As those of you who kept up with my Halo 5 postmortem articles know, this is a subject that I have rather a lot to say about. While I’ve already discussed and analysed the matter of Jul ‘Mdama’s death and my alternate narrative for him at-length, it has been spread across various other posts and I wanted to pull that all together into one.
Like with the post I did on reimagining the way in which Cortana was written in Halo 5, this will not be a complete rewrite of the story – rather, this post will aim to actually work within the confines of the game and the limits of the narrative structure and resources as best it can to illustrate how this could have been done.
In the words of ‘Mdama himself, “we have no time to dither”. Let’s just get into it…I want to start off by saying that I find killing characters off to be something that requires a lot of thought, it is never something that should be done lightly because it really has to serve some kind of point. You’ve got to consider the things you’ve established about that character – not just the facts about them, but the themes that they’re associated with.
When killing off a character, you’ve got to think about who does it (and why them?), when to do it (and why then?), how to do it (and why that particular way?), where to do it (and why that place?), andtying that all together with the most important question (which you’ve probably guessed by now: Why?
Why is killing a character off the best decision to make for them and for the setting?
If you’re killing off characters just for an emotional response from the audience, for a briefly shocking moment to grab attention, to show off the feats of another character, or to sweep them under the rug to focus your story’s attention elsewhere, then your writing is cheap (and yes, this is an intentionally not-so-subtle dig at The Next 72 Hours as well).
Sadly, Jul’s death in Halo 5 conforms to all of these things.
“We are not Game of Thrones,” Bonnie Ross said in an interview with Eurogamer back in 2014 regarding Halo 5 and the Reclaimer Saga as a whole (as a side note: Halo should absolutely aspire to get as far away from that awful show as possible), “we actually want to make sure going forward we have a larger cast of characters with which to tell stories”.
When analysing a character, something I like to do is go all the way back to the very first scene they appear in and look at how they’re presented. As with any form of opening scene, it’s what establishes a major part of the character’s arc, their relation to the setting, the themes associated with them so that when you look back on it there’s that turn-of-the-screw moment where you see something and go “ah, that’s what that meant”, and many other things.
Looking back at the very first scene in which Jul appears in Halo: Glasslands, this passage in particular really stands out to me:
From the third-story window, [Jul] had a good view of the landscaping that surrounded the keep.
To the east, the hills were steeped with terraces of fruit vines, designed to catch the sun. Looking west, he could see fields in a neat mosaic of green and grey-blue on either side of the lake. Set against the gold mid-morning sky, it looked exactly like every image he’d ever seen of the landscape; it hadn’t changed for centuries, and generations of his clan had worked hard to make sure it didn’t.
He had every expectation that it would look the same to his sons’ children and their grandchildren too.
The Sangheili might have been betrayed and defeated – temporarily – but ‘Mdama never changed. [Halo: Glasslands, page 52 (Kindle edition)]
Now, I don’t know about you, but looking at this from a writer’s perspective, this sets up everything in my head for how Jul’s growth would ideally play out. This is the passage I would look back on and think to myself “wow, how far this character has come!”
That passage is Jul’s arc in a nutshell to me:
‘Mdama never changed, but Jul will…
‘Mdama has looked the same for centuries, but it won’t for Jul’s children…
Revenge is something that is honestly becoming a bit overused, not just in Halo but in a lot of mainstream fiction in general, and all too often writers seem to not know how to properly deconstruct a revenge narrative because doing so requires you to commit to playing a long game with a character – and it’s just so much easier to kick that character to the curb and say “look, pursuit of revenge got this character killed, moving on…”
When thinking about revenge plots, there’s one story that you’ve just got to take into consideration. It’s one of my favourite stories of all time: The Princess Bride.
In The Princess Bride, one of the main characters is a Spaniard named Inigo Montoya who has dedicated his entire life to revenge – to hunting down and killing the six-fingered man who murdered his father. Revenge has become the sole purpose of his life for over twenty years, his arc in the film is all leading up to the moment where he fulfils his quest and then realises that it’s really quite hollow victory and he has no idea what to do next.
