I’m (still) disappointed by the Halo show

I’m fashionably late to the party, but I can’t not talk about the Halo show.

While I was writing this, it was tentatively titled I don’t know how I feel about the Halo show. I think that title is still somewhat accurate, but after sitting down and picking through everything there’s at least a dominant thread.

It’s not a bad show, per se. But I am still disappointed by it.

I’m going to try to distinguish between things that are fine but I just didn’t personally like, things that most fans of the games (I am one of them) will probably take issue with, and things that are just problems no matter what way you slice it, but ultimately this is an opinion piece and everything is to one extent or another my opinion.

This post will contain unmarked spoilers for both seasons of Halo as well as the games. If you don’t want to see those, read the first sections only to the end of the spoiler free summary and stop there.

A rough start

I was not a fan of the first season of Halo. I started writing a long piece on that, originally intended as a script for a video, but I never finished it and never published it. I thought it was a terrible adaptation of the games, bad sci-fi in general, and the more I thought about it the worse it got. From the perspective of a Halo fan, it was a disaster. The writers made sweeping changes with no tangible payoff, and worse, it didn’t feel like Halo. The writing was just bad in general, with stilted dialogue and amateurish plotlines. That alone killed it for me, but it also suffered from inconsistent special effects (and when they were bad, wow were they bad), uninspired cinematography, and stiff fight scenes. I went in skeptical, but with an open mind, and I left disappointed. I felt the showrunners thought better than they really did, and tried a lot of risky things they couldn’t pull off instead of staying with safe options.

I also thought they wildly overspent for what they got, but that’s not a problem for me, the viewer.

I didn’t know if I even wanted to bother with the second season, but after seeing the trailer (which was much, much better than the first season’s trailer) I decided to give it a go.

Spoiler free tl;dr

While the second season is better overall, and improves on a lot of the production and technical issues, the writing is still generally mediocre and it’s very inconsistent. Some episodes- and some moments within episodes- are really good, and feel like what a Halo series can and should be. But the season is weighed down by a major plotline that I didn’t enjoy, and while some might like it more than I did it still feels like more interesting stories have to wait behind it. The worldbuilding remains thin and the characters are a mixed bag. Some parts are really a treat for fans of the games, but it often still feels like it’s trying to distance itself for no good reason.

Overall, it’s disappointing to me, and I think it’s going to be disappointing for most old Halo fans. It’s not awful, in fact it’s generally enjoyable to watch, but a Halo adaptation could be so much better.

It’s better…

The second season is better than the first season. If you’re sensing a “but”, there very much is a “but”. Let’s start with the good, though. A lot of the, I guess you could call them production or technical issues for lack of a better term, have been fixed.

My biggest complaints- other than the writing- about the first season were stiff choreography and uninspired cinematography. Those two things are vastly improved the second time around, and you can tell the difference immediately. The fight scenes, much maligned in the first season, are consistently good, and some of them are really excellent.

Season two just looks a lot better, too. Generally, they’ve gone for a grittier visual style, which fits Halo a lot better. The lighting and camera work are a step up this time. This is especially apparent in some of the action sequences and dramatic scenes, but I think it’s better across the board.

The first season had inconsistent special effects- sometimes they were breathtaking, sometimes they were breathtakingly bad. Season two is a lot more consistently good. It has some great moments, and though I’m sure some will pixel peep there was no egregiously bad effects work that pulled me out of the action.

The music is still not consistently amazing, but there are lot more motifs from the games sneaking in and that’s something I’m happy to hear. The sound design seemed pretty pedestrian, but I also watched the whole thing using the speakers in my TV, so I hesitate to actually judge the show on that rather than assuming it’s there and I couldn’t hear it.

This is a shortish section and I don’t really want to pad it, but I do want to emphasize that these are major improvements that I’m happy to see. In general, it feels a lot more in line with its production values than the first season, which felt a lot lower budget than it really was. While it’s great to see the show looking, sounding, and feeling better, my biggest complaints are all about the writing. And that’s a tougher nut to crack.

