“That armor suits you. But it cannot hide that mark.”
“Nothing ever will…”
Hello, my friends. In this article, I’m going to be kicking off a new series on the blog, one that’s focused on analyzing moments in stories that are often overlooked by many. Think of these moments as bite-sized examples of brilliance — brilliance that I will highlight and emphasize as I dissect the scenes in detail.
Since this is the pilot installment of this idea, I figured I would start it off with a bang by putting what I think is the most underrated Halo cutscene on the forefront. This scene, in which Thel ‘Vadam is tortured, stripped of his rank and subjected to the burning of the Mark of Shame into his flesh, is something I dub ‘The Heretic’s Branding’. It’s one of my favorite scenes of Halo 2, and even the franchise in general; I hope that after reading this piece, it will be for you, too.
But, before we can delve into the scene, we must briefly review the one that came before it…
Prelude: The High Council’s Judgement
Prior to being branded by Tartarus, Thel ‘Vadam faced judgement by the High Council of the Covenant, led by the Hierarch Triumvirate of Truth, Mercy, and Regret. As the hundreds of Sangheili and San’Shyuum councilors listened to Thel’s desperate explanation of the events from Combat Evolved, it became quite clear that the governing body had made their decision before the trial even began.
Something important to note here is that Truth’s dialogue here establishes that Thel’s service history holds no weight in this hearing:
“You are one of our most treasured instruments. Long have you led your fleet with honor and distinction. But your inability to safeguard Halo…was a colossal failure.”
— The Prophet of Truth
To the High Council as a whole, Thel’s unflinching dedication to the Great Journey may as well not exist. If he failed to protect one of the most important places that the Covenant need to initiate the Journey, then surely he can’t truly be faithful.
But, that’s where they’re wrong — and that’s where Thel suffers. This scene makes it abundantly clear that in the Covenant, there is zero room for error. Thel’s only way out of this situation ends up being becoming the Arbiter, which, at this point in the timeline, means little more than becoming an expendable pawn. But that’s another topic for another article.
In summary, what this scene tells us is that Thel, an honorable and well-respected member in the Covenant, is being stripped of all of his achievement for being “human”, or in other words, being naturally flawed. Thel isn’t perfect, and the situation on Installation 04 was clearly impossible to control. Between the UNSC resistance, the Master Chief, the Flood outbreak and the inability to use his fleet due to the risk of damaging Alpha Halo, the odds were heavily stacked against him here. Yet, the Council believes that, despite this, he deserved to be deemed a heretic.
The Heretic’s Branding
Now, with proper context, we can evaluate the scene that I want to focus on in this article.
It begins with Thel, held tightly by two Jiralhanae, being led by Tartarus to a public torture area surrounded by crowds of various Covenant species. The crowds proceed to jeer and taunt Thel as they eagerly await his punishment. The fact that Unggoy, the species that holds the lowest caste in the empire, call him a heretic repeatedly as he walks by speaks volumes about just how much of a failure he is in the eyes of the rest of the Covenant.
As Thel is attached to an electrical shock machine, Tartarus mockingly comments on the surroundings:
“Drawn quite a crowd!”
“If they came to hear me beg, they will be disappointed.”
“Are you sure?”
— Tartarus and Thel ‘Vadam
This only serves to throw Thel’s humiliation in his face, and yet Thel remains stoic. In the face of Tartarus’s mockery, Thel simply responds that he won’t show weakness in this moment.
Following this, Tartarus activates the shock machine, and Thel is subject to painful burning of his armor and body.
Despite the fact this pales in comparison to what happens after, I still think this part of the scene is worth noting. If you know anything about Sangheili culture, you know that honor and service are of paramount important.
Thel’s golden Zealot combat harness represents both of these things, and for it to be charred to a crisp was no doubt a heavy blow to Thel personally. Here he stands, in front what may as well be the entire Covenant empire, as all that he has earned through countless displays of devout faith and unparalleled skill is tainted in a matter of seconds.
To make matters worse, Tartarus addresses the crowds, inviting them to view Thel as a symbol of betrayal and failure:
“There can be no greater heresy! Let him be an example for all who would break our Covenant!”
What happens next, though, compounds onto the damage done by the torture device. Not only is Thel’s armor ruined, Tartarus instructs his Jiralhanae to physically rip it off of Thel’s body. In a cruel display, they literally strip him of everything he has worked for, everything he has to show for his faith in the Great Journey.
Naked, burned and mentally crushed, Thel can only limply hang in suspension as Tartarus begins to deliver the final punishment — the Mark of Shame.
As Tartarus plunges the Mark of Shame branding staff into the flesh of Thel’s chest, it becomes instantly clear that this act is the most damaging of them all. Thel looks upward and roars in pain — but it isn’t physical pain. It’s emotional pain.
A mark that represents failure, heresy and incompetence is being burned directly into Thel himself. It permanently labels him as, essentially, unreliable and worthless. It wasn’t enough that his rank, honor, and armor was taken from him; the Covenant had to ruin Thel’s own image, as well.
In this moment, Thel breaks. He looks the sky and yells in helpless agony as he is forced to endure the worst punishment a Sangheili can face. His wall of stoic acceptance finally shatters, and his true emotions in this moment are finally shown. It strongly signifies the tragedy of it all, how the Covenant unfairly and unjustly tossed Thel aside as if he were a plaything.
In this moment, Thel loses all hope.
On a side note, I must say that I dislike the decision to replace Keith David’s original yell with a regular Sangheili sound clip from the rest of the game in Halo 2: Anniversary. If I had to change one thing about the anniversary, this would be it.
This cutscene beautifully puts the tragedy of Thel’s fall on center stage, and makes it undoubtedly clear that he has been scarred by his punishment, both physically and mentally. The ruthlessness of the Covenant also is conveyed well here, and you can’t help but feel for Thel in this moment, despite (if playing for the first time) not knowing who he is or what he becomes. I think this scene is one of the best in the series for this reason — few Halo cutscenes have managed to convey so much emotion with so few words.
Halo 2 couldn’t have effectively had the Arbiter redemption story we all know and love without first establishing his downfall. This scene does that flawlessly.
Hey, everyone. Hope you enjoyed this new type of article! Sorry it took so long to get out. My fanfiction from last week, Halo: Final Stand, was a really tough (but new and fun) writing process for me, and I needed some time to decompress.
I hope you agree with my points made here, I really do think this scene is one of the best Halo has to offer! Do you guys like the structure and nature of these shorter articles? Let me know, either here or on my Twitter, because I plan on continuing this series if people enjoy it!
One last thing before I sign off — I’ve got quite an interesting article on the way later this week that takes a look at the intriguing synopsis of an upcoming game called The Last Night. Here’s a little teaser:
Anywho, that’s all for today, everyone! Thanks so much for reading, and remember…
The Brutes shall pay for the blood they have spilled.