As a bit of an interlude between the Master Chief articles, along with the (re?)arrival of Halo: Legends on Netflix, I fancied doing a little rumination piece on one of my favourite stories from that ever-divisive anthology…
The Duel is a short story that follows Fal ‘Chavamee, taking place some four hundred years before the ‘modern’ era (though the original intention with this story was that it would be much earlier in the Covenant’s history), and reveals the circumstances that twisted the rank and role of Arbiter from a badge of honour to one of shame.
Much has been talked about over the years on this particular epic, which makes it rather intimidating to approach, but I feel like there’s still a lot that has been left unsaid…I’ll start by getting right to the point: I love The Duel because it’s a story that speaks to a lot of my own narrative sensibilities in terms of its structure, how events unfold and come together.
To me, this is one of Halo‘s quintessential ‘metanarratives’, a word which here refers to a story about storytelling: an interpretation of events that draws attention to its own artificiality. It is, in a lot of ways, almost like a blueprint for 343 Industries’ approach to a lot of their own storytelling and their ‘picture-in-picture’ set-ups.
What this means is that, in order to talk about and understand The Duel, we’re going to have to dip our toes into some critical literary theory.
Let’s begin with Freytag’s Pyramid.
Gustav Freytag was a German novelist and playwright in the Nineteenth Century, he was one of many people who were interested in the concept of dramatic structure – the arc in which stories are told. We’re typically used to seeing stories with three acts these days (we really are rather obsessed with our trilogies), but dramatists have experimented with numerous forms over the years.
While Freytag’s Pyramid was generally meant to be associated with Greek and Shakespearean dramas, it works really quite nicely with The Duel as well.
To provide some definitions of each stage:
EXPOSITION – introduces important background information to the audience (the character, setting, set-up for the plot, backstory, etc).
RISING ACTION – a series of escalating events that build up to the highest pitch of the conflict, otherwise known as the…
CLIMAX – the turning point for the protagonist and their fortunes, where, in tragedy, their weakness is exposed and exploited, and triumph turns to tumultuous tribulation.
FALLING ACTION – the final suspense, as the conflict between the protagonist and antagonist is resolved.
DENOUEMENT – the unravelling of complexities regarding the plot, characters, conflicts, and themes, where all is finally laid bare.
Keep these in mind as we go through…The Duel begins in medias res, a Latin term meaning ‘in the middle of things’. Our starting point is a crucial situation that’s related to the overarching chain of events: a product of things that have happened, things we’ve not yet seen, that will be developed through exposition.
This is a storytelling practise that dates back to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey (the latter, incidentally, is still one of my favourite stories of all time). In medias res is typically employed as a means of gauging the audience’s interest by starting with the protagonist in a situation that is more interesting than the origin point of the story. It gives us an element of mystery to latch onto which makes the exposition more interesting.
Chronologically, the earliest event in this story is Fal’s meeting with the Prophet. Imagine for a moment just how different The Duel‘s storytelling would be if we just laid everything out in order, rather than having a flowing rhythm of exposition that breaks up the action…
Instead, The Duel opens with Fal’s journey to confront Haka (the antagonist), which is after everything else we see in the story (except their deaths) has already happened.
Without a single line of dialogue, we’re fed this information through a couple of brief and distorted flashbacks in the first minute of the story. We see him cradling a dead woman (who we naturally presume is his wife, or, at least, somebody of importance to him); we then cut to the great, silhouetted figure of an armoured Sangheili surrounded by his goons; and then the flashback ends with Fal staring down at the inactive energy sword in his hands.
The latter point, following on from the flashbacks, is evidently the Chekhov’s Gun aspect of the scene. Since The Duel is a short, condensed narrative, it doesn’t really have anything in the way of superfluous elements or red herrings meant to distract our attention – everything is on the surface.
This is the equivalent of having a loaded gun on the stage in the first act. You’re making the promise that, at some point in the acts to come, it’s going to go off.
Thus far, there have only been two lines of dialogue – one at the end of the opening scene from the Sangheili ferryman (“You know that this is a trap, do you not?”) and another from one of Haka’s goons (“Coming was foolish”). Intrigue turns to exposition, as the fight in this scene is inter-cut with another flashback scene to a San’Shyuum Prophet speaking with Fal.
