Warning: this review contains full spoilers for Halo Episode 3! If you need a refresher on where we left off, here's our review of Episode 2.
Paramount+'s Halo series has so far proven to be a solid adaptation of the source material, but there's definitely been a Cortana-shaped hole in the first two episodes. What good is Master Chief without his trusty digital sidekick? Thankfully, that omission is finally addressed in Episode 3, which provides the full, satisfying origin story of this Xbox icon.
This series is very pointedly not part of the same continuity as the games, but Cortana is so far the one character who is still played by the same actor (I'm holding out hope Keith David will voice The Arbiter when he inevitably shows up). Beyond being a welcome nod to the source material, there's really no reason not to retain Jen Taylor as the voice of Cortana. She's perfected that role over the course of numerous games, and she knows exactly what's required from Master Chief's better half.
Granted, there is a bit of an adjustment period when it comes to Cortana's redesigned appearance. No doubt the goal was to shift Cortana away from "semi-naked blue lady" to something a bit more grounded and reflective of Dr. Halsey's own personality. She looks more human now, which is both a little strange and probably for the best in the long run. Cortana suffers from the same Uncanny Valley effect as most of the all-CGI characters in the show, but at least in her case that's by design.
More importantly, Cortana quickly becomes the foil Master Chief has been needing. She injects some much-needed humor into his world as she becomes the pesky helper he neither asked for nor wants. And even at this early stage, we can see the seeds of the deep bond they share in the games. Both characters mirror each other in a lot of ways. They're both basically blank slates who are beginning to form real personalities as they venture outside the parameters of their UNSC programming. This series is already managing to give John some added layers compared to the straightforward protagonist he is in the games. It's encouraging to see the show successfully adapting the Master Chief/Cortana relationship on top of that.
That all being said, Halsey has quickly become the most fascinating character in this series. Cortana's introduction pays off in that area, as well. We see even more of Halsey's ruthless side as she interacts with her clone and effectively condemns herself to death for the sake of her research. Natascha McElhone's performance is reminiscent of her haunting work in 2002's Solaris. You can see why the Spartans are fanatically loyal to their surrogate mother, even as we can't help but be repulsed by her actions. Even Cortana seems unsure of how much to trust her creator. That's another point in favor of her new look. She may lack the trademark blue skin, but this version of Cortana emotes well enough that we can sense her inner conflict without it needing to be voiced aloud.
Episode 3 also helps build up Makee as a credible threat to the UNSC and a compelling character in her own right. The series is really making the most of its flashback sequences, with this episode's opening sequence revealing everything we need to know about Makee's past and why she sides against her own kind. Plus, it's just cool seeing her control a colony of Lekgolo and slaughter a an entire ship. We'll see if that particular Covenant foe has the same visual impact when Master Chief squares off against a Hunter.
Unfortunately, the series isn't finding nearly as much success when it comes to the Madrigal subplot. Echoing a complaint from last week's review, Kwan Ha isn't nearly as compelling a character when removed from Master Chief's orbit, and the the civil war on Madrigal comes across as an unnecessary detour from the show's main threads. Yes, this episode does hint at how some of these threads will eventually tie together, but it's still hard to feel very invested in either Kwan Ha or Soren. The series would be better served devoting more screen time to various underdeveloped UNSC characters like Captain Keyes or Master Chief's other Spartan comrades. Clearly the other Spartans will be forced to choose their loyalties as the season unfolds, so the show needs to do more to flesh out these characters and their history with John-117.
Supervised by Steven Spielberg, this TV series continues on the Halo saga.