Halo Episode 4 Takes Master Chief On A Trip Down Memory Lane

When "Combat Evolved" first arrived on the scene over two decades ago, very few gamers (if any) found themselves overly concerned about potentially murky backstories involving, uh, child kidnapping or state-sanctioned reprogramming in the super-soldiers creation. All we needed to know was that the Master Chief owned a kick-ass suit of armor, he was apparently the last of his kind, and had the fate of humanity resting on his shoulders. Any questionable ethics that may have led to his service in the UNSC was kept conveniently off-screen, left for sequels and future tie-in material to fill in the blanks however they saw fit. Instead, the first-person shooter focused primarily on one thing — shooting — and, yeah, we liked it that way!

But since no franchise exists in a vacuum or can afford to coast on the goodwill generated by its stripped-down original, it was only a matter of time before the creators saw fit to give fans more reason beyond just gunfire, nifty character designs, and reams of nerdy lore to stay invested in the continuing adventures of John-117. That goes double for any adaptation of the IP into a televised narrative, of course, which is why one of the biggest early successes of the Paramount+ "Halo" series has been its commitment to adding actual layers to our main character and refusing to shy away from the disturbing realities of his origins.

So when the latest episode came and went without Master Chief (Pablo Schreiber) firing a single bullet or coming anywhere close to an action sequence for the third episode in a row, I actually found it refreshing. Even as I pictured fans growing antsy for "Halo" to finally pivot towards the run-and-gun approach of the games, I could also imagine showrunners Kyle Killen and Steven Kane feeling tempted to take the easy way out. Ignoring the deeply fascistic overtones of the UNSC and merely adapting the events of "Combat Evolved" may have led to a more easily digestible and fan-pleasing adventure ... but that also would've robbed this show of the most distinctive flavor in its still-fledgling identity.

Not everything about the fourth episode works nearly as well as intended — particularly the other subplots, taking us away from John's journey to his past — but that only reinforces the fact that focusing on the human being underneath the iconic Mjolnir armor was absolutely the right call.

Arc of the Covenant

After last week's episode ended with John insistent on returning to his home planet of Eridanus II to discover the truth of the visions/memories caused by physical contact with the Madrigal object, "Homecoming" begins with yet another flashback to John's early life. The games have so rarely delved into John's early childhood as a frightened and confused conscript in Spartan boot camp, but watching John, Kai, Riz, Vannak, and even Soren driven along like cattle here makes it pretty difficult to ignore Dr. Halsey's sins. "You were asked to join us," a younger, but ever-deceptive Halsey (still played by Natascha McElhone, though somewhat de-aged by either makeup, CGI, or a combination of both) reassures the homesick John.

In the present-day, we rejoin the trio of John, Halsey, and her dead-eyed assistant Adun (Ryan McParland) in transit to their destination. The downtime in "slipspace" (the franchise's fancy term for faster-than-light travel) gives the episode an early opportunity to set up its key concerns: Halsey's overall culpability in turning the Master Chief and the other Spartans into the unfeeling automatons they've become, and the question (as verbalized by Adun) of what makes John so "special" in the first place. As revealed early in the episode, some sort of intelligence within the Madrigal object seems to have specifically chosen John (along with Charlie Murphy's Makee/The Blessed One) for some unknown purpose. Halsey, naturally, is obsessed with finding the second artifact from John's memories that, when combined, may lead them to it.

With the hormone-suppressing pellet removed from his back, the normally stiff and formal Master Chief finally begins to thaw out, gazing in awe at the colorful slipstream outside the window in rather un-Spartan-like fashion. When Cortana (Jen Taylor) observes John's physiological changes — he registers anxiety for the first time in his adult life at the prospect of returning home after so long — and proceeds to break down the technical aspects of space travel in much the same way that John once did with Kwan Ha (Yerin Ha), we get a cheeky "You're ruining it" callback to that earlier episode and a startling reminder of how far our protagonist has quietly come.

Despite Halsey and Adun fearing the truth coming out on this trip, that's precisely what happens when John remembers Halsey visiting him — not at the orphanage, as he thought, but secretly when his parents were still alive. The ending moments finally move the plot forward when they uncover the second mysterious artifact ... but the episode's real significance just may be the irreparable wedge driven between Halsey and the Master Chief, turning up the heat on their simmering boiling point in the episodes ahead.

A different sort of homecoming

As much as I'm enjoying the John-centric storyline thus far (though only after overcoming the purposeful "blank slate" portions in the early going), "Homecoming" finds less success with its various other plot threads.

