Bungie makes the best out of an impossible situation with Destiny 2’s Commander Zavala

Commander Zavala has always been my favorite Destiny character. He’s a dogmatic Paladin whose fervent devotion to his beliefs makes him a rock for his allies — my favorite archetype. And, most importantly, he was voiced by Lance Reddick, an actor I’ve loved since I first saw The Wire in college.

When Reddick unexpectedly passed away last year, Guardians like myself set up a kind of vigil by Zavala in the Tower, standing watch in memory of our fallen commander. I cried then, and I’ve cried multiple times writing this piece. It was a devastating loss for the entire Destiny community, not only because Lance was an avid enjoyer of the game, but because Zavala’s story wasn’t finished yet. With this first Destiny saga so close to the end, how could Bungie ever hope to resolve Zavala’s arc without the man behind the voice?

Thankfully, it’s a challenge Destiny’s writers seem to have taken in stride, and one his replacement — the legendary Keith David — took to heart. The narrative team could’ve just written Zavala out of the story and left his decade-long arc in the dust, but instead, they did what they could given the situation and used our collective loss as a storytelling device.

[Warning: this post contains very light spoilers for The Final Shape campaign, up through the Liminality Strike.]

Zavala stares up at The Traveler in Destiny 2: The Final Shape Image: Bungie

Since Guardians started toying with the Darkness in Beyond Light, Bungie has slowly been moving Commander Zavala down what I’d call a “crisis of faith” storyline, which is often a critical fork in the road for dogmatic characters in fiction. As Guardians began to move toward the Darkness, Zavala pushed back, diving further into his belief in the Light. He ultimately grew cynical over The Traveler’s silence.

Every step Zavala has taken over the past four years has eroded him. And while he’s spent this entire time standing tall like he always does, he’s weaker on the inside than he seems. So when Zavala finally gets the chance to venture into The Traveler itself and evict The Witness alongside Ikora, Cayde, and the Guardian in The Final Shape, he begins to crumble when The Witness strikes at that weakness.

This shift is acted brilliantly by Keith David, who starts the expansion by emulating Reddick before fully taking hold of the character and twisting it into his own. Reddick had a stern kindness to his voice that has served Zavala perfectly for a decade. David has a similarly deep and calming voice, but he is also using his abilities as an actor to add in a sense of hidden malice, which he starts to draw out as the expansion goes on.

This change really starts to come into focus when Zavala sends you on a Strike mission in The Pale Heart to hunt down a Tormentor in a cave full of Ahamkara skulls. The commander starts off sounding frustrated, and he pushes you to enact vengeance on the creature. Beyond that, he suggests you take risks by harnessing the magic of these long-dead wish-dragons for your benefit. When it works, he acts as if there was never a chance that it wouldn’t.

Zavala stands alongside a bunch of shrouded figures in Destiny 2: The Final Shape Image: Bungie

In other words, Zavala begins to behave recklessly here, and Ikora calls him out for not only endangering the Guardian needlessly, but acting unlike himself. Instead of what would typically be a measured response from Zavala, he sasses Ikora for lecturing him. And when she pushes back again, he yells at her over the comms with a speech along the lines of, “Isn’t this what you always wanted from me?”

These moments feel antithetical to Zavala as we’ve known him, and if the writing or performance were bad, it would probably feel like the character had just changed for no reason. But Bungie’s writers and Reddick had already been putting in the work toward a broken Zavala for years, so David is able to take that history and sell these moments. I didn’t feel like a new voice actor was changing my favorite character, I felt like I was watching a friend who had gone through an immense amount of trauma finally unraveling before my eyes — something I’ve unfortunately witnessed in my own life.

There’s a clear separation between the Zavala we’ve known and the Zavala we’re getting in The Final Shape. I realized for the first time during the Strike how truly different David and Reddick sound from one another, and it’s intentionally unsettling. It made me yearn for the old Zavala and Reddick — something I’ll never have again — and that hurt, in the way that the best kinds of art can hurt.

Zavala pays tribute to Amanda Holliday in Destiny 2: The Final Shape Image: Bungie

For Zavala, The Final Shape’s campaign acts as a kind of chrysalis and metamorphosis. Bungie’s writers deftly maneuver between Zavala experiencing rapid character growth and acting out of character. David enhances that writing beyond itself — as only great actors can do — with a masterful performance, offering us a Zavala who’s drowning without ever letting the man we know dip beneath the waves for too long.

It’s a risky move from both parties that I’m willing to bet won’t work for everyone. But as someone who originally couldn’t imagine anyone else stepping into Zavala’s shoes, I was blown away by how David and the writing team at Bungie were able to honor Reddick and his original performance.

Even so, it’s impossible not to feel deep sadness that Lance Reddick wasn’t able to be part of The Final Shape after years of being one of Destiny’s most famous characters and beloved community members. And there’s no doubt in my mind that he would’ve crushed this performance, just as he crushed all the others. But I think it’s beautiful how the writers and Keith David were able to make the most out of a terrible situation, and to give Zavala some of the best story moments in the series during The Final Shape.

Rest in peace, commander — Zavala is in good hands.