“Your words of dissent are troubling to us…
We ask so little in return for the gifts we offer. Tell me, Arbiter, is faith too much to ask in exchange?
Haka has chosen the path of the Great Journey, why must you resist?
The Journey will take us farther than this simple Covenant. It will deliver us to godhood.
There is only one path for you. Why must you deny the Journey that we all must take?”
During this time, Fal still hasn’t said a word. The Duel‘s opening scenes really convey this feeling of a story that is an oddly complimentary mixture of a Samurai revenge narrative and a Spaghetti Western.
Here, we have the first major part of our exposition regarding the backstory of events that are taking place. The Prophets are unhappy with Fal because he’s been speaking “words of dissent” against the Covenant, they wish to exchange their technological gifts for faith in their religion, which Fal has not bought into.
Fal’s first spoken line decries their offer, declaring:
“THE JOURNEY IS A LIE!”
Thus, the backstory for the conflict is established and we are likewise introduced to the antagonist (Haka) and the untouchable puppet master (the Prophet).This is where we leave behind the ‘present’ time (Fal pursuing Haka) and the story transitions to a point that is after Fal’s defiant meeting with the Prophet but before the opening scene. It is, also, and alas, the weakest part of the story – Fal’s home life with his wife, Han.
Now, I adore the visuals of this episode. The watercolour style and the way in which every scene is coloured differently (from blue, to green, to purple, to gold, to red, to white) is a foundational aspect of the Covenant’s visual language, something which the likes of John Shirley (Halo: Broken Circle), Joe Staten (Halo: Shadow of Intent), and the Sequence Group (Anniversary Terminals) followed up on beautifully by characterising the visual language of the Covenant as this colourful and vibrant series of very painterly scenes.
I even like the Feudal Japan stylistic influence for Sanghelios, as well as Haka’s armour…
But Han’s design (indeed, everything about this character) is just… awful.
Her overly human appearance is something that put off every single person I’ve ever talked to about this episode and the reason for why they did that isn’t at all satisfactory to me. According to Frank O’Connor:
The female Elite does have mandibles, but doesn’t expose them. That came down to IG wanting to have her be a sympathetic character, rather than monstrous-looking. [Halo.Bungie.Org forum, ‘My Thoughts’ – 20/11/09]
If we’d made her “too” alien, the point might have been lost on regular folks. This was one of the hardest things in the entire anthology. [Halo.Bungie.Org forum, ‘My Thoughts’ – 21/11/09]
That latter point, the idea that “the point might have been lost on regular folks” if Han actually looked like a Sangheili, really is quite insulting to the audience.
Y’know, whenever I played Halo 2, even when I was ten, I can’t say that Thel’s alien appearance ever registered with me as something that would detract from sympathising with him. The same can be said for just about any non-human character that I’ve followed in any story with the narrative intention of getting me to sympathise with them.
I can totally get on-board with the idea that the Sangheili generally keep their mandibles closed up in polite conversation, that baring their teeth the way we see in the games is something they do as a sort of intimidation tactic. That’s actually a pretty good idea and it adds to the lore. But they went completely overboard with the visual design here. It doesn’t even look like Han has mandibles. Likewise, it’s Haka and his goons, the villains, who are given more traditional mandible structures.
It’s something that I’ve always found absurd, and, to make matters worse, they really went all-out in overtly feminising Han’s appearance – giving her breasts (Frank has tried to weasel his way out of this one by saying her chest structure is “ambiguous” – it really isn’t), long hair, purple eye shadow…
The result is something that’s quite hideously distracting than sympathetic. Something that’s hard to take seriously. Every time I rewatch this episode, this is the part where I just can’t help but groan.
I’ll grumble more about this a bit later…Anyway, in the overall structure of Freytag’s Pyramid, we’re still covering ‘exposition’ but this is also the stage of ‘rising action’ – where things begin to escalate. We see Fal’s comfortable home life with Han, their relationship is portrayed as being equitable, where he defers to her right to make her own choices, despite asking her to leave for the sake of her safety – since he knows that he’s stirring trouble with the Covenant. She stubbornly refuses, stating that her place is by his side (even though Fal spends about eighty percent of this episode away from Han).