“Jul hoped the help was planet-crushing weaponry and obedient Huragok caretakers, but if the Didact was really waiting, that would be fine, too.
Raia. Vengeance – mostly for Raia, partly for Sanghelios – would be Jul’s food, air, and water from now on.” [Halo: The Thursday War, page 442 (Kindle edition)]
Anyway, instead of listening to me ramble on and do this damn near perfect film an injustice, just watch the clip (accompanied by one of the best sword fights in cinema history).
As I said, Inigo’s big problem is that he succeeded in his quest for vengeance, and after killing his father’s murderer his life had no meaning (until Westley recruits him as the next Dread Pirate Roberts, that is). It serves to highlight how, outside of the thrill of the hunt (and even that had been waning for Inigo after over two decades) there’s nothing else to be gained from vengeance.
The gentleman who played Inigo, Mandy Patinkin, has spoken a number of times about his character’s arc in the film and what he took from it:
“The purpose of revenge is, in my personal opinion, completely worthless and pointless. And the purpose of existence is to embrace our fellow human being, not be revengeful. And turn our darkness into light.” [Mandy Patinkin, CBS interview]
You begin to see where I’m going with all this, I hope, with regards to Jul’s character arc. Revenge is something that presents itself as an attractive prospect because it’s so easily conflated with a sense of pursuing justice, but there’s some issues within that: for instance, that justice is accomplished through violence, through murder.
Not only that, but in a lot of cases you’ll see that it becomes a mimetic kind of violence. When Inigo finally confronts Count Rugen, despite the fact that we’re rooting for Inigo there’s an underlying sense of discomfort at how Inigo’s attacks mirror those of Rugen’s – he stabs him in the shoulders, just as Rugen did to him moments ago, and then cuts him across both sides of his face, just as Rugen did when Inigo was eleven years old just after losing his father.
When you strip away the layer of awe that is felt at seeing Inigo finally look his father’s murderer in the eye, what you’re left with is a very clear indication of the seductive danger of revenge when you let it control you.
For the sake of visually illustrating what I’m talking about, here’s the scene.
The thing about revenge is that it’s the kind of violence that perpetuates itself, there’s always going to be somebody who is pursuing ‘justice’ for somebody else. The cycle has to be broken, otherwise there’s just no end to it until nobody really ‘wins’.
And in order to break the cycle, one has to move on, or even forgive their enemies – and either of those things are a much harder pursuit than revenge.
Forgiveness is not just a thing that you say and then everything is fine after that and you walk away all better, no, you have to choose to sustain that forgiveness every day. You may never be able to forget or truly come to terms with the grief of what you’ve suffered, and forgiving might seem like the ultimate way to dishonour the victims, but… I don’t personally think it is. Remember and honour the victims, but you can’t allow that to get in the way of the peace making process otherwise it’s just going to lead to more of that violence.
You have to remember that if there weren’t any atrocities to forgive then the very concept of redemption is rendered entirely meaningless, which applies so well to the situation we see Jul and humanity in because they both believe that the other side is out to get them and their actions in response to that keep proving them right.
We see this in Shadow of Intent, Joseph Staten’s book released at the end of last year, where Rtas (who is immensely tired of the seemingly never-ending conflict that the Sangheili find themselves in) comes to realise, through his conflict with the San’Shyuum Prelate, Tem ‘Bhetek, that there are San’Shyuum out there that were not responsible for the betrayal the Sangheili suffered and they should not be punished for actions they were not involved or complicit in simply because they’re of that species.
The great, uniting theme of the Halo universe through which enemies become brothers is by virtue of truth and reconciliation. It is this framework, the deconstruction of the typical revenge plot, that I would apply to Jul’s character arc.Speaking of which, that’s enough set-up, it’s about time that I actually start talking about the progression of events themselves in Halo 5. For those of you who have read my previous posts on the matter, much of this will be familiar as it’s built on what I’ve already said in previous posts, but with some added details.
