Altered Carbon: EW debates the trippy new Netflix series
On Friday, Netflix debuted Altered Carbon, a massive science-fiction series adapted from a novel by Richard K. Morgan. A future-noir space epic featuring virtual-world torture, body-swapping immortality, and an in-depth exploration of a violently dystopian sex industry, Altered Carbon is unquestionably a ride. But is it a ride worth taking? EW Senior Writer Natalie Abrams liked the show. EW TV critic Darren Franich wasn’t so sure. In the spirit of friendship, they talked about it! SPOILERS FOR THE ENTIRE FIRST SEASON OF ALTERED CARBON FOLLOW!
DARREN: Natalie, when you heard that I didn’t like Altered Carbon, I thought you were going to shoot my stack right out of my sleeve. In fairness, I didn’t hate the new Netflix series by a long shot. As I explained in my review, I was captivated by the sheer weirdo-San Franciso scope of the show, what with all the past lives and the massive dystopian corners of Bay City. The mystery left me cold, though, and I thought the story dragged unbearably slowly for most of the run, until some late-season twists I’m sure we’ll spoil soon. But I know you had a different reaction. So what did you think of the show?
NAT: I have to be honest, when I first started watching the pilot, I found myself a bit confused by the fact that we were not following one iteration of Takeshi Kovacs, but jumping a bit through time, anchored by the Joel Kinnaman version waking up more than 500 years past his original era. Couple that with a few errant mentions of things like Stronghold, and visions of battles past, and I felt immediately disoriented, something I initially chalked up to Tak’s post-hibernation hangover. But that’s exactly what the show wanted, to have viewers as confused as the anti-hero whose shoes we were stepping into. Mind you, each of those mysterious tidbits makes a lot more sense now that I’m rewatching the series and have a full grasp of what lies ahead in the season, but I can understand why the story may be, at times, tough to follow.
At its core, the idea that you could live forever by basically downloading your consciousness into a “stack” sent my Ross Geller-loving heart aflutter. What would you do if you could live forever? Apparently dress like a Blade Runner-esque, chain-smoking Envoy with nothing to lose, trained not to care about the allies he uses to achieve his mission. My anti-social, stone cold heart would leap at the opportunity. But what initially kept me coming back is the rich and deeply visceral world the show laid out for the future — bleak, yes, but an absolutely fascinating exercise in bucking sexual, race, and gender expectations.
DARREN: See, I wanted MORE confusion! That opening sequence was such a wacky laser-chaingun-burst of science-fictional madness. It seemed to really capture the surreality of the eternal life you’re describing, all these fascinating memories about different lives. (It reminded me of some of the loopier sequences in Mass Effect.)
So it bummed me out a little bit when the end of the first episode set such a specific mission (Who Killed Laurens?) and even gave Kinnaman’s stone-cold killer such an obvious Team Tak supporting cast. I felt like the whole show from there had the same feeling: All these wild far-out future visions felt so anchored to the kind of dull season-long mystery arc that made everything besides Kinnaman in The Killing unbearable. Poor Ortega had to spend most of the season waiting for Tak to do something. Were there any twists in the story that really grabbed you, Natalie? Or did you feel like the pure atmosphere of this (insanely expensive) future was enough to get you through whole episodes of people being digitally tortured?
NAT: What ultimately made me laugh about the season-long arc was that it appeared to be as innocuous as Reileen (Dichen Lachman) tricking a billionaire (James Purefoy) into setting her brother free. But the show kept excitedly peeling back the onion, revealing that Rei was just as bad as the Meths, faking the Catholic coding so her fancy brothel customers could kill their conquests without fear of reprisal, and using Bancroft to make sure a law didn’t pass that would allow the religious to be re-spun and accuse their murderer. How freaking ridiculous was that last sentence?! However, the mystery immediately made me want to go back and rewatch to see where and when Rei had appeared to her brother in different sleeves along his journey.
A little aside: Oddly, the Rei reveal comes much quicker in the book on which the show is based. Admittedly, I haven’t finished it, but Kovacs reads a letter from Bancroft before going to meet him where he says Reileen Kawahara recommended him — there was no shock or recognition to the name, so their dynamic must be different in the novel. /end aside.