In the following scene, we see Fal training groups of Sangheili soldiers.
“We are fighting Elite, the right arm of the Covenant. The gifts of the Forerunners are nothing if you don’t master the skills to wield them. And master them you will. For we are the men of Sanghelios. Never forget that honour!”
Fal says to his men that they are “the right arm of the Covenant”, the inference to be made here is that he is still sort of offering his service to the Covenant in training their soldiers, even though he doesn’t share their faith.
To a more reasonable organisation, that would be a mutually beneficial deal – the Covenant gets soldiers trained by the best-of-the-best and Fal gets to continue living without being forcibly shackled to a religion he has no belief in… but that’s not what the Prophets care about.
They want obedience. They want control.
A thousand skilled warriors is nothing to them if their teacher is somebody who could potentially incite dissent, leading to heresy.
This is where Roh, one of Fal’s clanmates, enters and tries to convince Fal to accept the Covenant, even if he disagrees with them. Roh argues from the point of view of the big picture, that Fal’s dissent won;t just affect him, but the rest of his clan, and, in the extreme, his entire bloodline.
Fal, however, is bound by his honour and is unwilling to make that compromise.
Fal: “There is no rank without honour. We were strong… Sanghelios was strong before this Covenant. And we could be strong once more. But we have strayed. We live not for honour, but for power.”
Roh: “Listen to yourself! This talk is not just heresy. It is treachery. You are putting your bloodline at risk. And what of your wife? What of Han? Arbiter! To protect the future of our clans, please, please join. Arbiter!”
Fal: “And now the game begins and I must play.”
Fal: “I know they will come in force to challenge me. And I will not turn away from them, I will answer their call.”
Roh: “It’s not too late…”
Roh is the sad recipient of dramatic irony here – where we, the audience, know something which characters do not. We have already seen, from the opening of the episode, which takes place in the present (remember, this part about Fal’s home life is a flashback), that Fal pursues the Covenant’s challenge.
That it is, contrary to Roh’s closing words, too late.
From the beginning, we knew the end.
Haka and his goons step out of the shadows, having heard Fal’s declaration of heresy. We have now concluded the ‘exposition’ and ‘rising action’ stages of Freytag’s Pyramid, moving now to the ‘climax’.The climax takes the form of an immense battle between Fal and a ridiculously oversized horde of Covenant soldiers, inter-cut with the Prophet ordering Haka to turn Fal’s sense of honour to their advantage.
“So, honour is his strength? Then we shall turn his precious honour against him. Draw him out and defeat him publicly! The badge of Arbiter will become a mark of shame. Haka! Persuade him. Yes, take away what he finds so precious. We’ll show everyone how high is the price of dissent.”
This, of course, means that Haka goes off to kill Fal’s wife, Han.
Pardon my feminist criticism, but this is another instance where the episode falls prey to lazy and uncreative tropes. In this instance, it’s ‘fridging’: the highly disproportionate, go-to thing to do where a female character exists to be killed off and left to be found by the male hero, her death being used to further the development of and advance the plot for a male character.
Han is a character who functionally exists in this story to be acted upon by Haka, to be killed off so we can reconcile the structure of the first scene with the last. She’s got no story herself, nothing to say for herself. We see her only in-relation to how she is defined – her relationship with Fal. Now, there’s a degree to which this is understandable in terms of what they’re going for, since, as I mentioned earlier, this is a short story where they really have to trim away elements that are superfluous to the main series of events…
But that doesn’t make this any less tropey; any less of a textbook fridging; any less insulting that the first female Sangheili to be seen in the Halo series (despite the franchise being around for eight years at the time this released, with a plenitude of games and expanded universe material) was just a plot device to motivate action in the male hero.
All too often, it’s deemed more important for a female character to exist solely as a plot device, as something that is just relative to a male character, with no real worth of her own and no contribution to make to the narrative outside of dying. That is Han in a nutshell.
