Warning: spoilers for Halo episode 2 ahead. Turn back now if you haven’t seen the new episode of the Paramount Plus series.
Welcome to Rubble. Master Chief and Kwan Ha’s post-Order 72 trip to the lawless colony to seek refuge serves as the backdrop for a strong second episode that teases out more of John’s backstory and the Covenant’s burgeoning plans. It’s not all a winner, though: "Unbound" remains saddled with serious UNSC-shaped issues and misuses one of the premiere’s best characters.
Rubble is part-Blade Runner dystopia, part-Matrix machinescape, its citizens hustling and bustling, the tower blocks creaking under the weight of commerce. "Home to every misfit, reprobate, outlaw, and renegade in the galaxy," beams a waiting Soren-066 (Bokeem Woodbine), John’s former brother-in-arms,
While John’s past was only alluded to in the premiere, it’s brought kicking and screaming to the forefront of this episode. One of the opening flashbacks sees John and Soren at a Spartan Training Facility, decades prior to the events of the series.
The pair are at a crossroads. Soren decides to escape a life of war, but Master Chief refuses to join him. In an instant, the yin-yang dynamic between the pair is smartly established – and continues Halo’s pattern of slowly teasing out John’s true nature. The rest of the episode deals with Master Chief in Rubble struggling to make sense of an increasingly uncertain future, all without someone barking orders in his ear – which makes his final decision to return to UNSC HQ all the more heartbreaking.
Each little snippet introduced so far has carefully painted the picture of a more well-rounded character than the one who dropped in and kicked the Covenant to the curb on Madrigal in the premiere. First, the helmet went, then a light was shone on his past. Master Chief is never going to be as complex as, say, a Tony Soprano, but the show’s creators have already turned what could have been a power fantasy caricature into something deeper and more emotionally resonant than it had any right to be.
Rubble, Rubble, toil and trouble
If you were hoping to see more of the world of Rubble, you’re flat out of luck. "Unbound" is all about quiet moments over spectacle, a necessary cooldown after the premiere’s action-heavy adventure.
Take the sitdown between Soren – munching on fruit, overflowing with joie de vivre – and the stoic John. During the conversation, we discover that John’s emotions have been suppressed thanks to a pellet in the back of his skull. A main character not being able to emote is a tough ask for any actor, but Pablo Schreiber continues to do a fine job of slowly coming to terms with Chief’s thoughts and feelings outside of UNSC protocol.
Master Chief’s unmasking may not sit right with some Halo fans, but it’s used well here. You can see the pain in Schreiber’s eyes every time he talks to Soren. John may be a man of few words, but the sadness that washes over Chief’s face is all that’s required. Soren, as "Unbound" presents him, is a possible future for the Master Chief: a home, a wife, a son, and – crucially – no armor. It remains to be seen whether it’s an opportunity John will snatch with both hands.
Elsewhere, the second episode’s strengths and weaknesses – as well as those of the show so far as a whole – can be boiled down to a tale of two committees.
The first, on High Charity, sees Makee seek counsel with the Covenant’s religious zealots, the Prophets. After curtly discussing the artifact that Master Chief has now taken with him to Rubble, Makee decides to go after it herself. The Covenant meeting is a deceptively simple, effective piece of storytelling. It lays down some breadcrumbs and puts two combustible elements – John and Makee – on an imminent collision course. Whatever the show’s faults at this early juncture, it knows how to keep you coming back for more.
The UNSC problem
The UNSC plots, meanwhile, are the polar opposite, a necessary evil that pumps out the uncompromising truths of conflict – war is waged around boardroom tables as much as on battlefields – in bland fashion.
Here, it’s no different: Halsey goes above her station and introduces the concept of ‘Cortana’, an artificial intelligence that can be used to bring Master Chief to heel and make his decisions for him. Unfortunately for a moment that will spark the imaginations of those who are familiar with the source material, it’s delivered through muddled militaryspeak in cold, sterile rooms.
It’s not so much world-building as wheel-spinning. As a recent pop culture analogue, the UNSC scenes are comparable to Boba Fett’s flat scenes in The Book of Boba Fett. When more interesting characters are having their fun elsewhere in the galaxy – be it Mando or Master Chief – it’s hard to care as much about regulations and red tape. No wonder John turned tail and ran at the first opportunity.
The final third of the episode – away from Soren and John’s catching-up and the Covenant machinations – is also a little weak. From the moment Soren takes John to see Covenant expert Reth, a more cliched setup for Master Chief as savior of the galaxy is set in motion. Disappointingly, that’s away from Master Chief edging towards an emotional escape hatch during the earlier scenes between the Spartans.
With the artifact activated, Chief heads back to UNSC. Kwan Ha interrupts and asks, "Don’t I get a say in this?" She’s not wrong. The big letdown of the sophomore episode is the Madrigal survivor being almost completely sidelined despite being one of the premiere’s brightest lights.
In that respect, "Unbound" is uneven. Master Chief is in a stronger place after this hour, but Kwan Ha is weaker because of it. The Covenant and UNSC, too, are similarly operating in a state of imbalance. Halo, then, isn’t firing on all cylinders just yet – but has plenty to like as the series nicely sets the stage for Cortana’s introduction.
New episodes of Halo stream weekly every Thursday on Paramount Plus.