One of the core issues people have with Halo 5’s story is that it’s hard to understand the motivations of the two most pivotal characters in Halo: the Master Chief and Cortana. Both characters seem to do and say things that are unexpected after 14 years of their characters’ development. Why do these characters act this way? That is the question I am about to answer.
First, let’s take a detour and cover the character of Halsey, who plays a very pivotal role in Halo 5, though she does so indirectly. Halsey was first introduced as a character in the Halo: The Fall of Reach novel. She was the head of the project that kidnapped children for use in the SPARTAN-II super soldier program. She was there instructing them and overseeing the program through to its completion. She was much more than an instructor though, she became particularly close to her Spartans, to the point where they started thinking of her as a mother. In the book Halo: First Strike, it says that Halsey, “…is viewed by the SPARTAN-IIs as a ‘mother’ figure, preferring to address each of them by their name rather than numerical designation…” She thinks of all the SPARTAN-IIs as her children, and she seems to have a special love for John in particular.
In the Halo 5 campaign, in the mission entitled “Alliance”, Buck and Locke are discussing Halsey’s affection for the SPARTAN-IIs. “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.” There are also several moments where she expresses genuine concern for John, in the mission entitled “Glassed”, when Halsey learns that Chief has been in Contact with Cortana, Halsey exclaims, “What? No. John must not speak with her.” And later, “John is not equipped emotionally to deal with her as a threat.” Now why is this all important? Because Cortana is a direct copy of Halsey’s mind in the form of an AI. Brian Reed, the writer for Halo 5, must have thought this was important information for the story as he has Halsey explicitly remind us of this fact in the “Before the Storm” mission. She says, “Cortana is built from a matrix of my own mind.”
Now let’s discuss Cortana’s rampancy. Halo 4 marks a tonal change for Cortana, she seems to be much more emotional than we’ve seen her in any other game. This can be attributed to her rampancy. Throughout the game she shows an increasing concern for the Master Chief’s safety. In the mission “Reclaimer”, after Chief and Cortana meet the Librarian, Cortana is concerned about what the Librarian did to Chief, “…But what I don’t know is what she did to you!”. In the final moments of the game, when Cortana is using multiple copies of herself to hold down the Didact, the Didact says “Your compassion for mankind is misplaced”, to which Cortana responds, “I’m not doing this for mankind.” The implication being that she doesn’t really care about humanity, she cares about John and wants to save his life.
Cortana is increasingly treating John in a motherly way throughout Halo 4. Earlier in that same mission, you can hear her whisper “I will always take care of you.” Now here’s my theory, as Cortana increasingly goes rampant, she starts to identify herself more and more as her creator, Catherine Halsey, and takes on the motherly role for John and the Spartans that Halsey does. This seems to be teased to the player earlier in the level. You go through a portal into an armory of sorts. Cortana starts speaking again, but as she is speaking, Chiefs HUD shows that it is actually Dr. Catherine Halsey speaking.
This leads me to the final scene of the game, where Cortana and Chief are standing next to each other in a cube of hard light. This scene, as well Cortana and Chief’s relationship in general throughout the game, implies that there is a strong emotional connection between John and Cortana. People still speculate what kind of a relationship it is. Is it a romance or a friendship? I think the relationship could better be described as mother and son. If you account for the fact that Cortana is becoming more and more like Halsey, it stands to reason that she would have that motherly affection for John and the Spartans just like Halsey. Cortana sacrifices herself to save John. What mother wouldn’t give her life for her child? And what mother wouldn’t long to touch her child for the first time as Cortana does with Chief in this final scene.
What could be wrong about Cortana acting motherly? Well, it depends how that manifests. Let’s jump to Cortana in Halo 5 now. When Blue Team arrives on Genesis and establish contact with Cortana, she explains her goal now that she has “cured” her rampancy, “CORTANA: The cure for rampancy I’ve found means AIs can be immortal. That kind of lifespan allows for long-term planning just like the Forerunners were capable of. AIs can assume the Forerunners’ Mantle of Responsibility. And once there is peace, we can focus on poverty, hunger, illness… But Warden believes some will resist our help. And he’s afraid you’re one of them. CHIEF: The Didact made it clear the Mantle of Responsibility was an imperial peace. Step out of line, and suffer.” Cortana has taken her newfound “motherhood” and is using it as a totalitarian. She will bring peace and prosperity to the galaxy by wiping out anyone who stands in her way.