And the way in which Han is killed off is particularly egregious, with her being shown to have been beaten and brutalised by Haka and his goons before Roh is forced to kill her. It doesn’t add anything to the scene. Roh is similarly disposed of, but the difference is that he, a practically irrelevant and inoffensive tertiary character, had more interesting and relevant things to say that contributed to the conflict and the overall theme of the piece than Han.
Han got to be remembered, by-and-large, as the worst part of the episode…
When a writer kills off a character solely to develop another one, the implicit suggestion is that their story is one not worth telling, which is very much the angle that Frank O’Connor has taken:
The “femininity” is deliberate – we’ve already set up Elite society as a fairly rigid patriarchal society, where breeding rights and lots of their pretty misogynistic, or at east “old fashioned” elements are in play. Our Arbiter, being a pretty forward thinking fellow, has a much more equitable relationship with his wife than is typical.
[…] it would have been misrepresentative of her “story” to have her be some fighting warrior queen. I can tell you squarely that this single item was the most difficult individual item in the entire series (apart from one thing that didn’t make it in, because we couldn’t reconcile it). [Halo.Bungie.Org forum, ‘My Thoughts’ – 21/11/09]
The idea that Han could only have been either this demure caricature or “some fighting warrior queen” speaks quite clearly to the kind of attitude held towards the idea they had of ‘how to write a female character’ (something which Frank really hasn’t improved on much with regards to some of the comments he’s made about Cortana regarding why she’s naked). It’s not quite “she breathes through her skin”-tier, but it’s far from anything sensible.
At this point, the only fiction we really had setting up Sangheili society as rigidly patriarchal was The Cole Protocol, set in the modern era, the 2500s. The Duel, however, is set hundreds of years ago (again, with the original intention of it being set around 852 BCE, which had to be retconned because of the presence of Unggoy) as the Covenant tightened their grip on Sangheili culture.
There was plenty of room there to say “actually, things were a little bit different back then” and afford Han a greater and more worthwhile role in the story.It’s all very well me saying “they could have done this and that”, so I’ll posit an alternative to this story.
First of all, replace Roh and his role with Han. Have her be the one who presents Fal with the argument for why they could potentially join the Covenant, over which the two of them would butt heads.
This would be more interesting than her just saying that she’s staying by Fal’s side, since it would afford their relationship more complexity – this dilemma is something that the two of them are facing together, that they have an equal stake in. What happens to one of them will affect the other, that is the trigger for this episode’s falling action. Han would be the one to think of the bigger picture, whereas Fal, because of his rank and role, would argue from the point of view of the virtue of their shared honour.
Have them come to a mutual agreement by the end, that resisting the Covenant is the better path for them no matter what it may bring. Haka overhears (as he does in the scene with Roh), the conclusion being that both of them have made up their minds and cannot be swayed by words any more.
Fal leaves to confront the Covenant in the big, epic fight scene and that is inter-cut with Han running the Keep – as it would later be established in the lore that this is what the women actually do. We see Han in her own position of leadership. Perhaps she’s even attempting to rally those troops we saw Fal training earlier to come to his aid.
The Prophet said that they will “show everyone how high is the price of dissent”.
Sending a message like that isn’t conveyed particularly well just by killing Fal’s wife and sending him on a path of vengeance. It would be a far stronger message to send if the inter-cut scenes between the battle were of the Covenant glassing Fal and Han’s Keep – killing everyone there, not just Han.
Fal would return from the battle, victorious, to find his home a smouldering ruin and everyone he knows and loves gone. He would have nothing left, thus bringing about his quest for vengeance.
And it would show the Sangheili that not even their homeworld is untouchable by the Covenant’s wrath.
Likewise, having the Covenant then decide to double down on the Sangheili patriarchy by reducing the role that women were able to have as a response to Han’s decision to face this threat with Fal would add to the overall tragedy of this piece. The rank of Arbiter is twisted into a mark of shame and the role of women is reduced to what we see in the centuries that follow. Rather than just saying “the Sangheili have a patriarchal society… because they just do”, it’d be a lot more interesting if this was why – Fal might have been away from his keep, but Han rallied those troops and was preparing to rise up against the Covenant.Halo has mostly been really quite good to its female characters, but it has taken a long time to satisfactorily deal with some of the alien ones – in fact, we’re still not quite there.
