Here Be Halo 5 Spoilers – You Have Been Warned
There has been a complaint scattered across the fandom upon the release of Halo 5 Guardians regarding the ending. It is not the most often discussed topic, but it’s one that I think ties into an issue that I had with Halo 5. Much like Halo 2, another game that brought this same complaint, Halo 5 ends on a cliffhanger. With constant sequels and franchises erupting around us, our culture tends feels rather jaded towards the “to be continued” endings, but these sorts of endings – in and of themselves – are not bad. The best cliffhangers that I have found provide emotional resolution for a lead character while leaving the story and plot itself open for continuation.
The Fellowship of the Ring, both the book and the film adaptation, is a good example. The Ring has not yet been destroyed, but we know that Frodo is not continuing his quest alone. Red vs. Blue Season 13 leaves the fates of our characters wide open, but before the end credits came rolling, we saw them standing as a united team. The end of the Ancillary series by Ann Leckie is purposefully left open and without a resolution to the overarching plot of the Lord of the Radch, but Breq has found a measure of peace, purpose, and home. Halo 5: Guardians likewise has an emotional resolution, but it doesn’t feel deserved.
Let’s compare Halo 5 to its predecessor in the franchise’s cliffhanger department. Halo 2 is arguably the story of Arbiter Thel ‘Vadam. It’s his arc and his development that we track. He is the one who has to make the greatest sacrifice by the story’s end (Chief leaving Cortana behind doesn’t truly come into play until Halo 3). It is also the goal towards which the game’s narrative has been pushing. From Sesa ‘Refumee to the Master Chief, we are constantly told that Thel turning against the Covenant is the ideal outcome. It’s what we should want. So when our penultimate scene is of Thel standing side by side with Johnson and Keyes in an alliance, there is satisfaction in that emotional resolution.
Halo 5’s emotional resolution belongs to Catherine Halsey. It’s on her that the camera lingers, soft chords of the soundtrack play as she greets John for the first time in six years, and a genuine smile builds on her face. The moment is meant to be touching, but it is built on conflicting messages throughout the game.
There are only two times that Halsey is mentioned by Blue Team. The first is when they arrive on Genesis; Kelly and Fred banter on how Halsey would take begin analyzing the planet’s composition; John and Linda do not partake in the discussion. The second is when the team at last confronts Cortana face-to-face.
Cortana: I’m offering people a chance to be more than they are naturally.
John: Like Doctor Halsey did for me.
Cortana: No. That monster forced you. This is a gift —
John’s words are meant as an accusation, an attempt to force Cortana to understand what she is doing. No matter what we have read in the novels or seen in the anime shorts, any fondness that John has for Halsey is not present in Halo 5. The only thing we see is a touch of bitterness.
Elsewhere in the game, we’re directly encouraged by characters to not empathize with Halsey and her desire to see John again:
Buck: After all Halsey did to the Master Chief and Blue Team – and when they were kids no less – after all that, she still acts like she cares about them.
Locke: Psych eval says that Halsey thinks of the Chief as her son. She has a motherly attitude towards all of her Spartans.
Buck: I’m glad I haven’t read that psych report. Not sure I’d ever feel clean again.
The only moments that Halsey’s love for John is portrayed in a positive light is when she begs Locke to bring John home and in the final scene of the game. This could work if we saw this change happen as a development of the characters’ and the players’ understanding of Halsey, but John’s bitter challenge to Cortana lies between both instances as a cancellation.
In the end, we know that Halsey received what she wanted – to see her son again – but was that what John wanted? Should we feel pleased by this reunion when nearly every other moment in the game has told us that this was undesirable?