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Halo Season 2's First Episode Hits Harder Than A Gravity Hammer

The team behind the polarizing Halo TV series on Paramount+ really wants to change your mind in season two. In the lead up to the latest season’s debut, everyone from producer Kiki Wolfkill to new showrunner David Wiener and even Master Chief himself (Pablo Schreiber) have told us this is a new angle, not necessarily a “reset” but certainly a reevaluation. The team’s attempts to rejig the series based on the iconic first-person shooter franchise are obvious just moments into “Sanctuary,” the first episode in season two.

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Is it a good episode? I’d say yes. It’s even a good Halo adaptation, though a few of the first season’s problems linger. But overall, “Sanctuary” is exactly what it needs to be—a reintroduction to Master Chief and his team of Spartans, a reminder of the stakes, and a readjustment that looks to set the series on a stronger course. Let’s get into it.

Sangheili in the mist

The episode begins where it should: with the core four that is the Spartan Silver Team—consisting of Schreiber’s John-117, Kai-125 (Kate Kennedy), Riz-028 (Natasha Culzac), and Vannak-134—embedded in a “babysitting” mission on the planet Sanctuary, which is mid-evacuation. They’re pissy, because this is a mission for a team of lesser caliber than them, but they’re clearly being sidelined for a reason.

From the outset, it’s obvious that season two got a visual upgrade—an early shot of the Spartans camped on top of a mountain looks beautiful, from the striations in the sedimentary rock to the subtle sheen of their Mjolnir armor. It’s like the rework Halo Infinite’s visuals got after the first look at the campaign was met with middling reactions and the memeification of one especially Playdoh-looking brute fans nicknamed Craig.

As John and Riz run off to help the Marines diplomatically remove the planet’s citizens, we get a chance to see more of Vannak’s personality—he’s removed the emotional inhibitor chip implanted in the Spartans, which Kai and John did last season. Though he remains stoic, and acts affronted when Kai asks him how he feels, he admits that lately, he’s been enjoying watching nature documentaries in his spare time. Just a few moments later, as the team gets word of a missing Marine unit and John rushes off to investigate, Vannak compares Chief’s hesitancy to scale the rock face to the ease with which an ibex could pull off the same thing. If this season just featured Silver Team bantering while coming to terms with their personalities as full-grown adult supersoldiers, I’d give it five stars.

Unlike the video-gamey action we saw in the first episode of season one (which featured first-person views and a HUD almost identical to the one in the Halo games), “Sanctuary” gives us straight-up, no chaser action from the jump—and it’s good. Chief, after scaling the cliff face with his grappling hook (he’s not an ibex), finds himself surrounded by soupy, dense fog. It’s blocking his comms, too, and the team is eager to extract everyone because some Covenant ships have been spotted in orbit.

John finds the Marines, and what follows is a horror-tinged, action-packed scene that hits all the right notes for live-action Halo. Some of the Marines are yanked into the dense fog by invisible attackers, who are revealed to be cloaked Elites. Kinetic, hand-to-hand combat between John and several of the big baddies ends with him victorious (of course), until we see several energy swords ignite on the horizon, followed by several more. It’s scary, and serves as a reminder that Halo is about humanity fighting against a previously unknown and terrifying alien force. It helps that the scene is set in fog, as the CGI reads much better than in the first season.

Chief gets back to the evac ship just in time for the team to leave before the Covenant glasses the planet, but he’s clearly shaken up by the ordeal. Not just because the Covenant attack was massive in scope, but because he maybe probably definitely saw Makee (the human-turned-Covenant-sympathizer and his former lover) in the mist before the alien soldiers retreated into it.

Master Chief unmasked, but not unbothered

Back on Reach, Silver Team is decompressing from the mission, which resulted in the deaths of all the Marines, save for the one John helped to the evac ship. During their debriefing, Captain Jacob Keyes (Danny Sapani) tells them that these kinds of attacks have been happening across the outer colonies, but he doesn’t seem interested in John’s questions and concerns. As his frustration grows, we get a mid-scene introduction to this season’s new bureaucratic bastard, James Ackerson (Joseph Morgan), who saunters in and takes a seat with the kind of dickish swagger Morgan has perfected (have you seen The Vampire Diaries, c’mon now). He’s here to replace Dr. Catherine Halsey (Natascha McElhone), who faked her own death last season to disappear after causing a bit of a coup.

Morgan is excellent casting here, an absolute scene-stealer, and a son-of-a-bitch to boot—any scene with him in it is better than half the ones from last season, and I’m sure that’ll be the same going forward. He grounds Silver Team, refusing to deploy them into battle until he can sign off on John’s mental status.

But then Halo starts to stumble again. Though I adore Bokeem Woodbine and love his portrayal of Spartan-turned-pirate Soren-066, his B-plot feels even more flimsy than last season. It’s hard to shift from the Spartans’ plight against the Covenant and Chief’s grappling with his emotions to really care about a man trying to maintain a hold on his pirate empire—even with all the beautiful things Woodbine does with Soren, from the brilliant way he plays guarded and hyper-aware, like a big cat on the open plains, to the softness clearly hiding behind that modded Mjolnir armor. I find my attention wandering whenever the episode swaps to Soren’s story, though it does seem that he is on a fast-track to getting wrapped up in the main plot—as he goes looking for Halsey to get the bounty on her head (and for a personal vendetta he won’t admit to) but is betrayed and kidnapped by unknown attackers.

When Halo snaps back to John, I snap back to attention, whether it’s his back-and-forth with Ackerson about what happened on Sanctuary (Ackerson gaslights him) or the desperate moment in which he goes to, basically, a VR escort that he makes take the shape of Cortana (Jen Taylor). The nerds can continue arguing amongst themselves about whether or not John should take his mask off, because Schrieber is so good in this role, and a huge part of that is being able to see emotions play across his face.

The episode ends with John envisioning Makee (who did appear to die in the last episode of season one) warning him that he “should have stayed with [her]” while a flashback shows Kwan-Ha (Yerin Ha) telling a scary story to Soren’s son, Kessler (Tylan Bailey) in a shadowy cave. “It’s very old, the monster. Older than the light. Older than this rock. Older than your God,” she says. “It knows us. Inside and out. Smells our fear. Sees our secrets. It’s been here. All that time. Waiting.”

Covenant ships rise from the clouds of an unknown planet. Reach is coming.

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