The first female Sangheili ever alluded to was Weapons Master Sanj’ik, who was off-handedly mentioned by Ripa ‘Moramee (the Arbiter in Halo Wars) in an audio log on the now-defunct Halo Wars official website.
“Much praise to weapons master Sanj’ik. Her improvements to the fuel rod cannon have made this airship the bane of the humans. It fires so rapidly that even their heaviest tanks must succumb before its might. Have the entire squadron upgraded immediately.”
Raia ‘Mdama was afforded a really great role in Glasslands and The Thursday War, indeed, her point of view chapters were some of the few things I found bearable in the Kilo-5 trilogy.
But her story was still defined and bound by how it related to Jul’s, her death was another fridging that served as the trigger cause for setting Jul on the path of vengeance against humanity – something which was really quite unnecessary considering Jul’s experiences as an ONI lab rat inside Trevelyan and his knowledge about ONI instigating the Blooding Years by arming the Servants of the Abiding Truth already setting him against them.
Lnur ‘Mol was featured in Halo: Broken Circle, one of my absolute favourite books in the series. She was one of the Ussans (a follower of Ussa ‘Xellus, who broke away from the Covenant in its early years) and was born into a female clan who had a strong warrior culture – a ‘protector of eggs’ tradition, as the book puts it. She was trained by her mother to become a warrior, as well as an engineer for repairing and even designing weapons.
This sowed a seed for what you might call ‘Sangheili feminism’, as this clan intended to one day reveal itself and attain proper rights to live the way they do – which we see come to fruition in Halo: Shadow of Intent and Halo 5.
However, after the conclusion of the first half of the book where we jump forwards in time to the modern era, she is off-handedly mentioned as “Tersa’s warrior mate” (wife).
And then we got Tul ‘Juran in Shadow of Intent, another wonderful character and another big step forward. It was because of her actions in this story that Rtas ‘Vadum counsels Thel ‘Vadam on allowing Sangheili women into military service, another huge step forward (but still not quite there, since it’s not Tul who makes the argument for herself, and her involvement in the mission depends on whether or not Rtas will let her join because of the Right of Release. Rtas is a top bloke, of course he saw her value and accepts Tul as one of his own crew (please give us a follow-up story), but, even as a scion and captain of the guard on her own family’s world, she’s still somewhat subordinate.
The shipmaster was D’ero ‘S’budmee, a scowling, peevish, slightly bow-legged Elite who seemed to resent his own decision to defect, although he knew it was irrevocable. D’ero had been horrified and enraged by the reports of the Jiralhanae massacre of the High Councilors.
Everyone aboard, except perhaps the Huragok, was bereft of their old ranks and titles. Indeed, D’ero was now ‘S’bud, not ‘S’budmee, for he relieved himself of the honorific suffix now that he had abandoned the Covenant. [Halo: Broken Circle, page 290 (Kindle edition)]
We have it established that there are variations of the ‘-ee’ suffix for Sangheili surnames, since ‘S’budmee became ‘S’bud, instead of ‘S’budm. Therefore, I am very much intent on taking it as a given that Mahkee is a descendent of Fal and Han, and so are Silset and Oebrin – the Swords of Sanghelios weaponsmiths brought up in Canon Fodder #59, Armory Amore.
Mahkee’s role becomes rather poignant when viewed through this lens because, in The Duel, the result of Fal’s heresy is the implication that he dooms his bloodline. But here we are, centuries later, and Mahkee is not only the first female Sangheili we encounter in the games, but she also plays a prominent role in saving the current Arbiter.
And so if Mahkee is really descended from Fal and Han, it feels like we’ve watched not only the liberation of Sangheili women through the eyes of this bloodline (so to speak), but we’ve also seen a microcosm of representation of women in media as it has developed over the years. And again, coming back to that word “reclamation” – because a LOT of this part of the saga actually really fits that term? – it almost feels like it’s pointing back to HAN and saying “YOU mattered beyond Fal. Mahkee is more than just his legacy, she is YOURS.”
At the same time, though, Halo 5 doesn’t fully deliver in this regard. Mahkee could well be a sentient Phantom dropship, as we never actually see her.
