The second episode of Halo’s second season isn’t bad, by any means, but it’s not quite as memorable as the previous episode. Instead, “Sword” is a reminder that the Halo series is strongest when it focuses on the Spartans’ stories, whether it’s John’s attempts to set the record straight about what happened on Sanctuary, Riz’s efforts to physically and mentally bounce back from a near-death experience, or Kai’s concerns for the Chief’s wellbeing.

But like most modern television, there are several branching narratives playing out simultaneously, and Halo struggles to juggle them. There’s a slightly too obvious tension between building out the show’s side characters while also racing to ensure the narratives tidy up by the end of the season. The results are a bit disorienting; Halo episode 2 feels like it’s trying to clear several paths at once. It stumbles at times, but when it finds its stride, it’s like a Spartan sprinting across an open field.

Spartans on standby

The episode begins with Dr. Catherine Halsey (Natascha McElhone), who is very much alive and in a room with some gorgeous natural lighting. (How can I get this lighting in my NYC apartment?) She’s brought a tray of tea and cookies by a young girl, who Halsey attempts to pry for information. She’s clearly being held here by someone, but before she can get any answers, the girl drops dead in front of her. Flash clones man, they die faster than grunts.

Back on Reach, Riz (Natasha Culzac) is struggling with the injuries she sustained from the big battle six months ago and refusing to admit it. Even after Kai (Kate Kennedy) suggests putting her emotional control pellet back in to help with the pain, Riz says she’d rather get a bullet put in her instead. Stubborn Spartan.

The ensuing conversation between Kai and John (Pablo Schreiber) again proves Halo’s strength is its Spartans. The concern that flits across her face as he tells her what happened on Sanctuary, the shift as she realizes he’s not just depressed because Cortana was ripped out of his head, but that he could be hallucinating (he says he saw Makee, who Kai herself killed), is top-tier stuff. She can’t stay focused on whatever is going on with John, however, as it appears Ackerson has delegated another Spartan team to the “STANDBY” role—except this one never returned from action. Now John is even more concerned than before, the opening credits roll, and the episode snaps to Gibraltar and Kwan Ha.

Though Kwan’s story gives us an excellently choreographed chase and fight scene (that includes a moment where she glasses a guy with a beer bottle and then pulls him headfirst into the corner of a bartop), it struggles. She’s running from indentured servitude (which I don’t remember her getting thrust into, oops), and is being chased by two men who should be scary but aren’t really. I don’t know who they are, I don’t understand the stakes, and the little bit of set dressing done to establish that they’re henchmen for whoever doesn’t land. Just take me back to the Spartans.

Ackerson and Halsey have a tense conversation.

Image: Paramount+ / 343 Industries

Spartans never die

We see even more of Riz’s struggle to get better in this episode, and it’s a great touch. Spartans are supersoldiers, sure, but they’re humans, and watching them reckon with the limitations of their humanity after years of feeling invincible is incredibly emotional. As Riz struggles in the Spartan’s monochrome weight room (which looks like a gym I’d love to attend, considering Planet Fitness and Blink Fitness have the garish color schemes of a fucking nursery school), a former Spartan named Louis-036 (Marvin Jones III) who went blind due to the required augmentation process, offers to help her. “Don’t let them see,” she winces as he palpates her injured arm.

“Spartans never die,” she says when he tells her to find something else to do with her life. Moments later, James Ackerson (Joseph Morgan) sneers the same saying through gritted teeth when he’s confronted by John, who’s worried about the missing Spartan team. Ackerson and John have a dick-measuring contest, John loses—but not before he finds out that Talia Perez (Cristina Rodio), the one surviving Marine from the Sanctuary attack, has refuted his account of the events. Time to make a home visit.

Soren’s family is desperate to find him, but once again, I am struggling to care. The acting is very strong, and the writing is solid, but there’s something about the pacing that’s keeping me from connecting with the other characters here.

Elsewhere, Riz and the rest of Silver team are being put through their paces by John, who has turned to burying his feelings in training sessions. It’s an intense scene, but also a visually stunning one—set amongst grassy hills reminiscent of the ring in Halo: Infinite, with moss-covered rocks and a huge, awesome waterfall. As the Spartans argue over the mission, the water beads on their Mjolnir armor; as they scale the cliffs, their matte tones blend into the rocks. It’s such a massive visual upgrade from last season, it’s almost unbelievable.

Perez looks off-camera.

Image: Paramount+ / 343 Industries

“The Covenant’s on Reach”

It all comes together in the latter half of the episode—we get a payoff for the Halsey story (it’s Ackerson holding her hostage, she’s on Reach, and he’s using Cortana to exploit her, though it’s unclear why, and still reads a bit messy), and all the other side-plots fall away to center solely on the Spartans.

Riz goes to a healer and lets some of her anguish go, while John’s forced to eat dinner with the aforementioned Marine’s family members. (“You are very large,” her mother tells him immediately.) There, one asks him his KDR (kill-death ratio) in the game “Spartan Attack” which is, ya know, just Halo. After dinner, as he speaks to Perez on the rooftop of her apartment and she tells him what really happened—the comms went down, she could hear something in the mist but couldn’t see it, and then boom everyone but her is dead.

“It doesn’t get better,” John says of the PTSD she’s clearly struggling with. “It just gets further away.” Once again, Schreiber is reminding us that in this world, Master Chief needs to remove his helmet, as we need to see pain play across his face, only to see stoicism rush in just as quickly to replace it.

Inspired by his conversation with Perez, John investigates the disappearance of the Spartan team and discovers they never left Reach. They went to investigate a downed comms relay and disappeared. Simultaneously, Ackerson is asking his captive Cortana about a problem he’s asked her to solve. She can’t find any way to avoid the probability of an unnamed event happening, and we all know what that is: The Fall of Reach.

“The Covenant’s on Reach,” John tells Silver team as they go off on an unsanctioned mission to rescue the mission Spartans. The Marines at the relay face off against a single cloaked elite, and we’re reminded yet again of the horror these aliens should inspire. A dark hallway, the glow of an Energy Sword as it slices through flesh—if you’re not scared, you’re not paying attention.

That singular elite (who is wearing Arbiter armor) is working with someone: Makee (Charlie Murphy) who is definitely alive and now has a new Halo keystone in her possession. The Fall of Reach is nigh.

Halo season 2 episode 3 airs February 15 on Paramount+.

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