Waking the witch: Halo reads a lot better when it's about Natascha McElhone being evil.

Natascha McElhone’s Space Witch 2552

I once ruined my father’s sourdough starter by leaving it out in the heat for too long. Now, maybe it was still good – heat wasn’t supposed to bother it. But the temperatures were soaring and it smelled rancid. Perhaps it could still be baked. Maybe all the wacky bacteria in it would taste delicious. But it might also send us to the hospital. Ultimately, the choice was made to throw it out. You can always make a new sourdough starter, and doing so is both easier and cheaper than having your stomach pumped. This brings me to “Halo”.

The TV series has some bad ingredients, but it’s now committed its most upsetting act yet. It’s gone and thrown it in the oven anyway by getting a capable director who can make a passable episode. I’m of conflicting minds on this because I was ready to give up and move on…but the combination of solid directing with writing that’s as terrible as ever is something that’s both new and familiar. It’s exciting without being too risk-averse. I’m already prepared for the failures it’s going to make, but perhaps it can change for the better.

Jonathan Liebesman comes on board as director for the last half of season one. This may not seem all that exciting. He helmed the 2014 “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and “Wrath of the Titans”, both of which felt like wastes of a concept. What he did before that, however, was direct “Battle Los Angeles”.

“But Gabe”, you say, “’Battle Los Angeles’ only has a 5.7 on IMDB. It has a 37% on both Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes. Slant Magazine even said, ‘The film blows thick smoke up our ass and calls it charity’”. I’m not entirely sure what that means as a concept, but it sounds suspiciously similar to something my crystal-hawking hot yoga studio kept trying to sell me when I lived in Portland.

The point is that they’re wrong. “Battle Los Angeles” is one long firefight made for a generation raised for better or worse on “Tom Clancy” and “Call of Duty” video games. It imagined an utterly silly sci-fi concept as something that should be shot with the weighty chaos of “Saving Private Ryan” or “Band of Brothers” – which is exactly what fans wanted the “Halo” series to be.

Don’t get me wrong, “Battle Los Angeles” gets pretty shaky when anyone’s asked to act, but most of it is a moving firefight against aliens in L.A. It does a great job of conveying the tactics and topography of that ever-shifting firefight. It’s exceptionally easy to keep track of without losing its in-the-moment feel.

Knowing Liebesman would be coming on board is the only thing that made me sit down and give Episode 5 a chance. And oh what a difference a director makes.

I’m not calling “Halo” good. The ingredients of the first four episodes were rancid. But what if that bakes out? Or what if they only make you kind of sick but taste good at the same time? Is it worth it? Can it be covered over with enough jam?

It helps that this fifth episode, “Reckoning”, has a nice, long 10-minute action scene at the end. Let me remind you that we haven’t seen an action sequence in this action series since the first 15 minutes of the very first episode. But I know what side my bread is buttered on, so first the nonsense:

Natascha McElhone’s Dr. Halsey develops some real chemistry with the best scene partner she’s had yet – a large alien artifact. She wants Master Chief to stay away from it, but when he finally touches it, it reveals to him all the lies she’s told him over the years. He asks his Captain to check out McElhone’s story, his Captain is like, “Yeah, sure, I’m totally not in on it, too”, and then the Covenant attack.

The action is…actually not that great. It works, but they’re going in on big gestures at the sacrifice of the moment-to-moment choreography. Many of the Covenant carry energy shields that they don’t use to block incoming fire or bash anyone else. They just sort of carry them in the same position most of the time as if the animator in charge of it was out that day. Maybe they had some bad sourdough. Master Chief must have practiced how to be invisible because one alien runs up to him without raising their gun or shield, just so they can clothesline themselves on MC’s arm.

The Spartans are badass at driving a car in a straight line until it does an aerial, Master Chief chooses saving people instead of stopping the Covenant from stealing the artifact, and Kai – the other Spartan who yanked out her emotion suppressor – completely forgets how to fight and curls up in a ball.

I want to be really specific about this. Master Chief pulls out his emotion suppressor and if anything, it makes him braver, angrier, he chooses to save lives instead of sacrifice them…what a hero. Kai pulls out her emotion suppressor, is overwhelmed by her emotions, curls up in a ball in the middle of the firefight, and is the primary human life Master Chief chooses to save that costs him the larger artifact. Le sigh.

The most impressive thing about “Reckoning” is that it manages not to overstay its welcome. It feels so much shorter than the other episodes. How do they achieve this? By making it 15 minutes shorter than the other episodes. The relief when the credits roll early is like waking up thinking it’s going to be a tough day at work but then realizing it’s a long weekend. It should be no surprise that this is the series’ highest rated episode so far. It turns out in the end, the…more judiciously “Halo” is edited, the better.

“Reckoning” ends with the UNSC realizing they still have the smaller artifact back home, so they pull stakes, and – oh, what’s this, an escape pod launches from the Covenant cruiser before it leaves! It’s Makee, and she’s doing her whole poor-little-me, I-just-escaped-the-Covenant shtick. Last time she did this, her carnivorous worms got treats.