This is weird because it’s canonically established that there is very little in the way of sexual dimorphism between male and female Sangheili. In the Kilo-5 books, mainly in The Thursday War, Phillips and BB chalk the difference down to the fact that they’re a little bit shorter than the males and the males have a leathery scent while the females smell like clean feathers. Y’know, things that would never come across or matter in the games.
You wouldn’t even need to create a unique character model for Mahkee in Halo 5, she can literally just… use the base Sangheili model (they didn’t even give Thel a unique model, which makes this even more inexcusable), possibly with just a different set of armour to denote her as a Shipmistress?
As I’ve argued, Mahkee should have been the Sangheili who approaches Lasky and Osiris aboard the Infinity to escort them to the Lich at the start of the Sanghelios arc, rather than that random mook who we never see again.
The point is that the overall process of representing female Sangheili over the years has been a case of ‘two steps forward, one step back’.In the interest of providing a balanced argument, though, I can very much appreciate the point of what they were trying to illustrate in killing Han off.
A lot of people have taken issue with Fal’s fight against the Covenant in this scene, how ridiculously exaggerated it is to have this one Sangheili stand off against an entire army. And it is. When viewed literally, it is a rather silly scene that breaks all suspension of disbelief…
But it’s not supposed to be literal.
None of this story is.
I really like Halo 4‘s opening scene – the prologue scene, where we see the flashback sequences of the battle against the invading Covenant force. That’s another scene where people have levelled complaints at, due to the canonical inconsistency with regarding the armour the Spartan-IIs are wearing…
The real life explanation for that is “cinematic models are bloody expensive and we weren’t going to waste time and resources on a model that would be used for thirty seconds in one scene”, something which has been affirmed by Josh Holmes. But the point of that scene is that it’s a symbolic depiction of the Human-Covenant War.
There’s no indication whatsoever as to when that battle is set, what planet the invasion is happening on, there’s no specific detail whatsoever. It’s a purely visual piece of storytelling, meant to depict how outmatched humanity was until the Spartan-IIs entered the fray and took the fight to the Covenant. It’s something that’s there to bring people up to speed, whether they’re unfamiliar with the lore outside of the games or new to the series altogether.
A similar sentiment rings true here, in that the climactic battle with Fal against the might of the Covenant, inter-cut with Han’s murder, serves a literary function.
The death of a thousand mighty warriors means nothing to the Covenant.
The death of one person changes everything for Fal.
Indeed, it is the result of Fal’s actions in response to this single death that changes a major aspect of Sangheili culture for centuries. We see the contrast of the Covenant’s ruthlessly ambivalent collectivism versus the value of an individual, the ‘true Sangheili’ philosophy which the Arbiter is meant to embody.
I’m still going to be immensely critical of this fridging, but there is another side to it, a purpose, that I can somewhat appreciate for what it’s trying to illustrate beyond furthering the development of Fal and the plot.
We’ve had the exposition and the rising action, note that there are no more flashbacks after this point – all things align with what the ‘active present’ in the rising action. The climax was the great battle, so we are now in the falling action.
Fal discovering the bodies of Roh and Han are what we would call, in literary terms, the anagnorisis and peripeteia.
Anagnorisis is a Greek word that means ‘recognition’, the moment where a startling discovery is made that produces a change from ignorance to knowledge. It is an essential part of any tragedy, and it’s a term we have modernised in our own narrative sensibilities as a ‘twist’ or ‘reveal’.
When we get to the climax, the cuts between Fal’s battle and Han’s murder are articulated in a way that suggests they are happening simultaneously. That Fal’s decision to face the Covenant is what meant he was not there to save Han – that is the anagnorisis.
Peripeteia is the Greek word for ‘reversal’, which tends to go hand-in-hand with the anagnorisis.
It’s the dramatic turning point for the protagonist’s fortunes, another essential part of a tragedy, where things go from good to bad. The peripeteia in The Duel is interwoven with the climax, where Fal is victorious against the Covenant horde sent to face him – there’s even a classically ‘Halo‘ comedic moment in there with the one surviving Unggoy running away in distress, shouting “HE’S A DEMON!”
