The Puppet and the Brooder: Exploring Halo’s Fan-Favorite Duo

“When we first met, we were enemies fighting to end each other. Now as allies, I am confident we can face this new threat together once more.”

Introduction

It’s…been a long time since I wrote here, hasn’t it?

To all of the people who enjoy my more personal work, I apologize for the drought of content over the last few months. Writing for Windows Central is very time consuming, and at my current work pace of four articles a week on top of college work, I usually just want to relax when I get free time.

Lately, though, I’ve felt an itch to write something here again. So, without further ado, I’d like to talk about a topic that I started to think about after reading Halo: Bad Blood (fear not, no spoilers) — how Arbiter Thel ‘Vadam and the Master Chief compare and contrast as characters.


Rising Above Differences

 

The Sangheili are often described by official media as being “your equal”, with “your” referring to the character you’re playing as: Master Chief (hereby referred to as “John”).

This is, of course, just a gameplay blurb to help you get acquainted with the Covenant’s military, but it wasn’t until I truly understood the depth of Halo 2’s Thel-centered narrative, and then compared it with everything we know of John’s past, that I realized you could apply this quote to the themes behind Thel and John. Going even farther, you could apply it to the Sangheili and the Spartans in general. 

You see, despite being motivated by entirely separate things, both John and Thel were raised and trained from an early age to be perfect warriors. Sangheili and Spartans dedicate their entire lives to honing their skills with the art of killing. Though we see this manifest differently depending on which group we’re looking at, the fact remains that, for both, service and duty are the only things that matter in their minds.

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In understanding this, the reason why the term “Demon” given to the Spartans by the Sangheili is an insult that carries begrudging respect is made much clearer. Yes, they are enemies, but the Sangheili see themselves in the Spartans. As they study them and see how lethal and effective they are in combat, they can relate to it due to the fact that they both speak the language of blood spatters and kill counts.

Moving this back to John and Thel…

Despite coming from two completely different backgrounds, the two of them lived quite a similar life throughout the war. Halo 3 is a game that I hold a strong dislike for narrative-wise for ultimately being shallow and uninteresting as opposed to Halo 2, but the nail that Joseph Staten hit on the head was with Thel’s first and last words:

“Were it so easy.”

 

This phrase is so interesting because it speaks tremendous volumes about where these two stand with each other at the start and closing of Halo 3. In the beginning Thel is mocking John, essentially saying “you wish it was that easy to kill me” in response to the handgun in his mouth. But at the end, after the two of them fought together and earned each other’s respect, Thel says the phrase in response to Lord Hood believing John is dead. He knows that John, like him, doesn’t go down easily, and knows better than to think the worst about a man who has beaten the odds since he took his first steps on Alpha Halo. Like Sangheili often do with the Spartans, he sees himself in John.

This is why I personally love the two of them working together from a thematic standpoint. though their alliance was initially nothing more than an “enemy of my enemy is my friend” scenario, Thel and John ended up leaving a lasting impression on each other that led to them changing their relationship status from Bitter Enemies to Rock-Solid Bromance.


More Than His Armor

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Though Thel and John are remarkably alike when it comes to their background, something that completely separates the two of them is their personal narratives. When you stop and analyze what the conflict is for both of them, it becomes clear that they’re polar opposites — Thel is enslaved by his passionate belief in the Great Journey, failing to see the truth, while John struggles internally because he refuses to let himself express much emotion (through the lens of the games, anyway) and instead broods on it silently over time, bottling it up and forcing himself to stay focused on what’s in front of him constantly.

In other words, Thel is blinded by his inability to separate emotion from reality, while John is crippled by his hesitancy to allow emotion to naturally manifest at all.

It’s an incredibly intriguing contrast that I never even thought about until the other day when I read Haruspis’ examination of John’s character in Halo 4. It reminded me of why I love Halo 4 almost as much as I love Halo 2: it takes the rather basic “characterization” of John that was prevalent in Bungie’s games and not only subverts it, but makes it work. The way John was in those games was not a reflection of who he really is, but rather a representation of the façade that he puts on around others. To quote Haruspis:

“Where there is Walter White and Heisenberg, there is John-117 and The Master Chief.”
— Haruspis (Alex), The Master Chief: A Character Study — Halo 4

To say that the writing team behind Halo 4 did magnificently is an understatement. I’m not going to go super in-depth about John here (if you’d like to read something that does, check out what I linked above) but the core theme of the game is that being a soldier doesn’t strip you of what makes you human. John may be a child soldier in a grown man’s body, encased head-to-toe in thick armor, but he’s still a person. He just simply tried to hide it from everyone else up until the events of Halo 4 for the sake of his duty, and also in-part because he simply doesn’t know how to address how he feels. Aside from the tightly-knit bonds that all Spartans formed with their respective squads during training, John never went through the natural process of how to confront emotions and the related stress. The only things he did learn to confront confidently were military matters, like weapon malfunctions or an enemy threat.

