Browse Altered Carbon Episode Recaps Here.
Altered Carbon is my new guilty pleasure. Do we still have guilty pleasures? I don’t care, that’s what it is. It may or may not make the cut for prestige television when the critics are done deciding, but, after watching 3 episodes, I’ve decided I’m just going to have fun with it. It’s not the best, or the worst, or the first, or the most, of anything. But it is a hardcore, pulpy, scifi cyberpunk neo-noir murder mystery with a detective who’s both completely futuristic and a total throwback. This show is not taking itself too seriously while still including all of the essentials of its genre(s). That means that we can all relax and enjoy the ride.
Altered Carbon is based on the 2003 novel by Richard Morgan. It stars Joel Kinnaman (The Killing) as Takeshi Kovacs, a former mercenary and legendary rebel soldier who fought against the Protectorate, the universal government of the future that’s run by the wealthy. He was caught and imprisoned 250 years ago.
Thanks to future technology, the mind and the body can now be separated, with the consciousness being stored in a disc called the “stack” and the now replaceable human body being referred to as a “sleeve”. Kovacs’ stack is taken off ice and brought to one of the wealthiest men on the planet, Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy, The Following), who wants Kovacs to solve his own murder.
The wealthy can afford to have clones of their own bodies on hand at all times, and their stacks backed up in multiple places, including space, so that they are assured eternal life. The last time Bancroft was backed up was almost two days prior to his murder, so he remembers nothing about the event or the hours preceding it. And he trusts no one, including Kovacs.
Kovacs reluctantly takes the case, assembling a small team to help him, including Vernon (Ato Essandoh, Chicago Mad), a former marine, whose daughter, Lizzie (Hayley Law, Riverdale), is traumatized and stuck looping in her stack and Poe (Chris Conner, American Crime Story), an AI Hotel that takes Takeshi in and becomes his online assistant. He’s shadowed by Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda, Royal Pains), a city police officer who’s suspicious of the entire situation.
We learn about Kovacs’ past through flashbacks, and the hallucinations he has conversations with. The two most important people in his early life were his sister Reileen (Dichan Lachman, The Last Ship, Dollhouse), and his lover Quell, who was also the notorious leader of the rebel forces (Renée Elise Goldsberry, Hamilton the Musical). We see Kovacs former sleeves in the flashbacks, played by Byron Mann and Will Yun Lee.
Altered Carbon takes place in a fully realized, beautifully produced, dystopian world several hundred years in the future. It has a fantastic soundtrack. The effects, and the lighting, are gorgeous. There are flying cars. And rich people who live in skyscrapers so tall they reach higher than the clouds. They fly their cars to the exclusive upper floors- the penthouses, of course. How fun is that?
The cast is diverse, and women are everywhere. There’ s a lot of nudity. I mean, a lot. Both male and female full frontal and rear nudity, plus graphic sex. And very graphic violence. Bloody, juicy violence. They’re serious about the R rating. But there’s not much gore, at least in these 3 episodes. It’s equal opportunity nudity, sex, and violence.
We take long looks at dead, nude female bodies, while the dead men are clothed, and merely glanced at by the camera. It gets to the point where you wonder if the Director of Photography has a bit of a fetish. But we do spend time looking at clothed, bloody injured men, focussing closely on the blood, and a man’s brains have been left splattered on a wall for 3 episodes running. The women are oversexualized, victimized, villainized and frequently incompetent, while the men are sexualized, victimized, overvillainized and frequently incompetent. So, in the end, it’s a toss up.
Altered Carbon has been criticized for whitewashing Kovacs, and for victimizing and oversexualizing too many women. Showrunner Laeta Kalogridis has addressed these issues in multiple interviews. Here’s one of the most recent: Altered Carbon Showrunner Teases Epic Series, Addresses Controversies. And another two with more detail: Altered Carbon’s Showrunner On The Only Book Scene She Insisted Be Changed How Altered Carbon Handles Its Unique Whitewashing Issue While certainly something to keep an eye on, neither issue is a dealbreaker for me right now, especially after seeing how thoughtfully the female showrunner is dealing with them.
The show keeps moving at a decent pace. It follows the trend that’s developed recently among Netflix shows of assuming that viewers will be binge watching, and editing their episodes accordingly. Each episode ends by teasing the viewer into the next, often with a cliffhanger. The episodes flow together into one long episode, without worrying as much about having distinct episode arcs.
The Netflix show that Altered Carbon reminds me of the most is Daredevil, with its dark, conflicted hero, well-developed supporting characters and villains, and neo-noir atmosphere that’s laden with metaphor and symbolism. It also has things in common with The Expanse, since the main character is an interplanetary traveler, the fictional future world is so detailed and clear that you’d think this was a big budget block buster, the world is divided into the extremely wealthy and the extremely poor, and, while advanced technology is common place, it’s a very mixed blessing.
Then there are the little touches that are all its own. The arms dealer who is wearing pants that look like the bottom half of a Chewbacca costume. The hotel that’s an artificial intelligence which calls itself The Raven and is obsessed with Edgar Allen Poe. It refuses to change, even though it hasn’t had a customer in 50 years and the other AI businesses mock it. The married couple who fight to the death of the sleeve for pay each night, and are sure their young children are used to Mommy and Daddy coming home in new bodies every few days. The pink child’s backpack supersoldier Takeshi Kovacs carries with him everywhere.
These bits of whimsy take Altered Carbon out of the overbearing seriousness that’s often found in cyberpunk, and humanize it. These are still just people, making mistakes, being silly, taking themselves too seriously, and enduring tragedy. The furturistic elements disguise a story that could have been told in any era, with slightly different technological twists. But the scifi elements are used effectively, to enhance and further the story, and to allow modern viewers to reflect on the future our society and our lives are heading toward. And to wonder whether that’s someplace we want to go.
The History of Immortality, narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson and produced by Psychasec.