Eight years on, I still laugh obnoxiously loud whenever I see that.
But this is the turn of the screw, where the story is no longer about Fal’s pursuit of upholding his honour… but a quest, now, for revenge.
Note how there is no sense of place whatsoever, as to where this battle is set – other than the nebulous idea that it’s some sort of Forerunner temple. Hallowed ground.
Note how the colour of the scene changes. Where every other scene was awash with colour, with blue and red and gold, everything in this scene is completely white – as if this is all happening in some kind of void.
And that’s the point.
Neither Fal nor Haka actually matter.
What matters about Fal? His rank. He’s the Arbiter, he’s more of a symbol than a man, and that is what the Prophet declared earlier in the episode he would use.
What matters about Haka? He’s the tool through which the Prophet plays this game, a means to an end.
It’s not until this scene, the final scene, that we learn Haka actually has ambitions of his own – his goal to usurp Fal’s position and rule in his stead. He speaks of these empty ambitions in this void, and Fal’s own pursuit, that of revenge, is an empty one as well…
This is something that I’ve spoken about at length in my article on how I reimagined Jul ‘Mdama’s fate (interestingly, Jul has a very similar character arc to Fal), with reference to The Princess Bride. How the purpose and pursuit of revenge is, in the wise words of Mandy Patinkin, our beloved Spaniard, Inigo Montorya, “completely worthless and pointless”.
Fal pursues revenge because he’s got nothing and nobody left to fight for. He’s lost his centre, he’s spiritually off-balance, and all that’s left for him to do, in his mind, is take down the person who took everything from him. All that’s left is for these two individuals to kill each other…
And the only benefit to be reaped from this is the Covenant gaining a new cultural weapon.
There’s not even a denouement, where the leftover threads of the plot are wrapped up. The story literally ends here, with Fal and Haka dead on the ground – both of them pawns who have been played like a fiddle in this great game. There’s no additional satisfaction to be gained because both Fal and Haka were pursuing things that would yield no satisfaction.
The ultimate tragedy is that nothing they did in life mattered more than what their deaths meant for the Covenant’s pursuit of greater power and cultural dominance.
The denouement of this story is… pretty much the next four hundred years of Covenant history, leading up to Sesa ‘Refumee’s rebellion and Thel’s arc in Halo 2, where the tide finally turns by virtue of truth and reconciliation with a new enemy-turned-ally/friend.I don’t think I was able to appreciate why the final fight was so fast when I was younger, I was very much in the mindset of hoping for an awesome energy sword duel – the likes of which we hadn’t seen before, except in graphic novel form in Breaking Quarantine.
This time around, particularly after Twin Suns, the penultimate episode of Star Wars: Rebels‘ most recent season, I really took this scene in its stride.
There was no point in having an elongated, flashy duel. The outcome was a foregone conclusion. From the audience’s perspective, from our understanding, we should have gone into this scene knowing that neither Fal nor Haka were going to walk away from this fight. It’s in the title – The Duel. Our expectations are flipped because the point that the duel itself is conveying isn’t what we thought it was.
The Duel indulges in its bombastic, epic battle for the climax – where Fal steamrolls through the Covenant horde sent after him. And there was a point in how over-the-top that was.
Likewise, there’s a point to how subdued this fight is in comparison.
What this is reflective of is a Japanese method of movement, a concept of structure, called ‘jo-ha-kyū’, something which is traditionally applied to music, but can be applied to a narrative and dramatic structure as well.
Jo refers to a ‘beginning’, Ha to a ‘break’ or ‘development’, and Kyu to ‘fast’ or ‘climax’. You might hear alternate versions that put it as ‘beginning, break, rapid’, or ‘introduction, scattering, rushing’. All of these mean the same thing: a story begins slowly, speeds up, and then ends swiftly.
In literary terms, this is a specific idea about pacing.
It applies to the final fight between Fal and Haka (they meet, exchange words, there’s a whole minute of tension built up, and then it’s over quicker than it started), but it also applies to the episode’s structure as a whole. The exposition is largely tied to the rising action, the climax follows with the great battle, and then we conclude with Fal and Haka killing each other.
