ORIGINALLY POSTED ON THE OLD HALO ARCHIVE, MAY 2015
Reposted without edits, save navigational issues.
Master Chief is not the protagonist of Halo: The Flood. He’s certainly the protagonist of Combat Evolved, but in the novelization of the game, he hands the driver’s seat over to one Lieutenant Melissa McKay.
The base definition of a protagonist is simple: “the leading character’ of a story [x]. However with a cast of thousands, and multiple viewpoint characters, it can be difficult to pinpoint who the protagonist actually is. Quickbeam, a content writer over at TheOneRing.net, gives us another method of locating the main character in a story: the narrative.
“[A] character-driven story like LOTR is not strictly about sacrifice (or heroism, or the impermanence of beauty, or all those themes that are intrinsic). I must admit the novel is woven of many threads but the groundwork of the tale, the telling of it, spins on a single proviso: Who is transformed the most between the opening and the closing page, taking the reader through his transformation?” [x]
The telling of the tale, as Quickbeam so graciously highlighted, is also called the narrative. This is the way a story is told, the grand combination of themes, characters, plot, and writing style. Now not all narratives work off the same proviso or condition as Lord of the Rings does. While we do see character transformation in our protagonists throughout the Halo series, Halo 2 being an easy example, one of the groundwork pieces for Halo as a whole is sacrifice.
Halsey sacrifices the childhood of seventy-five people to make super soldiers. ONI develops the Spartan-III program specifically to be sacrificial soldiers to help humanity survive one more day. Cortana sacrifices herself to save John from the Didact. Thel sacrifices his own faith to stop the Covenant and his reputation to pursue peace. Randall Aiken, at the end of Nightfall¸ leaves Locke with the question of sacrifice: “with your death, will you create life?” An arc question of the Cortana era of the Halo Universe is “Could you sacrifice me/him to complete you mission? Could you watch me/him die?”.
As such, we can often use this underlying thread of sacrifice to recognize who is the protagonist in a particular tale is. This is not the sole method of finding the protagonist, nor is it always present, but when it connects with the narrative foundation, it’s a very strong clue as to who the story is actually about. The thread of sacrifice comes in many different forms, particularly in who or what is being sacrificed. However, the overarching theme of sacrifice, and a solid proviso for the Halo universe, can be described as this:
Whose desires are in direct conflict with what the universe or narrative requires of them?
Let’s use Halo 2 and Halo 4 as examples to explore this notion. In Halo 2, Thel ‘Vadamee is zealously dedicated to his faith, believing in the Covenant religion with all his might. However, the pursuit of that belief sets the galaxy on the brink of destruction, and in order for the story to reach its conclusion, Thel must sacrifice what he believes in. In Halo 4, the first conflict introduced was Cortana’s rampancy, establishing both John and Cortana’s desire to find a solution. However, as Earth and humanity are placed at risk once more – by their release of the Didact – the two are forced to delay the pursuit of a fix in order to stop the Foreunner.
In The Flood, Melissa McKay of the ODSTs is the character whose desires most strongly conflicts with what the narrative demands of her.
In her initial introduction, author William C. Dietz establishes McKay’s relationship with the soldiers under her command immediately. As the ODSTs enter their pods to exit the Pillar of Autumn, McKay stays behind until every last one of her men are secured. One could argue that this is merely a responsibility of a Lieutenant, and they’d probably be right. However, there is a moment earlier in the chapter in which it’s revealed that the care of her soldiers is the most important thing to her. As medic patches her up, he enters into a banter with the sole intention of “taking her mind off Dawkins, Al-Thani, and Suzuki” (Flood, pp 37).
Throughout the book, she does everything she can to defend her men and, barring that, places herself at the same risk alongside them. Whether it’s taking the butte from below, storming the crashed Autumn, or baiting the Flood into a trap, McKay always places her life alongside theirs. In return, the men see her as their inspiration to keep on fighting in the face of despair, akin to the Master Chief’s influence to the UNSC as a whole in the final battles of the Human-Covenant War.
“The Helljumpers looked at one another, grinned, and followed McKay into the ship. The El-Tee might look like a wild-eyed maniac, but she knew her stuff, and that was good enough for them.” (Flood, pp 145).
“Just the fact that she was there, strolling through the plasma-blackened defenses with a cup of coffee in her hand, served to reassure the troops.
‘Look,’ one of them said as she walked past, ‘there’s the Loot. Cool as ice, man. Did you see her last night? Standing on that tank? It was like nothin’ could touch her.’” (Flood, pp 260-261).
“But the truth was McKay was a better leader than her peers, as evidenced by the fact that the Helljumpers would follow her anywhere, even into a pit that might be filled with life-devouring monstrosities.” (Flood, pp 334).
This “father (or mother) to her men” mentality extends to even the Master Chief, a person against whom the ODST branch has a longstanding animosity, and the Flood-infected Jenkins. Furthermore, after all this build-up, McKay’s ambitions are clearly stated for all to see.
After the long battles and the arrival of the Flood, McKay at last begins to wear down, desperation overtaking confidence. Her superior, Major Silva, gives her something to strive for, a well-meant motivation. He promises glory, promotion, and recognition to give her to hope to push ahead. However, he misjudged what sort of desires drive the Lieutenant.
“It was then, as McKay looked into the other officer’s half-lit face, that she realized the extent to which raw ambition motivated her superior’s actions, and knew that even if his wildest dreams were to come true, she wouldn’t want any part of the glory that Silva sought. Just getting some Marines home alive – that would be reward enough for her.” (Flood, pp 335 emboldening mine).
Another thing that drives McKay is her duty as a soldier. We see this again in her introduction, impatient to get up from the medical treatment and get things done. She goes with minimal sleep in order to secure the base after the Covenant assault. She makes sure she’s mentally prepared to lead the raid on the Pillar of Autumn before the mission begins.
Of course, if McKay is the protagonist of The Flood, it follows that despite the strength of her desire to ensure her Marines make it home, the narrative and her duty will require the opposite of her.
Her first glimpse of hope after the Flood’s arrival came at the mention of home, at the possibility to save her men. As the moment of escape draws closer, the narrative places her desires in direct conflict with her duty. The ship is infested with Flood. She informs Silva in an attempt to convince him to clear the ship before departure. He refuses and leaves McKay with a final decision.
“McKay realized that the decision lay in her hands, and though it was horrible almost beyond comprehension, it was simple as well. So simple that even the grotesquely ravaged Jenkins knew where his duty lay.” (Flood, pp 371).
She detonates the ship from inside the engine room, destroying the infestation along with herself and every Marine on board. Dietz had spent the novel building up her desires and drive, culminating in this sacrifice demanded of her. A sacrifice that, in this story, the Master Chief did not have to face.
Dietz further solidifies McKay’s status as the protagonist with this paragraph on the final page:
“For some reason he thought of Lieutenant Melissa McKay, her calm green eyes, and the fact that he had never gotten to know her. ’Did anyone else make it?’” (Flood, pp 381).
The novel itself could not be completed without acknowledging the impact and influence of Lieutenant Melissa McKay.