Makee and the Covenant sit this episode out entirely, further muddying up just how the big picture worldbuilding of how the UNSC is faring in their war against the genocidal aliens and how dire humanity's overall circumstances really are. In their absence, "Halo" instead zeroes in on Kwan and Soren (Bokeem Woodbine) during their wildly ill-advised trip back to Kwan's home on Madrigal. Personally, I still don't really buy that Soren, Han Solo-esque pirate that he is, would so quickly break his promise to John about keeping Kwan safe for the sake of a bounty and then justify it later on by simply parking his spaceship a little further away from Madrigal City than he otherwise would. Worse still, none of this ever really gives us any more insight as to Kwan as a person. She starts the episode desperate to join up with her revolutionary comrades and live up to her late father's example, and ends the episode in exactly the same emotional place.

If anything, the episode only uses this dangerous escapade to exposit how Soren had his memories wiped, along with the other Spartans. "Memory's what lets you know who you are, and reminds you what's important to you," he somberly states to Kwan. This doesn't really have anything to do with her, but at least some aspect of this subplot briefly functions as a thematic link to what John's experiencing. The early episodes set up John and Kwan as a fascinating (if underdeveloped) pairing, but the series has disappointingly opted to keep the two apart from each other ever since. As much fun as it is to see Burn Gorman hamming it up as the villainous Governor Vinsher, decked out in futuristic Nazi-like regalia, none of this lands. The introduction of his assassin Franco (Angie Cepeda), the fumbled execution of Kwan and Soren's motorcycle escape, nor the tease of sword-fighting "mystics" in the deep desert can make any of this feel more integral to the story.

Back on Reach, however, Miranda Keyes (Olive Gray) at least gets the opportunity to prove her narrative worth, testing out the Madrigal "keystone" on the remaining Spartans: the sorely underused Kai (Kate Kennedy), Vannak (Bentley Kalu), and Riz (Natasha Culzac). Inspired by the Chief, Kai intriguingly removes her own hormonal pellet and experiences her own taste of humanity throughout the rest of the episode. Weirdly, nobody but Miranda ever seems to realize that something's up with her dyed hair, undisciplined curiosity, and slightly reckless behavior. Nevertheless, both Kennedy and Gray benefit from the increased screen time, leading to a mutual understanding between the two as oddball "sisters" linked by Halsey's calculated cruelty (in this case, forcing the Spartan children to fight for the lives of their own pets, before ordering them to kill the animals anyway). Gray's ending monologue attempts to retroactively link all three storylines together, but the series still has some work to do in crafting a coherent, well-rounded episode.

(Re)claim to Fame

  • Halo Watch: We are still noticeably Halo-less at this point, so we are fully in the "Settle for any crumbs whatsoever" phase of this little saga. In that spirit, I still couldn't tell you how or why it happened, but Kai and Miranda's little group project with interpreting the Sangheili language (that's in reference to those Covenant Elite aliens, for those not fluent in nerdery) somehow ends with Kai's realization that the hologram John first encountered in the Madrigal cave in episode 1 was referring to the mysterious Halo ring. Progress, right? Well, actually, we kind of knew that information already because the Elite who was spying on them informed Makee and the Prophets of the exact same thing later on, making last night's scene completely redundant. Odd.
  • Lost in Translation: Speaking of things not making much logical sense, do you mean to tell me that nobody ever thought to bring in the Spartans and make use of their expertise from interacting with the Covenant on the battlefield for all these years? Miranda's the first one to ever ask them for help translating Sangheili dialects? In a series with murdered flash clones and super-soldiers and faster-than-light travel, I somehow find this to be the most unbelievable thing we've yet encountered on "Halo" to this point.
  • Well, hello there: No, Obi-Wan didn't suddenly invade "Halo." But as far as franchise Easter eggs go, Halsey's early name drop of a certain Chief Mendez in her flashback scene with a young John should ring some bells for book readers. Played by Sebastián Capitán Viveros for a brief moment, Franklin Mendez in the novels is known for training every single Spartan candidate from the age of 6. Essentially the Spartans' father figure and "bad cop" to the motherly Halsey, Mendez plays a significant role in both "The Fall of Reach" and "The Ghosts of Onyx."
  • Soren's Secret: As much of a dud as Kwan and Soren's little sojourn proved to be, we do at least get more information on Soren himself when he admits that it took him a couple of years to remember that he'd killed his own father as a child. Much like the rest of his backstory established in the second episode, this is loosely adapted from the "Halo: Evolutions" anthology novel. The incredibly dark tale is best read in full rather than paraphrased secondhand here, but Soren's punishingly tragic childhood and the need to grow up far before his time helps land him on the radar of Halsey as a Spartan candidate.
  • Preston Cole: Another reference some may have missed came when Kai lists her expertise to Miranda. "From the age of 6, I've studied military strategy, from Sun Tzu to Preston Cole." That latter name refers to the legendary UNSC ship captain who beat the Covenant on every single engagement and coined the "Cole Protocol," the military-wide mandate aimed to prevent the Covenant from discovering the location of Earth. Cortana acting in accordance with that protocol, in fact, is how the Master Chief ends up at the Halo installation at the very beginning of "Combat Evolved."