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- Anti-hero Takeshi Kovacs awakens in a new sleeve (Anthony Mackie). Netflix
- Trepp (Simone Missick) is a bounty hunter who tracks down Kovacs. Netflix
- Adjusting to his new, upgraded sleeve. Netflix
- Trusty AI companion Poe (Chris Conner) is glitching. Netflix
- Kovacs and Poe return to the Nevermore. Netflix
- Harlan‘s World is under new management. Netflix
- Lela Loren plays Governor Danica Harlan, daughter of one of the planet‘s founders. Netflix
- The street life is vibrant on Harlan‘s World Netflix
- Kovacs searches both for clues to a murder, and his lost love. Netflix
- Poe finds a friend in Dig 301 (Dina Shihabi), an AI programmed to assist human archaeologists. Netflix
- Kovacs is tortured by Colonel Ivan Carrera (Torben Liebrecht), who leads the military group The Wedge. Netflix
- Is this Quellcrist Falconer (Renee Elise Goldsberry), or somebody inhabiting her sleeve? Netflix
The first season of , the Netflix adaptation of Richard K. Morgan‘s of the same name, earned critical praise for its existential themes and visually stunning world-building, plus a few dings for uneven storytelling and excessive violence. The much-anticipated second season has all the same strengths and almost none of S1‘s weaknesses, delivering an engrossing storyline that delves deeper into the underlying mythology and history of the planet known as Harlan‘s World. Fans of the first season won‘t be disappointed.
(Spoilers for S1 below; some spoilers for S2, but no major plot twist reveals.)
Like the novel (the first of a trilogy), the series is set in a world more than 360 years in the future, where a person‘s memories and consciousness can be uploaded into a device—based on alien technology—known as a cortical stack. The stack can be implanted at the back of the neck of any human body (known as a “sleeve”), whether natural or synthetic, so an individual consciousness can be transferred between bodies. Income inequality still exists, however, so only the very rich can afford true immortality, storing their consciousness in remote backups and maintaining a steady supply of clones. Those people are called “Meths” (a reference to the biblical , who supposedly lived for 969 years).
In season one, the cortical stack of Takeshi Kovacs, a former warrior for a rebel group known as the Envoys, is uploaded into a new sleeve (Joel Kinnaman, Hannah) after spending several centuries in storage. He‘s been revived at the request of a Meth named Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy, The Following), who wants Kovacs to solve Bancroft‘s own murder in exchange for his freedom and fresh start.
Kovacs finds useful allies in an AI named Edgar Poe (Chris Conner, American Crime Story), who runs the hotel where Kovacs is staying, and a police officer named Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda, Into the Dark), who finds that her case and Kovacs‘ are linked. Through a series of flashbacks, we also learn about Kovacs‘ background and the people he has lost—most notably, his sister Reileen (Dichen Lachman, Dollhouse) and Quellcrist Falconer (Renee Elise Goldsberry, The Good Wife), leader of the Envoys who trained Kovacs. They fell in love, but she was supposedly killed when the rebels were wiped out—although in the finale, he learns her cortical stack may have survived.
S2 finds Kovacs pursued by a bounty hunter named Trepp (Simone Missick, Luke Cage), who has spent decades sleeve-hopping his way through various planets in search of whatever might remain of Quell. Trepp has been hired to deliver Kovacs to Harlan‘s World, where one of the founders is in fear for his life. Kovacs finds himself in a new, cutting-edge military sleeve (Anthony Mackie, aka Marvel‘s the Falcon) and agrees to protect the founder in exchange for information about Quell.
A dark secret
- A moody moment for Kovacs Netflix
- The Governor has a tense working relationship with Carrera and the Wedge. Netflix
- Kovacs rebuffs an attack. Netflix
- Quellcrist returns to a familiar place. Netflix
- The Wedge on the hunt. Netflix
- Poe is locked and loaded for potential invaders. Netflix
- Dig 301 arms herself, too. Netflix
- Quellcrist looking up what happened to Kovacs and his original sleeve. Netflix
- Trepp in the woods. Netflix
- Kovacs 2.0 recuperates in VR. Netflix
- Kovacs in a tight spot. Netflix
- Hopefully Trepp can lend a hand. Netflix
- Kovacs 2.0 on Harlan‘s World. Netflix
Kovacs fails to protect the founder, however, and finds himself face to face with the killer: Quell herself, or perhaps someone else in her original sleeve (or a synthetic clone thereof). “I‘m not here for you,” she tells him, before escaping into the night. The rest of the season follows Kovacs as he attempts to discover the truth about the founder‘s murder and who (or what) Quell really is, with Poe‘s help—although the AI is pretty glitchy from the damage he suffered in the S1 finale. Poe finds an ally in fellow AI Dig 301 (Dina Shihabi), programmed as an assistant to human archaeologists but now out of work due to funding cuts.
Kovacs quickly runs afoul of the new governor of Harlan‘s World, Danica Harlan (Lela Loren), daughter of the planet‘s namesake, who has purportedly opted for retirement in a virtual meditative paradise. He also faces a threat from Colonel Ivan Carrera (Torben Liebrecht), who heads up an elite Protectorate Special Forces unit called the Wedge, called in to put down an uprising of so-called “Quellists,” who seek to complete Quellcrist Falconer‘s original mission.
Most of that happens in the very first S2 episode. Morgan‘s novels are intricately plotted and sweeping in scope, with multiple narrative threads and deeply existential themes about identity, immortality, and social hierarchies. The same is true of the Netflix adaptation, particularly S1, which also had to do the heavy lifting of establishing Morgan‘s elaborately detailed fictional world for a TV audience. That made the first season pretty dense and occasionally difficult to follow, in part because the series respects its audience enough not to spoon-feed viewers by explaining every detail. We were simply plunged into the world and trusted to figure out how it worked on our own.
In other words, Altered Carbon is a series that demands something of the viewer, but those willing to make that little bit of extra effort were rewarded with a genuinely suspenseful and mostly satisfying conclusion to S1‘s convoluted mystery. The good news is that S2 is much more tightly focused, zipping along at a faster pace, in part because we‘re now quite familiar with this world. The overall narrative arc borrows elements from the last two novels in Morgan‘s trilogy (Broken Angels and Woken Furies), especially the third book, but diverges from the books much more than S1—for the better, I think.
Altered Carbon is a series that demands something of the viewer.
In his S1 review, Ars‘ the “needlessly violent and sexual punches” of the series, while praising it overall. Yes, that aspect accurately reflects the novel, but what works on the page often comes across as excessively gratuitous on the screen. The second season dials the sex and violence down a bit. Don‘t get me wrong, there‘s still plenty of both, it‘s just not quite as excessive, and the season is stronger for it.
There are some excellent performances from the talented cast. Granted, Mackie seems a bit stilted and wooden, and as with S1, many of the villains are not especially complex characters. But Missick shines as Trepp, a tough badass trying to raise her son with her partner in a dangerous world, as does Goldsberry‘s Quell. Conner remains delightful as Poe, whose burgeoning friendship with Dig 301 (beautifully played by Shihabi) provides much of the season‘s emotional resonance.
And if S1 was a bit wobbly in sticking the landing, S2 nails it with an action-packed corker of a finale. Altered Carbon is one of Netflix‘s , so additional seasons are not guaranteed. I‘m not sure where the story would even go from here. But given how strong this second season turned out to be, I‘d like to see what other twists and turns the showrunners come up with, should they get another season.
Altered Carbon S2 is now streaming on Netflix.
Listing image by Netflix