It’s actually something that reminds me a lot of the clone troopers from Star Wars. It’s not a comparison I see often, which frankly surprises me…

Bred for combat since a young age? Check.

Struggling with social situations? Check.

A full suit of armor that gives the person in question a robotic appearance? Check.

Honestly, people. The Spartans and clones are extremely alike!

Anyway, the reason I brought this up is because this theme is explored with the clones in both the Star Wars Republic Commando novels by Karen Traviss (this is her only work that has managed to wow me) as well as the Star Wars: The Clone Wars TV show. In both pieces of media, the audience really gets to see how individually different and capable of feeling the clones are. I think it’s valuable to make this comparison because by viewing and understanding the more-vocal clones, it gives us a strong idea of what Spartans and even John himself might realistically think about.

This excerpt from Star Wars Republic Commando: Hard Contact, I think, does an excellent job of showcasing just how alike the clones are to the Spartans of Halo…

In the crowded bay full of troopers, the air stank of sweat and stale fear and the throat-rasping smell of discharged blaster rifles. But it was so silent that if Darman hadn’t seen the evidence of exhausted and injured men, he’d have be­lieved that nothing significant had happened in the last thirty hours.
The deck vibrated under the soles of his boots. He was still staring down at them, studying the random patterns of Geonosian dust that clung to them, when an identical pair came into view.
“Number?” said a voice that was also his own. The com­mander swept him with a tally sensor: he didn’t need Dar­man to tell him his number, or anything else for that matter, because the sensors in the enhanced Katarn armor reported his status silently, electronically. No significant injury. The triage team on Geonosis had waved him past, concentrating on the injured, ignoring both those too badly hurt to help and those who could help themselves. “Are you listening to me? Come on. Talk to me, son.”
“I’m okay, sir,” he said. “Sir, RC-one-one-three-six. I’m not in shock. I’m fine.” He paused. Nobody else was going to call him by his squad nickname—Darman–again. They were all dead, he knew it. Jay, Vin, Taler. He just knew. “Sir, any news of RC-one-one-three-five—”
“No,” said the commander, who had obviously heard simi­lar questions every time he stopped to check. He gestured with the small bar in his hand. “If they’re not in casevac or listed on this sweep, then they didn’t make it.”
It was stupid to ask. Darman should have known better. Clone troopers—and especially Republic commandos—just got on with the job. That was their sole purpose. And they were lucky, their training sergeant had told them; outside, in the ordinary world, every being from every species in the galaxy fretted about their purpose in life, searching for meaning. A clone didn’t need to. Clones knew. They had been per­fected for their role, and doubt need never trouble them.
— Karen Traviss, Star Wars Republic Commando: Hard Contact

 

Uh, yeah. That last paragraph. Oof.

As you can see from that rather harrowing piece of writing, both the clones and the Spartans share the tendency to try and become experts at social and emotional detachment. The main difference between the two is that the clones are taught that the complexities of these things are a burden, while the Spartans were never taught anything about it in the first place.

To be honest, I could go on and on with this comparison, and maybe I will in the future. But this is a Halo article, dammit. So I’m going to return to Halo 4. 

Over the course of the game, John comes to understand that it’s a good thing to let your feelings be expressed. To deny yourself this is internally destructive and only serves to make the problem worse, not better. In a lot of ways, Halo 4 is an educational journey for John, during which he learns how to be human and why it’s okay to be that way. Nothing expresses this better than Thomas Lasky’s words:

John-117: “Our duty, as soldiers, is to protect humanity. Whatever the cost.”
Thomas Lasky: “You say that like soldiers and humanity are two different things. Soldiers aren’t machines. We’re just people.”

In summary: John comes to learn that you can be a good soldier while also allowing yourself to feel. In finding this balance, he comes out of Halo 4 a stronger man and a smarter man, despite his weakened emotional state following the death unnecessary fragmentation of one of the people he cared about most.