But speaking of the Team Tak supporting cast, don’t speak ill of the dead, Darren. Chris Connor’s portrayal of The Raven’s borderline obsessed and ill-fated proprietor Poe was hands down one of the best parts of the show. And don’t even get me started on what a beautiful love story we got from Cliff Chamberlain playing Vernon’s (Ato Essandoh) wife in a male sleeve. Or the unsung hero that is Matt Biedel playing everything from Ortega’s joyful grandmother to a version of Tahmoh Penikett’s dangerous criminal Dimitri Kadmin. Hand him an Emmy right now! The supporting cast is what kept me coming back. Was there really no one you were drawn to? Say Quell — I know you’re going to say Quell (Renée Elise Goldsberry).
DARREN: Nat, your brilliant description of Rei’s master plot has made me enjoy this show 8.7 percent more, because I’m a sucker for incoherent fifth-dimensional mysteries. (Actually, when you put it like that in a single sentence, the plot of Altered Carbon is way less crazy than The Big Sleep.)
And Matt Biedel is my favorite part of the season! I love the stack-and-sleeve concept, and the lingo that goes with it. Going forward, I’m appropriating the phrase “spun up” to describe how it feels when one is required to be functional while hungover. So Biedel as abuelita and as the mad Russian? Love how that recodes our basic perspective on how to care about TV characters, and how it complicated — going for it! — what it means to be human.
But I feel like the show whiffed on this concept when it came to the main characters. There’s no reason for Kovacs to care about his Kinnaman sleeve — it’s just another body in a series of bodies — but the story has to bend over backwards to make him care, for no obvious reason other than Joel Kinnaman is the star of this show. So even his big sad death scene in the finale isn’t a death scene. They fish his stack out of the sunken wreckage of a sky brothel, and then, how lucky, he cloned himself! The clones might just be a nifty concept too far: It feels weird to say “In this future people live in different bodies” but then also say “Don’t worry, the characters played by our main actors all have clone bodies they can download into.” And so glad you bring up Quell, because I like her part in the story and I struggle with it. Renée Elise Goldsberry is great, but I wasn’t crazy about how this season forced her into a Kenobi act, appearing as a ghost to offer helpful plot exposition.
But then that hourlong flashback set on Harlan’s world was really good! It could just be that I like Will Yun Lee as Kovacs more than Kinnaman, but episode 7 felt like a radically different vision of Altered Carbon. How did you feel about that breakaway episode, Nat?
NAT: Let me circle back a sec: I absolutely agree with you on Kovacs basically being forced to protect this sleeve for inexplicable reasons. Aren’t Envoys supposed to detach from any relationships they form? He really didn’t do a great job of that with any of the female characters, in particular. I mean, the only reason to save the Elias Ryker sleeve was to make Ortega happy, and yet the whole purpose of Kovacs being sleeved within him was so Bancroft could torture Ortega! I digress. I should mention, though, that I worried Altered Carbon was bordering on Ghost in the Shell white-washing territory with Kinnaman’s casting in Will Yun Lee’s role until I realized that it was in the book — and that Lee would still play a big role on the show.
That leads me to the Harlan’s World-set episode that you mentioned. What a powerful hour on so many levels, namely that this was the episode that really drove home how unique this story is: It’s not just about the concept of being able to live forever, it’s about the reasons why.
Here’s a little plot explanation you can skip if you already understand the plot, but come on, you’re probably going to read it anyway: In the future, humanity has expanded beyond Earth, meaning the early settlers spent a lot of time in ships traveling light years away to settle other planets, like the lush forest of Harlan’s World, but now people can just “needlecast,” a.k.a. send their consciousness to those other planets around the universe, and download into a new sleeve. Seems like a great idea, right? Well, until the realization sets in that the rich might abuse the system and use it to live forever, as Bancroft has. Hence, Quell wanted to download a virus that would only allow people to live one life.
It made me angry at first — and was a bit of a left-turn for the story because we know Quell and the Envoys did not succeed — as I’d personally want to spend my years planet-hopping, but I could see how humanity would end up where it did and I realized Quell was right, dammit. And this story then went from wish fulfillment to cautionary tale. Also, that hour finally paid off the oft-discussed Stronghold battle, where the Protectorate basically slaughtered every Envoy — with Reileen’s help! And she killed Quell! But she somehow also downloaded Quell! So Quell is still alive! I’m just re-living a lot of what I was yelling at my TV while watching the last few hours, to be honest. And yes, Quell was, at times, one-dimensional when she was spouting off lines I’d probably heard in a video game — particularly true in the torture-centric hour — but the Harlan’s World hour proved she was wise beyond her years, and I highly anticipate a second season that would bring her back in the flesh.