At the point in which Halo 5 takes place, Jul is well aware that his Covenant is breaking. As soon as he seemed to have consolidated his power in the wake of the events of Spartan Ops and Escalation, it all starts to fall apart. There are mutinies and uprisings within the ranks, the likes of Sali ‘Nyon claiming to be the true Didact’s Hand.
Worse still, the Prometheans end up turning against Jul which was a significant blow to his authority and definitely indicative of the falseness of his title.
On top of that, the trip to the Absolute Record in Escalation‘s final story arc cost Jul many of his best ships, and Sali ‘Nyon ends up seizing control of the Breath of Annihilation – a CAS-class assault carrier full of Forerunner artefacts recovered from Requiem.
You get the picture, it’s looking very bleak for Jul. His quest for revenge brought him many short-term gains in the events leading up to and around Halo 4, but he was blinded to the long-term effects of his actions.
Jul knows that his luck has run dry, and as soon as he and Halsey discover the Guardians mysteriously awakening across the galaxy he knows his time is done. It’s out of his hands now, the Prometheans have turned against him so the might of the Forerunners is against him and he knows that he can’t hope to fight this alone. Ever the pragmatist, he looks to a means for his own survival rather than continue the pursuit of this folly.
So the first difference here is that Halsey and Jul contact the UNSC at the start of Halo 5, warning them about the Guardians and offering information.Jul understands the need for unity in this situation, tying back to Thel’s line in the E3 2014 trailer:
“I tell you this, not because I trust you, Agent Locke, but because all our lives are at stake“.
So he tries to call the Covenant off their plans for the assault on Sanghelios in order to make a temporary truce with the Swords, but this only ends up creating sympathy for Sali ‘Nyon and Jul’s other opponents. So the Covenant turns against Jul. Sali becomes the leader of the Covenant and continues their work as we see in Halo 5, while Jul and Halsey are on the run – ending up on Kamchatka, where Sali has gone in search of weapons to use against Sanghelios. The plot thus far in terms of its structure is totally intact as it appears in the game proper, and having Jul and Halsey be hunted would add an additional layer of tension as the Covenant closes in on them.
Osiris is hot on Halsey and Jul’s tail, having received their warning. The scene at the end of the first mission plays out pretty much exactly as it does in the game, I’d even keep Jul stepping in front of Halsey and drawing his sword to shield her – but from Sali ‘Nyon, not Locke.
I’ve made my saltiness towards Sali ‘Nyon clear in the past, but it’s worth reiterating again…
He is the very definition of a throwaway character, somebody who just came out of nowhere in Escalation in order to serve as an obstacle to Jul to highlight the escalating fragmentation of the Covenant. He is given no depth or purpose as a character outside of being the standard religious zealot from the previous Covenant. I really don’t think anyone would raise an eyebrow to having him be killed off in the unceremonious style that Jul was killed off, just to show how badass Osiris is.
Jul now finds himself to be just as out of his depth as he was while on the run from the Covenant, now that he’s colluding with humans. We now have some very interesting avenues for character growth by putting him in a situation where he’s got to work with the very people he hates for the death of his wife.Aboard the Infinity, when Osiris’ Pelican arrives, Jul is (obviously) in restraints and Halsey is escorted away by Palmer. Because we’re working within the framework of Halo 5‘s established story, Jul obviously won’t have any role to play in the Meridian arc of the story and won’t be seen again until the scene on the Infinity bridge where Locke, Palmer, Lasky, and Halsey discuss the Guardian on Sanghelios.
In this scene, which, again, plays out exactly as it does in the game, I would just have some extra dialogue where it is suggested that Jul (who is locked up in the brig) be offered to the Arbiter as a gesture of goodwill – to make up for the Infinity not helping out in “the Arbiter’s war”.