Next up, we put my favorite Halo character under the analysis microscope…


More Than His Faith

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On the opposite end of the “character spectrum”, we have Thel, who faces a different problem. Unlike John, he fully realizes and expresses his emotions — but also unlike John, he fails to see the hard facts. Drunk on the promise of the Great Journey and filled with zealous passion, Thel, along with the majority of his people, were blind to the truth.

As 343 Guilty Spark points out in his discussion with Sesa ‘Refum (I personally like to leave the “ee” out, since he wasn’t part of the Covenant anymore) the Sangheili allowed themselves to fall into a trap that used their emphasis on honor against them:

343GS: “Looking back at the record of the Arbiters you’ve discussed, was it not surprising to anyone that those chosen to become Arbiter were more than simple warriors?”
Sesa ‘Refum: “How so?”
343GS: “Each of them had significant political influence among your people. In some cases, that influence was already being used to question the decisions of your Hierarchs. In fact, that very questioning often gave rise to the charges of heresy that so neatly removed the challenger from the Hierarchs’ concern.”
Sesa ‘Refum: “And once they were branded Arbiter…”
343GS: “They promptly and quite cheerfully ran to meet their deaths.”
— Halo 2: Anniversary, Terminal 11, “Monitor Report: The Age of Doubt”

Over the course of Halo 2, Thel’s character development is centered on him being able to both confront evidence of the Great Journey being false and the San’Shyuum’s manipulation, and then accept it. As both the terminals and the main story show us, questioning the word of the Hierarchs earns you nothing but shame, dishonor, and death in Covenant society. Such was the fate of poor Sesa ‘Refum, who Thel himself executes.

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Perhaps the most bittersweet element of Halo 2 is that in order to continue down the path of events that lead him to realize the truth, Thel had to kill Sesa, who represents who and what Thel ultimately becomes by the end of the story.

In other words, Sesa was woke. And in order for the seed of doubt he carried to take root in Thel’s mind, he had to die by his hands. It’s tragic, but when you think about it, Sesa ultimately played a pivotal role in exposing the San’Shyuum. I like to think that he smiles down on Thel from the great beyond…

Anyhow, back to the Heretic in Shining Armor.

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I think what impacts me the most regarding Thel is that he had the willpower to actually say no. When you consider the fact that the Sangheili are raised from birth to believe in this religion to the point where they would gladly die for it, it’s incredible that he was able to overcome this challenge.

To me, the best characters are usually the ones that are willing to change for the better. Even with all of the odds stacked against him, that’s exactly what Thel does. He changes for the sake of both himself and his people.

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In closing, I think an aspect about Thel’s narrative that goes underappreciated is the fact that he offered Tartarus a truce. It’s the clearest example of the lesson he learned in Halo 2; the manipulation by the San’Shyuum was something that stretched to all of the Covenant, including the Jiralhanae. By realizing this and being willing to put down his arms for the sake of showing Tartarus (who is exactly the type of blind puppet that Thel used to be) the truth, his transformation from enslaved zealot to someone who accepts reality is completed.

It’s rare that the hero of the story tries to make peace with their foil character, and I love the fact that Thel attempted it. It reinforces the fact that Thel didn’t “overcorrect” and become what John was prior to Halo 4, but instead shows that he has found balance. By being able to see the truth, Thel learns to base his beliefs and passion on what’s right rather than what he’s told. It’s the healthy way to be motivated, and I think the truce extension to Tartarus is where Thel’s true Great Journey began: turning into an advocate for peace, and an example of what the galaxy could one day become.


Conclusion

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I think it’s incredibly interesting that we can examine John and Thel in the ways that I did in this piece despite the fact that their main characterization events took place while Halo was under the wing of two different studios. For this reason, I don’t believe that the contrast between Halo 2 Thel and Halo 4 John was intentional, but that to me highlights the beauty of good writing. The fact that we can closely look at these two characters and draw conclusions like this despite the odds suggesting it wasn’t intended by the authors is a testament to how rich the Halo universe really is.

Anyway, I poured my heart into this article, as I have come to love both characters very, very much, so I sincerely hope you enjoyed it. I’m not sure when I’ll be writing something here next, but I can promise you that I will have a couple more things up on the blog before the holiday season.

Until then, make sure to let your feelings out every once in awhile, and question the authority your alien overlords. If these two have taught us anything, it’s that you might have a bad time if you don’t.

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