Warning: this article contains full spoilers for Halo: The TV Series Episode 9! If you need a refresher on where we left off, here’s IGN’s review for Episode 8.
Halo has reached the end of its first season, and there’s certainly drama to spare heading into the finale. Makee has been outed as a Covenant spy, making her the latest in a long line of people who have betrayed and lied to Master Chief. The Covenant now possesses both artifacts pointing the way to the Halo. While the threat of complete annihilation looms over the planet Reach, Master Chief is too busy fighting his fellow Spartans to save the day. All of this makes for a compelling foundation, so it’s unfortunate that “Transcendence” never fully capitalizes on that potential.
To get the elephant out of the room first, it would seem Makee’s betrayal in Episode 8 wasn’t meant to set up the show’s version of the Fall of Reach — not immediately, anyway. As much as it seemed like the climax of “Allegiance” was laying the groundwork for a full Covenant assault on the UNSC’s home planet, that’s not what we get in “Transcendence.” What follows is instead a smaller, more straightforward conflict involving Master Chief leading an assault on the Covenant homeworld.
It’s certainly not fair to knock this episode solely because it doesn’t follow the expected path. But this does speak to the generally anticlimactic quality of the finale, where the stakes never feel quite as high as they should be. Even the idea of Master Chief leading a suicide mission into the heart of Covenant territory sounds better on paper than in practice. At this point, Silver Team seems shrouded in plot armor more durable than any MJOLNIR suit. With no Spartan deaths and only Master Chief himself paying a heavy price, this latest battle lacks the gravitas one would expect from a season finale. This episode also raises some big WTF questions, not least of which being why no one on the team thought to assassinate the Covenant leadership while the Prophets stood floating dumbly in the background.
That mission does lead to what is easily the show’s biggest and most game-inspired action scene to date. Not since the premiere has an episode paid so much attention to replicating the look and feel of a Halo Firefight match. Not just the weapons and enemies, but even the environment itself feels ripped straight from the games. Naturally, that devotion to the games has its plusses and minuses. The shootout is fun to watch, but it’s another reminder that the show still faces some major limitations on the special effects front. Not to mention the use of first-person perspective is quickly growing old. It’s a novelty that doesn’t really serve a useful storytelling purpose.
But for all that the plot comes up short in terms of scope and urgency, the finale does succeed in capping off several major, season-long story arcs. Makee is probably the highlight in that regard. This is a character who’s grown significantly more fascinating since beginning her deep-cover mission and falling in love with Master Chief. Now, in death, she emerges as probably the series’ most tragic character. This episode really hammers home the futility of her existence. She’s a mere pawn to be used and discarded by aliens who need her skills but ultimately still view her as a heathen. There was probably never a happy ending to her story, and that sad realization certainly gives the finale a weight it may be lacking in other areas. If this is the last we see of Charlie Murphy’s character, it’s a fitting end. But given some of the directions the games venture in, it may be premature to count her out just yet.
The Dr. Halsey subplot also ends the season on a strong note. Episode 8 raised some concerns about Halsey shifting in too overt of a villain role, but Episode 9 is able to dial things back a bit. We see to what lengths she’s willing to resort to maintain her freedom and continue her work, but this episode also reinforces the notion that Halsey doesn’t see herself as evil. She’s just someone who believes her ends justify any means, and it’ll be interesting to see how that single-minded obsession plays out in Season 2.
And for whatever the final battle lacks in terms of storytelling weight, it does ultimately do justice to Master Chief and his difficult journey over the course of nine episodes. Season 1 has basically been the story of John-117 discovering the truth about himself and realizing that every one of the handful of people close to him — Halsey, Captain Keyes, Makee — has been lying to him from the start. Like Makee herself, John is a tool who’s been used and abused with little regard for what he wants. But where Makee is ultimately a tragic, doomed figure, John is able to find redemption in his apparent death. His decision to place his full trust in Cortana is a truly pivotal moment for both characters. Not only does it forge the bond fans love from the games, but it also shows John is finally at a place where he can make his own choices and weather the consequences.
Finally, the finale gets some bonus points for again ignoring the Kwan Ha/Soren of it all. Maybe the series is simply kicking that can awkwardly down the road, but at least the finale doesn’t have to sacrifice the momentum it does build by pivoting back to Madrigal. We can only hope that the new season will find a better way of juggling those characters and their role in this overarching conflict.