Because, y’know, it’s not “the Arbiter’s war”. It’s the UNSC’s war as well and we need a believable reason why the Infinity isn’t helping to end the Covenant. None is given in the game, so the solution is quite simply to have a line where Lasky says that Infinity is being sent back to Earth to defend it in case it gets attacked by the Guardians (that kind of priority over fighting the Covenant would at least make sense). Handing over Jul, who has been responsible for many human deaths as well, would be a show of good faith to their ally rather than having him either executed or locked up in Midnight Facility because it’s not like the Infinity has time to stop off.
So Jul is sent to Sanghelios with Osiris, Halsey, and Palmer. Again, since we’re working within the limitations of Halo 5‘s established story, there’s some limitations as to what we can do with his involvement – but that’s okay, we don’t need him to have a direct hand in the actual events that happen in the Sanghelios arc, in fact I’d have Jul be almost entirely separate from them.
The bulk of Jul’s content would be in Alliance and Before The Storm, the two ‘weapons-down missions’ in the Sanghelios arc that punctuate the beginning and end of it. Jul would be physically present in Thel’s camp and you would be able to go up to him and talk to him, each member of Osiris would have dialogue with him, and various other characters present would interact with or talk about him too.
In terms of the game’s resources, this means that the bulk of it is just going to be done through dialogue.Doing this primarily through dialogue would be interesting because it would really serve to highlight the dynamic between all these characters who are in the same place.
I want to see how Thel would interact with Jul because the last time that Thel saw him was in Glasslands where he made his speech about the necessity for Sangheili unity.
“We’ve lost ourselves. Millions of our finest, our young Sangheili males, have been killed – not fighting humans, but in the Great Schism. Are we insane? Our bloodlines have been weakened and our ships have been lost in a civil war, all because we were deceived into loyalty to the San’Shyuum. Brothers, we must consolidate what we have, whether flesh and blood or machine, before we can decide on a common purpose. But it will be our purpose. Not another empire’s.” [Glasslands, page 58-9 (Kindle edition)]
Jul shares this perspective, but from another angle.
Now he finds himself seeing things directly from Thel’s perspective as he’s observing, first-hand, humans and Sangheili working together to bring down a common enemy.
He would see that humans and Sangheili can co-exist, they can fight for the same goals, and both species can stand together as brothers. Imagine the surprise Jul would feel hearing Vale speak the Sangheili burial prayer to the fallen Swords of Sanghelios soldiers, to Buck saying that these are their brothers as far as he’s concerned, to Tanaka saying they’re going to get payback for their deaths…
It’s interesting because Levu ‘Mdama responds to Thel’s speech by saying: “Perhaps our purpose is just to survive without being exploited by false prophets?”
And, well, isn’t that what Jul became when he ended up on Hesduros and reformed the Covenant to seek vengeance for his wife? He became a false prophet, exploiting his own people to accomplish his ends.
‘Vadam walked over to the balustrade that separated the floor of the chamber from the first tier of seats to look up at Jul. It wasn’t a threatening gesture. It seemed more like curiosity to see what this upstart, this young elder of a small keep, looked like at closer quarters. [Glasslands, page 60 (Kindle edition)]
Thel looks at Jul, but we’re not told who or what he sees in that moment. I think that Thel would see a few similarities with himself when he was much younger, very much as he was in The Cole Protocol.
Some people think that there should be some epic energy sword duel between Thel and Jul, but that, to me, just seems really out of character for both of them – for one, Jul is never really presented as being much of a fighter, and Thel is now not much of a killer. He’s a diplomat and a peacemaker.
When Thel caught up to Tartarus at Installation 05’s control room at the end of Halo 2, he didn’t try to kill him. He didn’t seek vengeance against the Jiralhanae who had slaughtered his fellow Sangheili, branded him with the Mark of Shame, and tried to kill him at the Library.
No, Thel tried to talk to Tartarus. He tried to talk him down from activating the ring and to join him because they had both been fooled and betrayed by the Prophets. He only ended up killing him when Tartarus gave him no other option. If Thel can show that kind of restraint, even forgiveness to Tartarus of all people, then I think he would very much offer that same hand to Jul.I mentioned earlier that you’d be able to talk to Jul in Thel’s camp, and that opens up a lot of possibilities to really flesh out both Osiris and Jul in the game itself because of the parallels between them – namely, Locke and Tanaka.
