So yesterday (well, it was yesterday when I started this, it’ll have been a few days by the time I finish it) my friend, and our resident loremaster Haruspis encountered a terrible thing. This terrible thing. Look at it. Its terrible. So we had a little discussion about how terrible this was. Which is here, if the screenshot isn’t readable.
But I feel like spending a little more time just expanding on all the many and varied reasons why this is terrible.
Let’s start with the basics. Grant Ward is a Nazi. Hydra is a Nazi splinter group. Grant Ward is part of Hydra. Grant Ward is a Nazi. It is straight out stated by Skye IN EPISODE, so there really is no excuse for not grasping this. And this is a really inescapable fact about this character.
Master Chief is not a Nazi. I cannot believe I just had to type that sentence. But beyond this glaringly obvious fact, the two characters simply lack similarity. Master Chief is not like Grant Ward, because Ward’s a Nazi, but if Grant Ward were magically not a Nazi, Master Chief would still not be like Grant Ward.
For maximum contrast, lets think about Ward pre-reveal. The cover!Ward who we were first introduced to in the first half of season one was a pretty archetypal Manly Hero. He was a highly skilled secret agent. But he always worked alone. Because he had man-pain from his tragic past. And then he reluctantly warmed up to them as they slowly became a family (supposedly).
So even ignoring the obvious, it baffles me how you could compare Ward, even fake Ward, to John, whose relationships have always been central to his story. In fact, one of John’s key defining character traits has always been his deep capacity for personal loyalty and responsibility for his loved ones. The act that set John apart from the other Spartan-II’s and the reason he and not someone else is the leader of the Spartan’s is that during an exercise where the last Spartan trainee to arrive at a rendezvous point was supposed to be left behind to navigate down a mountain alone, John insisted that everyone be taken back, and then insisted that only he should be punished for the insubordination. And John’s commitment to the team he views as a family is repeatedly emphasized. He wishes desperately to stay behind on an exploding Covenant ship with Sam-034, to stay with his team on their suicidal mission to Reach instead of leaving for Halo on the Pillar of Autumn in Fall of Reach, to stay with Linda-058 while she recovers from surgery, and to bring home the body of Grace-093 from Unyielding Hierophant in First Strike and to remain with Cortana at the ends of Halo 2 and Halo 4 (the fact that he doesn’t do any of those things is a separate point and occurs because giving up the things you want is part of how heroism is constructed in Halo). John almost never operates alone and he’s never happy about it when he does. Not only that, but his approach to team leadership is characterized by constant care and attention to the physical and emotional states of the people he is commanding. First Strike illustrates this with a matched set of scenes, in the present, John takes control of the survivors from Halo, immediately trusting Polaksi and Johnson to work, but giving orders to Locklear because he correctly notes that that is what will keep the traumatized marine from panicking. In a flash back he flatters Fred (who prefers close quarters combat) into acting as a sniper-spotter and keeps his team from antagonizing their already angry live-round equipped opponents. His approach to leadership is emotionally competent, managerial and based heavily on paying close attention to his team’s preferences and emotional states.
Contrast this against Ward’s performative struggles to bond with his ‘new team’ in the first half of Agent’s of Shield and his loud protestations that he works best alone, rather than being forced to attend to a team.
Now, eventually it turns out Ward was deceiving, not bonding with his team, he was never a hero with an unpleasant exterior and a heart of gold, he was just unpleasant all the way through. But what has made Ward a compellingly terrifying villain during season two is that as he has descended further and further into villainy; attempting to murder Fitz and Simmons, manipulating and then betraying the brainwashed Agent 33, and eventually taking control of the remnants of Hydra, he remains firmly convinced that he is the morally complex hero he pretended to be. In Ward’s mind he really is a man-pain ridden hero forced to make difficult choices. When he re-encounters the team he betrayed, he seems baffled that they won’t accept a history of abuse as a literal excuse for murder, and forgive him.
And that behaviour, independent of the hero vs villain thing, is the second way in which Ward is the antithesis of the Master Chief. John has suffered huge amounts of trauma. The fact that he is very loved by his surrogate family; Dr. Halsey, Chief Mendez and the other Spartans does not change the fact that he is a kidnapped child soldier, he has been fighting a losing war for 27 years, encompassing a huge number of physical injuries and has seen almost all of his closest friends die in the process. His home planets (both the one he was born on and the one where he grew up) have been glassed and he’s been captured and tossed around by ancient and overwhelmingly powerful beings, on two separate occasions, at least one of whom (the Flood), he’s explicitly, enduringly terrified of.
But John handles his traumas with remarkable grace, and he does it largely without bleeding on other people.
Far from using internal pain to justify external violence towards all and sundry, outside of the purely professional setting of the battlefield, John is remarkably docile. He tolerates verbal abuse from Silva and Del Rio without comment. He willingly fights along side Thel’Vadam, the man who glassed his home, when many other (good, sympathetic) characters struggle to transition from thinking of the Sangheili as enemies to accepting them as allies (notably Vasily Beloi and Serin Osman in the Kilo-5 trilogy).
Given decades on the front lines of the Human-Covenant war a certain level of racism towards the Covenant from John, would actually be quite easily understandable, if not entirely excusable. Certainly it would be in no way comparable to Ward’s disturbingly casual alignment with one of the most notoriously hateful, racist ideologies of the 20th century. In the opening of Fall of Reach with the war with the Covenant still ongoing he even notes that “it wasn’t his job to make things suffer – he was just here to win battles.” And after a truce is established, he seems to have no trouble with Covenant allies.
So beyond the obvious differences between a character who is a hero and one who is a villain, any comparison between John-117 and Grant Ward is a profound and fundamental misunderstanding of John’s character. It not only erases all the things that make John a hero within the narrative he exists in, but, perhaps even more problematically, it also erases the what makes the Master Chief a unique and valuable character within his media landscape.
The Spartan-IIs were abducted and trained from childhood to be soldiers. To be totally comfortable and acclimatized to violence first towards human insurrectionists and then towards Covenant invaders. That is the basis of John’s story. So it would have been totally internally consistent with Halo: CE’s game mechanics, with the story, with the shooter genre and with the surrounding media landscape (the original trilogy of Halo games are roughly contemporary with Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy), for John to be a vicious Dark Knight’esque anti-hero, or even a Winter Soldier-like semi-automaton (even as he is, agency is not is strong suite). It would have been boring and unoriginal, and it would have made Halo as a franchise unrecognizable, but John is not an inevitable part of his own narrative. He’s interesting and special as a hero at least in part because of all the ways he could have been different and in specific, in all the ways where he deviates from the cookie-cutter masculinity of the lone, angry action hero. And this is acknowledged within the Halo narrative. Jacob Keyes says outright that
“What makes the Chief so effective isn’t what he is, but who he is. His record is not the result of technology – not because of what they’ve done to him but in spite of what they’ve done to him, and the pain he has suffered.”
And if you’re going to totally ignore or miss out on all that character development and at least half the story, then what is the point?