…but it’s still weighed down

It’s definitely still carrying a lot of baggage from the first season. While it’s improved, the writing is still not great.

I am one of those people who overanalyzes everything, and earlier drafts of this section were basically long bullet point lists of every complaint I had. The thing is, though, I’m only inclined to nitpick while I watch if the show isn’t doing it for me- I guess trying to answer the question why. This is still pretty close to a bullet list of complaints, but I’m going to try to focus in on where I felt the show really stumbled.

It spends a lot of time meandering from the main plot on side stories that I just didn’t find all that interesting. The ONI betrayal plot, in particular, is a proverbial boat anchor. I’m not a huge fan of this kind of politics plot- I’ve enjoyed them in other shows but they have to be really well done, and this one is just okay at best. Nobody seems to have a clear motivation for doing what they’re doing, Ackerson often goes too over the top to take seriously, and I still have no idea how Halsey ties into all of this. It’s not awful, but much more interesting plotlines like the Forerunner stuff on Onyx, the Arbiter’s heresy, and even Soren’s search for his son feel like they get stuck behind it.

The worldbuilding remains paper thin. It really does feel like lore, technology, aesthetic design and general context are all cobbled together as needed and we’re just asked to roll with it as an audience. I find myself drawing on my knowledge of the games to fill gaps, even though I know there are sweeping changes because sometimes there’s just nothing else to go on. That’s barely acceptable for a high-budget sci-fi these days, and doubly so when it’s an adaptation of something with a long history like Halo.

Tying into those issues, one specific thing that sticks out to me is that the show really struggles to contextualize anything into the overarching Human-Covenant War. When Reach fell, the main thrust of the next plotline was “ONI betrayed us”. The fact that the military capital of humanity (some dialogue hints that this is true for Silver Timeline as well) fell takes a backseat to that. In other words, it’s not “Reach fell (and ONI betrayed us)”, it’s “ONI betrayed us (and Reach fell)”. That we only got one episode of the Fall of Reach really didn’t help, but I’ll get into that later.

The characters remain a mixed bag. Some are good, some are meh, some I just hate. Sometimes the chemistry between characters is really good, sometimes it really isn’t. In general, though, it leans way too hard into the melodrama, interpersonal conflict, and everyone pushing an agenda for my liking. I really wish we had more camaraderie and cooperation instead of petty betrayals and people yelling at each other for questionable reasons.

Kwan takes about three levels in badass this season, and though it doesn’t make a lot of sense even in context, it’s a change that among others makes her a lot more enjoyable on screen. So there’s that.

It’s not consistent

The biggest issue with the Halo show, as of the second season, isn’t a specific flaw. The biggest issue with the Halo show is the lack of consistency. In season two, there were two episodes that I would truly consider good, plus a few bits and pieces here and there. The rest was bad to mediocre, and a lot of it frankly felt like filler.

I came away from the Reach episode genuinely hopeful. It was a good episode. It wasn’t perfect, but it was the first one that was coherent and enjoyable enough that I didn’t feel any need to pick it apart. I said, okay, the first three episodes were a mixed bag at best, but that was good, that felt like Halo. This is the show it can, should, and needs to be.

The next episode, although it wasn’t objectively terrible, was emblematic of all the issues of the show so far. It halted the more interesting plotlines to focus on the ONI betrayal, leaned hard on melodrama, had characters making questionable decisions for questionable reasons, and just generally felt like generic sci-fi drama filler instead of epic military sci-fi. It was well executed, yet tedious to watch.

The season finale was in many ways a repeat of the Reach episode, but with a lot more skepticism going in. It was good. Not perfect, but good. It was engaging, entertaining, mostly quality, and had the look and feel of an epic military sci-fi. But what will the opening of season 3 look like?

