I love Sarah Palmer.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. I know she has issues.
Sarah Palmer dislikes arrogance (eight years more of college does not make one superior…), and it’s one of her primary traits (…but augmentations do). Sarah Palmer has a strong sense of morality (“This armor – this job – has been soiled because of you!”) when it suits her (“Orders are orders, Tom.”). Sarah Palmer’s only positive trait that doesn’t have an obvious hypocrisy tied into it is her loyalty.
This all makes for a very problematic character.
And that’s a good thing.
Spartan Ops Episode 1
When the Halo Universe was first created, everything was black and white. Kill the Covenant, kill the Flood, save Humanity. Then Fall of Reach revealed details on the origins of the Spartans, and we got a whole lot of grey. Then Halo 2 happened, and that did nothing but add another shade to the collection. Now in Post-War times, white and black have been pushed to the far edges, and everyone is working in a universe of greys. Many of the characters are aware of this, but some still choose to see the world in black and white.
Sarah Palmer is one of those people. Her measure for black and white is herself, her emotions. Palmer thinks far more with her gut and feelings than with her head. When DeMarco dies, she’s quick to place blame on Lasky. She’s even more ready to draw her weapon on Halsey, even when it’s unnecessary, and Palmer’s just mad. To her, these actions are clearly in the right.
Spartan Ops Episode 5
We need these people in the Halo canon. With the Great Schism and the end of the Human-Covenant War, everything has shifted dramatically. We need to have people still looking for monsters in the shadows because that doesn’t go away after twenty-eight years of war. It really doesn’t go away for us, the players, either. Remember the backlash when Halo 2 first came out? People hated the fact that they had to play as the Covenant. My own roommate, when playing through the Halo 2 for the first time, stalled at the beginning of the level Arbiter.
“I don’t want to play as the bad guy,” she said.
Even after we came to know origins of the Spartans and the Sangheili became our friends through Halo 2 and Halo 3, there was still that black and white. We still knew that there was the big, bad Covenant and the relentless Flood. The games following after, going back into the war or out into Requiem, still gave us that dichotomy, even if the enemies changed. We knew who to root for and who to shoot.
Twenty-eight years for the universe and fourteen for us. That’s a long time in learning to place blame very specifically. That’s a long time living with a strongly-defined and dangerous “other.”
In-canon, some people find the monsters back in the Covenant races – as displayed in the Kilo-Five trilogy. Some people find the monsters in the UNSC or Insurrection – as displayed in New Blood. Sarah Palmer found hers in Halsey.
Spartan Ops Episode 6
In Mendicant Bias’ analysis of Palmer, I would agree that the Commander has an inferiority complex, but I don’t think that’s the sole source of her hatred for Halsey. In light of the most recent issue of Escalation, I have another theory. Halsey is the monster to Palmer because Halsey is a threat to Palmer’s black-and-white worldview.
Palmer is not unintelligent. She can pick up on cues and emotions. She is capable of developing strategies on the fly. Therefore, I sincerely believe that even before Halsey was brought aboard the Infinity at Requiem, a part of her knew that Halsey couldn’t be the sole person to blame for the Spartan-II program. A part of her knew that she herself was working for the other people who had a hand in the kidnapping of and experimentation on children. Sarah Palmer can’t tolerate that.
Escalation # 16
Palmer willfully chooses to see Halsey and only Halsey as the source for the stain on her morality. The authorities have labeled Halsey a traitor and a war criminal, and to spare her own conscience, Palmer buys it. Again, she is thinking with her emotions rather than with logic.
Palmer reminds me of another ODST: Corporal Vasily “Vaz” Beloi of the Kilo-Five trilogy. Both see the world in black and white. Both work off of their emotions. Both consider Halsey’s death some form of justice. Both approach the scientist with the intent to kill.
There is one crucial difference in Palmer and Beloi. Palmer might change.
Throughout the Kilo-Five trilogy, Beloi’s hatred of Halsey is lauded and never changes from book one to book three. Were it not for the intervention of BB, Vaz would have put a bullet through Halsey’s head. In contrast, when Palmer finally gets her clear shot in Escalation #16: “For some reason, I couldn’t just shoot her on the spot.” No external intervention saved Halsey’s life here. Something inside Palmer stopped her.
This dialogue between Halsey and Palmer in this issue is a thing of beauty, as Halsey breaks down all of Palmer’s arguments, laying bare the Commander’s uncertainty. Palmer ends up on the defensive in the conversation, a position she has never taken before with Halsey. The shift from aggressor to defendant makes me believe that the internal walls Palmer has built to keep her conscience clear are coming down. In turn, this makes me believe that Halsey is a herald-figure for Sarah Palmer.
In the Classical Monomyth or Hero’s Journey proposed by Joseph Campbell, the initial call that sets the protagonist on a journey of discovery is often accompanied by a herald. This herald figure, according to Campbell, brings about a crisis in the protagonist’s life, is commonly considered loathsome by the protagonist, and is the source of “irresistible fascination” (The Hero With A Thousand Faces, pp 51, 55). These details fit Palmer’s reaction to Halsey perfectly.
Halsey brings about a crisis of conscience – “It’s awfully convenient to think of me that way — isn’t it, Palmer?” – and Palmer can’t take the shot. Halsey is considered loathsome by Palmer before the moment they first share the screen together; Palmer flings the words “traitor” and “war criminal” around quite easily. Palmer is willing to ignore orders and place other’s lives at risk in order to locate Halsey, a twisted form of the irresistible fascination.
The key here is that a herald does not only mark the changing of the protagonist’s world, but the changing of the protagonist themselves. I believe Escalation 16 marks the beginning of a change in the Commander, a shift in her perspective. A shift that is just as needed as the past arrogance and hypocrisy of Palmer.
We need Sarah Palmer in the canon. We need a character that is struggling with the new grey that the universe is presenting, because we are too. We need that character to be willing to change, because we are too. We need Sarah Palmer, because in a way, Sarah Palmer is one of us.