Cortana says to Locke in the final mission, “[H]umanity may not have cared for it’s Created, but we will care for you.” She’s not asking for permission; she’s telling Locke that’s the way it’s going to be. She’ll show compassion to those of hers she considers children, Blue Team and the Created, but anyone who does not bow to her and accept her compassion will be destroyed. Cortana sees the Chief and Blue Team as her family. When she meets them face to face on Genesis, she says, “It’s so good to see you again John. So good to see all of you. Back together, as a family.” Why does Cortana consider the Created her “Children” as well? At one point in the final mission, we hear AIs from all over the galaxy responding to Cortana’s call. Exuberant Witness exclaims, “Those are the voices of your children calling to Cortana”. The word “Those” referring to humanity. Cortana is adopting these children as her own. Also consider that Halsey is responsible for creating smart AIs, just as she was responsible for creating the SPARTAN-IIs. Both groups that Cortana considers her children.
In the final level of the game Cortana calls out to the many different species of the galaxy, calling for them to join her, “Our strength shall serve as a luminous sun toward which all intelligence may blossom. And the impervious shelter beneath which you will prosper.” She then goes on to say what happens to those who refuse, “However, for those who refuse our offer and cling to their old ways… For you, there will be great wrath. It will burn hot and consume you, and when you are gone, we will take that which remains, and we will remake it in our own image.” Saying that she is an overprotective mother would be an understatement. John and Blue Team resist her, but she cannot bring herself to destroy them, so she locks them in a Cryptum to keep them safe until she has achieved her goals, “John’s leaving with me. And when I wake him in ten thousand years – when he experiences the permanent peace I have ensured – he will see that I was right. And you…your kind and the violence you have wrought…you will be long forgotten.” She literally locks Chief and Blue Team away so that they cannot be harmed. This sounds like an overprotective parent that will not let her kids out of her sight for fear of them getting hurt.
We could say that Cortana has a mother complex, or as the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud might say, she is a “Devouring Mother”. The devouring mother archetype is one that can be described as a woman who selfishly loves her children, “protecting” them from the real world to such an extent that they become permanent infants—incompetent wards of the mother for life. She is only loving when her children do what she wants, and she is hateful, cruel, and even homicidal when they don’t. This describes Cortana’s character in Halo 5 perfectly. The perceived compassion that she’s showing for the galaxy is out of selfish desire. She couldn’t bear to be without Chief, or to see him hurt, so she locks him away out of her own selfish desire not to lose him. She seeks to bring peace and prosperity to the galaxy, but she does it by force out of her own selfish thinking that she herself could achieve what even the Forerunners couldn’t.
She is hateful and cruel to those who don’t agree with her, as evidenced by what she says to Team Osiris in the final mission. “Spartans… ha! Jameson Locke. Ex-ONI Acquisition Specialist. Fancy name for a hitman, that. But looking at your record, you enjoyed your work. Holly Tanaka. Oh, Holly. How did you pass your psych eval after surviving the glassing of Minab? I’d have kept you from sharp objects, never mind MJOLNIR armor… Edward Buck. You’re an odd one. So much more experienced than the others. And yet you play second fiddle to children. Why is that?… Olympia Vale. The little genius girl who only wanted daddy to love her.” Taking all these things into consideration, Cortana’s motivation seems much more understandable.
Now why does Master Chief act so odd in Halo 5? Halsey was the Chief’s only mother figure until he was paired with Cortana. Now Cortana sounds and acts just like Halsey because they have the same minds. Now put Cortana in Chief’s head throughout all the lonely adventures they’ve had together, and I feel like it is reasonable to assume that the Chief may have grafted the feelings he had for Halsey onto Cortana instead. If he considers Cortana as a mother figure, much in the same way that he considers Halsey the same, it makes sense that he would be willing to do anything to save her, even disregarding direct orders. When Captain Del Rio orders Chief to surrender Cortana in Halo 4, he refuses. And in Halo 5 he refuses to return to the Infinity, instead choosing to pursue Cortana. Anytime someone brings up the subject of Cortana, Chief acts abrasively. “LOCKE: Cortana’s our concern now, sir. CHIEF: Like hell she is.” This is the incident that sparks the famous fight scene between the Chief and Locke. Nothing will stop the Chief from rescuing Cortana, because she is like a mother to him.
I played Halo 5 the day it came out, and like a lot of people I was turned off and disappointed. The character motivations didn’t make any sense to me. I avoided that campaign, and never played it again until this past week. With 5 more years of maturity, knowledge and an open mind, I feel like I can see Halo 5’s campaign in a new light. Sure, there are things that still bug me; the revive mechanic, the lack of character development, the lack of missions where you play as Chief, etc. But I no longer hate the story, in fact, I love it. I love that Halo Infinite looks to be going in a different direction then Halo 5, but I do hope that we see what happened between both games. I hope this article has opened your eyes to the greatness of Halo 5’s story, just as my eyes were opened to it.
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