Two episodes out of eight- two out of seventeen if you look at the whole series- is not good enough. Not every episode needs to have the scope or budget of these pivotal episodes, but they need to have the quality. In fact, the overall pacing and general energy of season 2 was worse than season 1. Season 1 stumbled a lot, and it had some truly awful episodes, but the mystery of the Forerunner artifact and the Halos really drove the storyline and it mostly stayed on that course. Season 2 deviates from that course to do the ONI Betrayal Thing, and meanders from subplot to subplot.

Who is this for?

I can’t help but feel that the Halo show has no reason to exist. It’s not that the Halo show is an unholy abomination from the depths of hell; that’s hyperbole of the highest order. It’s just that it’s so aggressively generic and drably mediocre that I’m not sure who it’s for. It’s way too expensive to be a cheap way of milking the license.

I talked about this with a friend who watches a lot more TV than I do, and his response was that it doesn’t have to be good, just good enough for people to add it to their watch list. Which is an entirely reasonable answer, but it’s also kind of damning by faint praise.

What it isn’t, is a show for Halo fans.

I went into the show more open-minded than a lot of others. I was open to changes, I understood that it wasn’t going to be a repeat of the games, but on some level I needed them to sell me on them. If they were going to do things differently, there had to be a reason for it. Is that overly harsh of me? Maybe, but I think that’s about the most receptive most fans were going to be.

There are a few changes which I feel were necessary for the adaptation, for format or production reasons, as well as a few which are kind of neutral, take it or leave it, but the only narrative change I can think of that I feel is actually an improvement is killing off Keyes early, and that’s complicated because it’s a grave situation set up by the very different version of the Fall of Reach they did.

On the flipside, I could go on and on about the changes that don’t feel worth it. Highlights include the whole SPARTAN memory wipe thing, basically the entire Madrigal arc, Makee, and adapting out the whole reason for the Human-Covenant War.

Two seasons in, it’s sorely missing familiar faces. They’ve plumbed the depths of lore for obscure characters like Soren and Ackerson but we still haven’t seen even a glimpse of recognizable fan favourites like Johnson, Thel ‘Vadamee, or Buck. The only role reprisal (Cortana) happened by accident, and we haven’t seen any cameos from well-known actors who voiced characters in the games.

Although they throw in fanservice that harkens back to the games- mostly cursory, but sometimes more significant- it still feels like the series wants to distance itself from the games. Which, as a fan of the games, hurts the appeal.

Watching the Halo show as a fan of the games can actually get frustrating, because you keep drawing on what you know from the latter without even thinking about it, and have to actively correct yourself. Personally, I would have much preferred a pragmatic adaptation along the lines of The Expanse or the first seasons of Game of Thrones. All that being said, I’m still watching it, and I think a lot of Halo fans are watching it out of morbid curiosity if nothing else. Maybe they don’t need to really appeal to fans of games to capture that audience, but once again that hardly feels like a shining endorsement.

What could have been

Coming out of the final episode, what really bothered me wasn’t the show we got, but the show we didn’t. Like I said, it’s okay. On average, the show is not terrible, just kind of okay. It has high highs and low lows, and evens out to sit somewhere in the middle.

It’s that it could have been so much better. That’s why the Halo show is so frustrating for me. There was so much potential in a Halo adaptation. To say the original Halo trilogy was the pinnacle of videogame storytelling is incredibly revisionist, but it’s still a series full of epic moments and memorable characters. It’s an epic space opera with massive battles, mysterious lore, and deep themes to explore.

This isn’t the worst show ever made. But it doesn’t do justice to Halo.

I’d say the second season was worse than the first in this respect; the first season was memetically bad and easy to dismiss, while the second feels like it’s actually trying but missing the mark. There’s been some course correction, but even if season 3 is unabashedly awesome, we’ve already blown past pivotal events like the Fall of Reach. There’s always going to be that what could have been, no matter how the rest of the show goes. It’s okay. Watching it is generally enjoyable. But the more I think about it, the more I pick apart both the show and my feelings about it, the more disappointed I get. I don’t hate this show, and I don’t like being super critical about it. But I really wanted this show to be amazing, not just okay.