in and out of heavy fog and dust in a way that will make those who fondly recall duels with Energy Sword-wielding Elites in Halo’s multiplayer arenas bristle with fear.
Where the first season flip-flopped on the Covenant’s menace, with Makee’s MacGuffin hunt given center stage, the added layer here sets the tone nicely and gives plenty of runway to set them up a genuine threat going forward.
That evolution is most keenly felt, though, in Halo season 2’s big new arrival. Meet the new boss of the Spartan program, James Ackerson (Joseph Morgan), the "replacement" for Doctor Halsey.
A headstrong, experienced combat veteran with a compelling layer of Machiavellian instinct bubbling away below the surface, Ackerson – brought in from Halo’s early novels – is a much-needed wild card that helps shake up the established (and often lethargic) dynamic of the UNSC in the first season.
A second chance
His early sit-downs with a prickly Master Chief are the highlight of the first two episodes. These scenes not only forward the plot in magnetic fashion, they’re a great proof of concept for the naysayers who want John simply to plod around in MJOLNIR armor for an entire season. If you have that, you don’t get the Ackerson/Chief showdowns – and that’s a net loss overall.
Taking Chief out of his comfort zone in such a way, including losing Cortana, also gives Schreiber a far broader canvas on which to paint. His sad, worn-down eyes punctuate every scene they’re in and while, yes, it’s still a bit inherently silly to explore Master Chief as a bit of a lonely soul given his status as ubiquitous video game icon, you can’t fault the creative team for giving it another go when they have such a powerful talent as a lead.
Season 2’s course correction isn’t without its casualties, however. The Rubble sections – which sees Soren (Bokeem Woodbine) search for the missing Doctor Halsey (Natascha McElhone), and Kwan Ha (Yerin Ha) on the run – feel even more superfluous this season thanks to the bump up in quality of the other 'half' of Halo’s narrative.
The early entries of Halo season 2 also set up a whole host of mysteries that not only give the impression of a lack of confidence in the main narrative (it shouldn’t, the looming shadow of the Fall of Reach is reason enough to tune in), but also don’t end up achieving much or revealing anything especially novel in over 90 minutes of runtime.
One in particular – it’s not a spoiler to say Charlie Murphy’s Makee is listed as part of the season 2 cast despite seemingly dying in the season 1 finale – feels like remnants of the first season’s plot awkwardly taped on to a new-and-improved second season.
The second episode, too, has the energy of the stuttering first season: a show that is admirably doing its own thing, but doesn’t quite have enough juice to pull away from the discourse surrounding the show. At times, it even works against its fans: a rough, languid affair that doesn’t feel like part of the same universe. Occasionally, you have to wonder why it’s called Halo at all.
But, then, you get a short, sharp reminder: Master Chief might blast through some Covenant forces – the action here feels more restrained, for better or worse – or the lingering mythology behind the franchise pops up unexpectedly, backed by that choral score.
The touchstones of the series are still emotionally resonant, of that there is no doubt. Perhaps, this year, they will get better at choosing when to deploy them.
For those who are giving Halo a second chance, there’s a lot to like here. The doubters likely won’t be won over, but the engaging early Ackerson plotline, the increased presence of the Covenant, and an ever-charismatic Pablo Schreiber makes this mea-culpa-of-sorts a decent jumping-on point for newcomers and returnees alike.
The first two episodes of Halo season 2 will be available on Paramount Plus from February with new episodes following weekly.
For what else is on the way, check out all of the upcoming video game adaptations to look forward to.