Imagine how Jul would respond to Locke, who also signed up to assassinate Thel in the past and now finds himself fighting alongside him – saving his life, even. Vale asks Locke why he didn’t go through with this, to which he responds that “things changed” – just as circumstance would change for Jul.
There’s so much you can do with that. Having this relation between the game’s protagonist and one of the Reclaimer Saga’s main antagonists would showcase just how complex characters in Halo can be, even outside of the books where the bulk of that depth is generally found.
But Tanaka also provides an interesting perspective here because she’s been in a very similar position to Jul, which was pointed out to me in a conversation with DilDev – Sangheili enthusiast and all-around brilliant article writer (which you can – and should – read here). She said:
“Tanaka lost her family in a situation that could easily be blamed on the UNSC (outer colonies being expendable and all), but instead of focusing on revenge, she focused on preventing that same fate for others.
Whereas Jul, instead of returning to Sanghelios to let them know what he learned, which could have prevented years of internal bloodshed, he went off searching in myths for the sake of revenge. Tanaka knows his type of loss, but dealt with it in the opposite manner.”
Jul chose the pursuit of vengeance, whereas Holly Tanaka chose the pursuit of ensuring that other people would not have to live like she did. Having her talk to Jul about this would be that turn-of-the-screw moment where he’d question all that he has done and find that he could have done better, been better, for his people and for Raia.
I look back to that very first scene once again with Jul, in which Raia herself cites the desperate need for unity – for the Sangheili to master themselves again, to rediscover all that they have lost or forgotten in their millennia of servitude to the San’Shyuum. And what did Jul do? He threw the Sangheili into another war.
He disgraced Raia’s memory, focused on his own feelings rather than thinking about the vision she had for Sanghelios and honouring that.
And that is the moment that the line “‘Mdama never changed” is broken, where that hint of foreshadowing of character growth begins to be fulfilled.Again, this is all being done through dialogue with Jul in the Alliance weapons-down mission – both ambient dialogue and direct interaction by going up to him and pressing RB (or whatever your ‘use’ button is for your button configuration). It’s not something that requires any flashy scenes or demands loads of resources from the game’s campaign, it’s something that would honestly lend a lot more narrative weight to the weapons-down missions and, I think, make them more memorable for resolving a major character’s arc this way.
In the mission Before The Storm, the final weapons-down mission in the game that occurs just before the battle of Sunaion (it’s also disgracefully short and has practically no content in it), Jul would not be present. His story in the game here would be concluded with intel logs, and this is what I would do.
I’d conclude Jul’s story with him reconciling with Thel and being allowed to go off to find his son, Dural ‘Mdama.
As we learn in the epilogue for The Thursday War, Dural was set on a very similar path to Jul in the wake of his mother’s death, vowing to get revenge on the humans and kill the Arbiter.
“Uncle Naxan says my mother is dead. And I must not cry. She died as heroically as any warrior. She went into battle armed, seeking Elder Jul ‘Mdama, but Naxan can’t – or won’t – tell me more than that. Perhaps he knows no more, or he fears the truth will either upset me or make me so angry that I lose my reason. Whatever the truth of it, Naxan is now elder of Bekan keep, there will be more civil war, and I must grow up faster now. I must train harder and study more.
My brother Asum has gone off into the fields, probably to cry where nobody can see him. I shall cry, but not until I kill those who killed my mother. It might not be the humans, but I shall kill them anyway because they threaten Sanghelios and support the Arbiter, and I shall kill whichever Sangheili was responsible as well, because species does not make a man a true brother. And when I have done that, I shall carve my mother’s story into the saga wall of our keep, as a warrior deserves. [The Thursday War, page 441 (Kindle edition)]
In Mortal Dictata, we learn that Dural has become an apprentice to Avu Med ‘Telcam, the leader of the Servants of the Abiding Truth. Then, in the recently released Halo: Mythos, we’re told that he has become a leading member of that religious group and is named the Pale Blade.Think about the opportunity this presents for Jul’s character arc. After five years, he’s finally rejected his own need for vengeance and goes off to find his son in order to do the same for him.