I mentioned earlier that there is no denouement at all, something which I would usually be bothered by in a different story, but here it actually works to accentuate the pathos of the drama and the rhythm of the entire piece.Furthermore, the idea came up when we talked about the climax that none of this episode is meant to be taken literally, which is, I think, the ideal way to look at it. The Duel is so closely tied to its literary devices, its metanarrative, and dramatic structure for theatre texts that it… probably is best to take this episode as just that.
A piece of in-universe theatre.
Think of The Duel as a retelling of an epic. The main points of the story are true, but the details within have been exaggerated over time, like all retellings.
You might take it as a sort of Brothers Grimm fairy tale children are told in the Covenant about the price of disobedience.
You might take it as a story carved onto a Sangheili family’s saga wall, a dramatically romanticised piece of history.
You might take it as a cultural artefact the Swords of Sanghelios have reclaimed following the Covenant’s disintegration, retelling the fall of a hero who stood against the might of the Covenant and lost – only for recent events in the series to begin making right all that was made wrong in this particular tale.
I think a lot of people have missed that over the last eight years, how 343’s method of storytelling tends to be a lot less literal than many were otherwise used to Halo stories being.
343 is fond of their metaphors and visual devices, their stories-within-stories with not entirely reliable narrators – like the Forerunner Saga, where each book is actually a retelling to ONI from some other source (the Bornstellar Relation for Cryptum, Guilty Spark’s recovered Monitor shell with Chakas’ reawakened memories in Primordium, and data strings pulled from a Catalog unit and Monitor shell for Silentium).
Like the Terminals across Halo 3, 4, CEA, and H2A. Mendicant and Offensive Bias, the Didact and Librarian, Guilty Spark, the dying Jacob Keyes, information that has been stuck in a loop for a hundred thousand years trying and failing to access the Domain, causing it to degrade. We see these stories through their eyes, from their perspectives, informed by their flaws and circumstances.
Like Halo: Mythos, where an otherwise factual document recalling the history of the Halo universe is related to us through the perspective of the Curator AI, who has compiled this information from the Lesser Ark’s records.
Like Halo Wars 2, where Isabel assumes the role of storyteller and relates Atriox’s backstory to us – supported to us, the audience, through visuals that the Spirit of Fire’s crew obviously don’t see, similar to the prologue scene in Halo 4 which I discussed earlier.
You get my point?
‘Stories-within-stories’ are a narrative tradition in this series that dates back to Jenkins’ helmet camera revealing the twist with the Flood in Halo 1, but it’s an area of the storytelling that 343 has really doubled down on. It’s something that I tend to think of as being a definitive aspect of their era, which I really like.I love The Duel. I think it’s quite an underappreciated work and it’s more deserving of a critical analysis because it’s more competently put together with its literary devices and dramatic structure than people tend to give it credit for. And that’s understandable because, on the surface, it tells quite a ‘stock’ story, but it tells it really damn well – flawed, but clear in intent.
The structure is great, the visual style (with the exception of everything about Han) is among my favourite in the series and really nailed down the visual language of the Covenant – if Greg Bear’s articulation of the Forerunners is lyrical, with its wonderfully Homeric prose; I would describe the articulation of Covenant stories as colourful.
There are absolutely things to criticise about it, I’ve certainly given no quarter on a particular aspect that rubs me the wrong way. The voice acting sometimes comes across as melodramatically cheesy, but it’s hard to look at some of these flaws (like said occasional cheesy voice acting) and not think of it as being an endearing, traditional aspect of Halo.
And that’s why this is a huge net-positive for me. It’s a story that is kind of emblematic of the Halo series, in both its strengths and weaknesses.
I hope that this rumination has, in some way, realised, redoubled, or perhaps made you rethink the way in which you look at this episode – I think I had a few things to say that haven’t really been said about it before that might have made it a tad more interesting. Or, perhaps, these are things you simply don’t care for, that don’t speak to your own narrative sensibilities – and that’s fine too.
It’s in the word, isn’t it? ‘Sensibility’ – the capacity one has to respond to the desired emotion. It’s not going to be for everyone, and The Duel really goes to the extreme with its style.
Now that this little tangent is done, I should probably get back to work on that next Master Chief article now…