Halo episode 3 review: “A mixed first impression of Cortana”

After a shaky start, the Halo series settled into its groove in its second episode. That rhythm, though, has given way to a slight lull in “Emergence”, a fairly uneventful episode that will best be remembered for offering a mixed first impression of Cortana.

Much like with last week’s detour into Master Chief’s past, “Emergence” opens with the origins of how Makee came to be so deeply embedded with the Covenant hierarchy. On Oban, the young Blessed One is listening intently as her friend, Det, reads from a book. One word – “kiss” – sparks an adorably awkward moment between the pair before they’re chased off by the occupying military and Det is brutally killed.

As a short story of lost innocence – boy-meets-girl, boy dies – it is efficient in ways the show has failed to be so far. In an instant, Makee feels less like a mystery box and more like a fully formed character that can elicit genuine sympathy. While it may not fully justify her actions later in the episode, the sequence further hammers home that Makee and Master Chief – two children ripped from their lives by warmongering humans – are two sides of the same coin. Despite having not yet met, the series is doing a formidable job interlinking their emotional journeys.

Back in the present, Master Chief undergoes a procedure to implant Cortana in his brain. It’s here where Halo proudly wears its sci-fi roots on its sleeve, presenting the operation in squeamish fashion – look away during the eyeball scene! – and delivering what could have been a rote sequence with the sort of mechanical precision last seen in Westworld.

Enter Cortana


(Image credit: Paramount)

Cortana’s design has been the blue-hued elephant in the room for some time now. The video game character’s transition to television was discussed at length in the lead-up to the show’s debut and, unfortunately, Cortana doesn’t quite fit into the show’s visual style.

The holographic design is rough around the edges and ultimately too distracting. The blemishes really begin to show when Cortana is surrounded by human actors – who are quite clearly staring at a blank space where Chief’s AI companion should be. At worst, some of the iffy movements (clearly with an eye to try and get Cortana to ‘exist’ on a physical set) and lip-syncing resembles a cartoonish mascot in a low-budget commercial.

Thankfully, Cortana-gate can be overlooked thanks to voice actor Jen Taylor, reprising her role from the games. And that’s the last time I’ll be using ‘voice actor’ to describe her, because it’s a performance that – though familiar to fans of the games – introduces so much life and energy into scenes that could have felt incredibly disconnected with the subpar CGI at its center. It’s a supreme piece of acting. Period.

With Cortana in tow, the bulk of the episode revolves around Master Chief’s wistfully coming to terms with his newfound humanity, sans emotional repression pellet. A blast of music and overseeing a Det-and-Makee-like couple sharing an intimate glance on a train sets Chief off on his own journey to discover the truth about himself, the artefact found on Madrigal, and his parents on his homeworld of Eridanus Two. 

Yet, there’s only so much Halsey wants Chief to know. In a fun twist, Cortana is in league with Halsey to keep Chief on the straight and narrow as she uses him as a pawn for her own ends. Cortana’s using a double agent working against Chief is another example of skilfully taking the source material and subverting it in ways that play with audience expectations. Better yet, it’s also kept the show away from the interminable UNSC plots that have sagged every episode’s runtime up until now.

The real downside to the episode’s fascination with Cortana is the reaction of Silver Team. Master Chief’s Spartan allies inevitably begin to suspect something is wrong with John-117 when Cortana makes her entrance and starts cracking wise. Unlike the Cortana deception, this story thread fails to ignite any sort of intrigue; it becomes abundantly clear that the show is putting too much narrative weight into characters that have – up until now – been treated as afterthoughts. 

The Great Journey


(Image credit: Paramount)

Makee conniving her way onboard a UNSC vessel, though, keeps the show’s momentum ticking over nicely. The attack on the ship even finds time to inject a surprising (and welcome) dose of horror. The swarm of tentacles writhing towards the crew echoes some of the most nerve-shredding moments in sci-fi classics such as Alien and The Thing. It’s not only a great scene on its own merits, but it also acts as proof of concept that the show could pull off the introduction of parasitic species the Flood further down the line too.

Elsewhere, Halo’s ability to juggle multiple plotlines almost reaches breaking point with Kwan Ha and Soren’s interactions on Rubble sporadically dotted throughout the episode. If Soren’s threats to the wannabe child soldier seem out of character, the Spartan immediately agrees to escort Kwan Ha back to Madrigal so she can lead the resistance smacks of a show wanting to sidestep logic to speed up some of its plotlines. That’s no bad thing in this instance, but each of the Rubble scenes could have comfortably been folded into the previous episode without interrupting the gradual ramping up of tension between Makee and Master Chief.

Halo’s third episode isn’t going to set the world on fire. That’s fine. Instead, it offers up some necessary placesetting before the series goes supernova on Madrigal. Master Chief’s personal struggles have been nudged along in capable fashion and Jen Taylor has, mercifully, rescued Cortana from being a stick to beat the show with. As Master Chief returns to his homeworld, it appears that Halo – like John-117 – is feeling more and more comfortable in its own skin.

New episodes of Halo stream weekly every Thursday on Paramount Plus.

The Verdict


3 out of 5


Cortana takes center stage – not for all the right reasons – in a slow, methodical entry that inches Master Chief closer to the truth about his past.

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