The second chapter of Halo follows Master Chief (Pablo Schreiber) and his new ward, Kwan Ha Boo (Yerin Ha), as they seek out an old friend to help them decipher the meaning of the ancient alien artifact they found in the premiere. They’re AWOL from Chief’s military home, the UNSC, while evading detection by the Covenant, a band of aliens seeking the artifact for its own religious reasons.
Whereas the first episode established Chief’s martial prowess with a big action sequence, Unbound is an exercise in exposition. There is no action to be found here, just Chief in various stages of dress (with helmet, armored without helmet, undercut only) making his way to a big reveal that makes little sense at this stage in the story. We also get our budget-dictated single look at the Covenant Prophets and their human pet, Makee (Charlie Murphy), more UNSC drama between Keyes (Danny Sapani), Halsey (Natascha McElhone) and Miranda (Olive Gray), and some hand-wringing about whether Chief can beat his programming and what to do about it.
I can gripe and grouse about how this show isn’t my Halo and how I don’t understand whose Halo it’s supposed to be, but that will probably always be at the heart of my interaction with this show and it’s no fun to write the same thing over and over again, week in and week out. So just take it from me: This isn’t a show that will please fans who care about the Halo story. This probably isn’t a show with enough action or unique world-building to please curious new audiences, either, at least not within the first two episodes, but it’s impossible for me to see Halo through the eyes of someone with no attachment to it. I still hope to love the show in the long run. We’ll see. I’ll be here to write about it.
So I’d like to focus on the positive, which is honestly how well Schreiber plays his version of John-117, aka Master Chief. While not my preferred take on the character, this is a damaged, almost childlike warrior whose adulthood was designed and controlled by a group of military scientists with the intention of making him a mindless killing machine. “John is much more than a person,” Halsey argues. “He’s a SPARTAN.” There’s nothing inherently heroic about him. He’s not a coward, but he’s not a fully formed person. This isn’t a Chief who spouts self-assured one-liners and fights the good fight. He’s damaged goods.
Schreiber plays him that way and does a great job conveying the internal confusion of such a character suddenly experiencing a more universal understanding of his circumstances. Although it’s maybe controversial among the fanbase to say it, I think the scenes where he isn’t wearing his iconic helmet work pretty well thanks to Schreiber. The dialogue is still mostly generic gobbledygook, but he sells it anyway. His performance makes a bad idea work.
That’s not to say the other performances are necessarily bad. They’re just decent actors and actresses trapped in a series telling a story that isn’t especially engaging. The politics of the UNSC are deeply disinteresting, and every time the Covenant isn’t onscreen or posing an active threat, the show feels lifeless. Like I wrote in my first essay: Human-versus-human conflict in the Halo is boring as hell. It just isn’t what this franchise is built upon, and it feels like the show needs to get moving fast. There are hints that later episodes might finally take us to a Halo ring, of course, and I hope it happens much sooner rather than later.
Despite my misgivings with the direction of the show as a whole, Schreiber is what’s keeping me engaged. I’m interested to see where he takes his version of Chief. Maybe it will end up somewhere more interesting than it seems to be heading.