But the UNSC is very wise. They clearly don’t trust her, so they put her right down the hall from the smaller artifact. Sorry, let me try that again. They clearly don’t trust her, so they put her right down the hall from the smaller artifor fuck’s sake.

Episode Six is “Solace” and it begins with Master Chief telling Cortana about an architect’s dream of designing everything in the UNSC. But that architect screwed up when he designed the lab on their ship, which gives him the opportunity to irradiate the lying McElhone. He stops this at the last second – it was all a trick to test whether Cortana could override his brain or not. Turns out she can only shut him down, not control his every action. But the joke’s on Master Chief. The lab was made from scenery; McElhone could have chewed her way out in a heartbeat.

The fellow…admirals…administrators…senate oversight committee members, I don’t know, it doesn’t really explain who they are, they’re there to pressure Admiral Parangosky into handing control of the Spartans over to them. You see, they’re upset that in the last episode, Master Chief chose saving lives over preventing the Covenant from getting a powerful artifact. They’re threatening to shut McElhone’s entire operation down because there’s no proof the Covenant wants the artifact…that the Covenant just stole, for which Master Chief is in trouble for not preventing, so they’re threatening to shut McElhone’s entire operation down because there’s no proof the Covenant wants the artifact they just stooh shit, not this again.

Who is paid to write this? Who is how the money? Who edits it? Who is fucking reading the words that are on the do they type pages do they improv this shit is this all a Second City skit, like does an audience member just shout out, “Now the Covenant doesn’t want it and it’s raining” and Jeff Hiller walks in and says, “But I left my car windows open” and it turns out this is all a sketch at the open mic from “Somebody Somewhere”? I am down if Natascha McElhone’s going to break into “Wuthering Heights”, otherwise the whole thing just feels like a bit of a kick inside.

Let’s get back to the man with the child in his eyes, Master Chief himself, as he continues seeing visions of himself as a kid, but also sees visions of the kid he was replaced with I don’t know, just go with it. He talks to McElhone about her kidnapping him as a child and she admits everything. He was replaced with a clone who died to give his parents closure, and she kidnapped hundreds of children this way.

Of course, this confession is being listened in on by the Admiral and the Captain, who are using the utmost in undetectable covert technology to spy on the pair when – whoops, they forgot to lock the door or post a guard and now Dr. Keyes (McElhone and the Captain’s daughter, remember) is all like, “Ooh, I’ll put on that spy tech and sit next to you” cause nobody bothers to edit a script. It’s a lazy way of having Keyes learn about her mother’s awfulness without coming up with actual dialogue to take care of it.

Where this all leads is with McElhone under house arrest as she manipulates everyone anyway into giving her what she wants. This is where the heart of the series rests – not with Master Chief or any of the characters whose stories we followed for the first four episodes before the show gave up on them. This series is about a motherfucking Space Witch who kidnaps children, probably eats a couple, I don’t know if that’s canon, whatever, makes the rest into supersoldiers, and then bullshits everybody into doing what she wants cause she’s a goddamned Space Witch. When McElhone acts as if someone else is testing her patience by daring to be in her series that’s about her and no one else, it’s great.

What about Kwan Ha, Soren, and their rebellion against the Rhyming Dictator? The show may have realized it had no clue where its B-plot was going and cut it out. We see them fleetingly in episode 5 before they disappear completely in ep 6. Buuut, it’s “Halo”, so I’m sure the next episode will be entirely about them. And look, those actors are doing fine, they’re certainly putting more into it than most of the UNSC actors. It’s just that their plot is a bunch of reverses on reverses that results in a flurry of movement with no progress made. At least the main plot floats a bunch of threads in McElhone’s cauldron. The B-plot just meanders half-heartedly.

We’re left with Master Chief connecting to the small artifact again, forcing the imprisoned Makee into a sympathetic vision with him. It’s here he gets his first glimpse of the beautiful ringworld that is Halo, and you can see why the Covenant desires it so: it looks exactly like an Irish Spring commercial.

Credit to Paramount who was kind enough to provide this live footage from the Halo ring:

What “Halo” is accomplishing now is a nominal level of competency. It may not seem that exciting, but imagine being offered kitty litter to eat for four weeks and then being offered a Totino’s Pizza Roll. It still may not be food, but it’s such a step up that you think it’s delicious. Throw in some rad 90s advertising with kids asking their mom if the pizza rolls are ready, and she’s like not yet, and they’re like, “Mom, what are you good for then”? and she laughs and serves them and you realize, hey, maybe the 90s weren’t actually as liberal as we like to remember them.

What I’m getting at is that I went into these episodes of “Halo” thinking I didn’t want to watch it any more and came out thinking, “Cheeseburger flavor?!? I gotta try that”. I know it won’t be good, but I haven’t had that flavor of knowing it won’t be good yet and I am pretty curious what it’s like.

You can watch “Halo” on Paramount Plus, but I highly recommend catching up on the history of Irish Spring commercials first. It’ll make a lot more sense.

That way madness lies.

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