In this, Jul comes full circle and mirrors Raia’s arc – where she set out to find Jul to bring him home, he is going out to find his son and try to save him from making the same mistakes he did. To break the cycle of violence for the next generation because he knows now that he was wrong, that he only brought more misery and suffering to his people despite what he thought he intended. No longer would he let his desire for vengeance consume him.
This also fits perfectly with the overarching theme of family in, well, not just Halo 5, but the entire series.
The ‘Mdama family is a pretty big focus of the Kilo-5 books (indeed, it was one of the only things that ever interested me in them), it would be a fitting follow-up to actually make something of that rather than just wasting Jul’s character entirely. The Halsey and Jul duo has been criminally underutilised as well because the two of them have a lot in-common with regards to the theme of family – both of whom are estranged parents, which provides a degree of common ground on an emotional level.
Halsey has lost Jacob and Miranda, and exploring how she feels about that outside of that gratuitously awful scene in The Thursday War where Black Box mocks her for crying over a picture of Miranda would afford Halsey’s characterisation more depth as well as Jul’s.
With this, you can effectively write Jul out of the main events of the story in order to focus on other things without just killing him off and squandering his potential.
You can then either cover Jul’s search for his son in some other media (be it a novella, a short story, a comic, etc), or you can leave it as a loose end so we’re left wondering whether Jul was successful. There’s less inherent catharsis int the latter option, but at the same time, we’d know that he departed the narrative in a way that befitting the set-up with his character.In addition: ‘Telcam is such a fitting antagonist for Jul as well.
These events all began when Jul joined with the Servants of the Abiding Truth, something he did not because he believed in their religion but because he deemed them to be the best chance they had to assassinate Thel and topple his leadership.
As I noted earlier, Dural has become an apprentice to ‘Telcam, which further reinforces the whole ‘full circle’ nature of Jul’s arc. He’s driven back to where he began in Glasslands, back to the point where things went wrong, and has that chance to make things right. Also, in Glasslands, Jul muses on the whole Sangheili cultural thing about not knowing who their fathers are:
It was hard not to show his sons favour, but that would have told them who their father was, and no Sangheili male was allowed to know that. Jul’s sons had to make their own way in the world, judged solely on their merits and without any assumptions based on their bloodline.
But I still wish I’d known who my father was. I think we all do. [Glasslands, page 54-55 (Kindle edition)]
Jul notes that he finds this state to be lonely and uncertain, never knowing your true family. That is fodder for examination in the narrative too.
What this all effectively amounts to in terms of resources is some voice files, some scripted AI pathing, and Jul’s model being present in two missions and a cutscene or two. You don’t even have to design a unique model for Sali ‘Nyon because he’s just a red armoured Zealot, which are already in the game. That’s the minimum of what it would take to give him what I think would be an ending befitting of what had been built around his character, writing him off without killing him off. I mean, killing him was unnecessary anyway because 343 went back on the whole ‘end of the Covenant’ thing within a month of Halo 5 releasing by having Sali ‘Nyon get away with Breath of Annihilation.
It is essential to me from a writing and storytelling standpoint that things like revenge plots have some kind of deconstruction or rejection of the violence within them. Ending them like they did Jul’s, by having him killed off without any real consideration towards the essential questions I brought up at the start of this article about who, where, when, how, and why, is just not good writing.
Characters like Jul have so much more to offer beyond their own hubris.
And the worst part is that Jul’s death was literally pointless. It accomplished nothing. The Covenant isn’t done.
Jul had a lot more to offer the Reclaimer Saga in a thematic sense than just bringing back the Covenant for a couple of years.
Suffice to say, to conclude this piece: Jul ‘Mdama deserved better.
He deserved to be written with more subtlety.