The warrior Master Chief takes off his helmet to reveal his face.
For those not familiar with Halo lore, here’s why this is a big deal: John 117, or the Master Chief, is the protagonist of six mainline video games plus countless novels and comics, has adorned an endless parade of merch, and he never shows his face. It’s just not done. A key part of his appeal is his anonymity. He’s a relentless, indomitable soldier voiced with stoic gruffness by actor Steve Downes, a laconic vessel into which gamers can place themselves when battling hordes of aliens hellbent on stamping out humans.
So I’ll admit I winced when watching the Halo series, which streams on Paramount Plus on Thursday, March 24, as the iconic green and yellow helmet rises to reveal actor Pablo Schreiber’s face. As someone who’s played virtually every Halo game and is emotionally invested in the Master Chief, something in my gut told me this was wrong. For whatever image I had of John built in my mind, Schreiber wasn’t it. He was, for the lack of better description, too normal.
But after a moment (or two) of processing the scene, and after making a conscious decision to let the story unfold over the next few episodes, I realized it was smart to rip off the bandage (or helmet) early.
Blasphemy, you say? Maybe. But seeing this war-weary face, of a man questioning the military authority he’s been raised to obey, is key for the show given how much the other characters, the story, and really the entire universe, hinges upon this one character. This isn’t Star Wars, where the characters and settings are well understood by the masses. Halo will need to educate many viewers on the different races, worlds and political dynamics, and it does that through John’s eyes.
And sans helmet, you’ll get to see those reaction through his actual eyes.
It’s a clear signal that this show breaks from the game’s canon in a lot of big ways. Master Chief’s face is an early warning to help you adjust to the TV show’s big changes to Halo history, dubbed the “Silver Timeline.” That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Video games plots and characters are tuned to that medium, and an uber-faithful adaptation doesn’t always work (remember Warcraft and Assassin’s Creed?). Creating something unique, especially given Halo’s complicated canon, might be the best way to create an entertaining show for everyone, and not just hardcore gamers. And besides, there are a few fan-pleasing nods to the game — watch Master Chief take cover while fighting, for example — which prove the filmmakers aren’t just throwing out the game for the sake of it.
As my colleague Mark Serrels noted in his early review of Halo, the show shifts gears from the original game’s simplistic and jingoistic tale of a UNSC super soldier and space marines who could do no wrong.
The TV show introduces complexities that make the story more compelling, even if it turns what Halo fans know and love on their head. And it only works when you can get a read on the emotional state of the main character. This isn’t going to be a show about a super soldier tearing his way through alien Covenant forces — that would get repetitive after a few episodes, as would a faceless, near-emotionless character. Instead, the hope is these story wrinkles and how Master Chief reacts to them provides a compelling character arc.
Mandalorian this isn’t
The show also sets up a mystery around Kwan Ha (played by Yerin Ha), who survives a brutal assault by the alien Covenant forces. The growing bond between Master Chief and Ha draws comparisons toand Baby Yoda, but there are some key differences.
Halo, as popular as it is, doesn’t have the same mass appeal of Star Wars. Kids grow up learning about lightsabers, Tatooine, jumping to lightspeed and all that lore (including prominent helmeted characters like Boba Fett and Darth Vader). The Mandalorian was set up as a western, with a faceless gunslinger caring for an uber-adorable, melt-your-heart sidekick. There’s a familiarity with the dynamics, settings and mythos that you’re able to comfortably slip into the world and enjoy the ride.
And really, nothing tops Baby Yoda.
Halo doesn’t have that luxury of familiarity. Unless you’re a gamer, you probably only know Halo as a shooter on a giant alien ring structure — if that. There’s a lot of world building that needs to be established, from the Covenant hierarchy to the tension between the UNSC and the colony worlds — details that might be lost to even some gamers.
Having the Master Chief remain faceless, detached from everything going on, adds a level of distance that may turn viewers off before they can become emotionally invested in this universe.
The Halo show is just getting started, so it remains to be seen whether the story and story twists are compelling enough to justify this bold and potentially fan-annoying move. But it’s also an opportunity to take Master Chief’s character to new and different places.
That prospect is worth embracing. So, Halo fans, let’s just breathe a little bit and see where the ride takes us.
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