DARREN: Hooray for Harlan’s World! It’s like Netflix is building a new hyper-specific subgenre of television: The Seventh Episode of a Science-Fiction Show That Takes Place In An Entirely Different Setting From Every Other Episode. But unlike when Stranger Things’ Eleven went to Chicago and met a daring band of Disney punks, I really liked this breakaway episode. Lee’s Kovacs was a little more dashing, devil-may-care than Kinnaman’s, and his chemistry with Goldsberry gave this very dark show a shot of burning-love romance. You’re so right to point out how effectively this episode tantalized us with more information about Quell. It made me feel like this whole season was an elaborate build-up to a very different show — an actually somehow bigger show, planet-hopping and body-swapping, Protectorates and Envoys battling across the centuries, wow!
After that high, it felt like a bit of a bummer to come back down to an Earth full of murdered prostitutes. Some of that stuff was disturbing in a bummer way, but I’m not against gory ultraviolence by any means. So I want to give credit where credit’s due: Dichen Lachman rocked in the closing episodes. I didn’t always understand what her big-deal plot was, but her character seemed to have a real motivation — twisted love for Tak, thirst for immortality, general distrust of anything — and that scene with all the Rei clones attacking Ortega is one of the craziest R-rated (NC-17?) action scenes in memory. How did you feel about how the Rei-Tak relationship wrapped up, Nat? And did you have any thoughts in general on the sheer extremity of Altered Carbon’s content? Like, full credit to Netflix for pouring kamillions of dollars into some insanely boundary-pushing entertainment — but all that torture kinda wore me out.
NAT: I whole-heartedly agree that Dichen Lachman was a shining star in a somewhat over-complicated climax. While Tak poisoning her with what the Protectorate used against the Envoys is exactly the type of delicious karma I’d want to befall any villain, I honestly got a little angry that Rei supposedly suffered “true death” — this is one time where I hope the show cheats a bit and brings Reileen back for a second season. Can we just talk about how far Lachman has come as an actress? From her recent turn on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. going all the way back to Dollhouse, which, come to think of it, is basically a present-day Altered Carbon.
Now that we’ve touched on both Reileen and Quell, we’d be remiss not to bring up the last of the triumvirate of powerful women in Altered Carbon, albeit possibly the least interesting of the trio. Don’t get me wrong, a character like Ortega is fascinating — tough cop with a steel heart, who curses like a sailor, consistently puts her life on the line, even as her (now slaughtered) family has religious coding. She’s someone I’d like to have a beer with. But her motivations at times are a bit exhausting. She’s sometimes trying to clear her partner’s name, though she’s not entirely sure of his innocence. She’s almost always angry with Kovacs for being in Elias’ body, and yet she sleeps with him. She’s also sometimes hellbent on revenge, like when she took down the Ghost for killing her family and also leaving her for dead — though, to be fair, she got a bionic arm out of it!
Props are due to Martha Higareda for playing Ortega as Rei pretending to be Ortega after that naked clone fight, though I wanted to scream at Tak for falling for the ruse when “Ortega” brought up fighting his sister — a fact she wouldn’t have known!
Ultimately, Altered Carbon wrapped a captivating story of identity in layers of spectacular violence. I’m also impressed with what the show was able to achieve visually, but I’d hope to see another season (or 10) delve into other worlds or far off universes, even if that means a different cast — well, most of them. I guess I just want a Harlan’s World spin-off? What would you want for a potential second season?
DARREN: More body-swapping, more space. Make the storytelling as bold as the concepts: Less ponderously slow mystery, less bargain-Sin City grimdark phony toughness, more cosmic tales sprawling across centuries and galaxies. And give Kovacs a new sleeve. (Kinnaman can stick around as a different character.) Heck, maybe give Kovacs multiple sleeves. How cool would that be, a “main character” played by an ensemble? And one of those sleeves could be Matt Biedel!
NAT: Yes, please!
The entire first season of Altered Carbon is available now on Netflix.