Altered Carbon showrunner talks ghost stories and the fun of a 'semi-anthology' series
Warning: This article contains spoilers about season 2 of Netflix's Altered Carbon.
Netflix’s sci-fi series Altered Carbon is set in a future world where human consciousness is stored in devices known as “stacks,” allowing them to be transferred from one body (or “sleeve”) to another. This feature allows for all kinds of casting changes, such as switching out Joel Kinnaman for Anthony Mackie in the role of protagonist Takeshi Kovacs in season 2. But that’s not the only major change for Altered Carbon between seasons: Allison Schapker took over showrunner duties from series creator Laeta Kalogridis, though the latter did pen the first episode of the new season.
So now that season 2 has been out for a few days, EW caught up with Schapker to discuss the many twists and turns of Kovacs’ latest adventure.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you come into the role of showrunner for Altered Carbon season 2?
ALLISON SCHAPKER: When I came in, Laeta Kalogridis had already assembled the writer’s room, and they were beginning to map out ideas and had a lot on the table in terms of themes and characters she wanted to explore. There was a lot of stuff rolling around. I was able to work with her for a number of months, honing what was there and shaping the season with her. It was a collaborative effort for some time. When she went on to other projects and more officially passed the baton, I saw season 2 through the rest of the writing process and then through production. That was how that transition went. It wasn't like one of those transitions where season 1 was all her and season 2 was all me, there was a significant period of overlap.
Altered Carbon season 2 shares a lot with season 1, but there are also significant differences — such as switching out Joel Kinnaman for Anthony Mackie in the lead role. How did some of those changes come about?
The idea is that Altered Carbon is going to be kind of a semi-anthology series. Our conceit, as we imagine it, is that every season would be a new sleeve, a new planet, a new mystery. The idea that minds move between bodies, and that would be something that would affect our hero Takeshi Kovacs, was already there in season 1. Yes you had Joel Kinnaman front and center in s1, but you also saw Byron Mann in flashbacks, and then in episode 1x07, we had this great flashback episode with Will Yun Lee, and got to see the origin story of Takeshi Kovacs as an Envoy. We really saw a side of Takeshi Kovacs when he really passionately first cared about Quell and fell in love. We had seen multiple other iterations of Kovacs, and I love the idea of a hero who lives centuries and would be embodied by different actors. The idea that we were gonna find Kovacs in a new body, I think that promise was made to the audience at the end of season 1 when he gave Ryker’s sleeve back and you saw those boots walking out of the elevator. I think there’s something really interesting about that over time, we’re all hoping for a season 3. We all watch TV and come to identify with the faces we’re seeing. Altered Carbon kind of disrupts that by asking you to embrace another face and another body as your hero, which I feel is very much the conceit of the show. So we knew we were going to do that, and I love that, I think it’s something interesting and special that Altered Carbon can do because of its concept.
At the same time, we didn’t want to not have any continuity. I’m a TV fan, I want to see characters that I love over time. We want to make sure people can identify over seasons; for example that’s why we didn’t mess around with bringing Poe back. Right away we wanted to make sure we had someone you do care about and is familiar, is that person you’ve come to know and love, and are going to go on the rise with somebody. We thought Poe [Chris Conner] as our AI was a great person to come back. We knew that was gonna happen. I felt like with Quellcrist Falconer too, we knew right away that Renée was gonna embody her in season 2, but then she also taught Kovacs to build a pack. That’s one of the things in season 1 that’s part of the Quellist philosophy, so the idea that Kovacs was gonna land on a new planet and assemble a new team of people around him, that’s another chance to get to know new people in season 2. Last thing i want to say is we also knew going in that Will Yun Lee was a very important emotional anchor in season 1. So we definitely wanted to find a way to bring him into the story in season 2. Having Jaeger as Colonel Carrera take him off ice and have Kovacs face a younger version of himself, that was super exciting to all of us.
I was going to ask about that next! Thanks to the concept of double-sleeving, introduced way back in episode 1, we get two different versions of Takeshi Kovacs this season. What was fun about having Will and Anthony on screen embodying two aspects of the same character?
I felt like that was a really relatable arc for all of us who go around trying to reckon with our past and the younger version of ourselves, actions we’ve taken that haunt all of us, or regrets that we have about things we’ve done that we haven’t fully made peace with. Normally you take that to therapy, but to actually have your younger self sitting in front of you asking questions, and having to explain to yourself, it felt like this awesome externalization of a process that is usually internal. That was amazing. That was so much fun. I just want to say, Anthony and Will are such fine actors, we were pissing ourselves watching the dailies of that scene when they talk about Reileen. We say that this is a ghost story in season 2, and in terms of what Kovacs is carrying around, killing his sister is not something that’s gonna sit with him easily. That’s something he has to reckon with. We wanted to acknowledge that in season 2, so having Will as "Kovacs Prime" gave us a really interesting way to do that.
When I spoke with Lela Loren ahead of the season, she mentioned that her character Danica Harlan was trying to break her planet out of the cycle of exploitation by the United Nations Protectorate. But as we learn by the end of the season, Harlan's World itself was oppressing and exploiting the Elder race that lived there before. What did you like about exploring that cycle of exploitation?
It was all in keeping with our thematic idea that this season involves a lot of ghost stories. We often say that our past comes back to haunt us, or we have to reckon with our past. It seemed so trippy to us that we’re on a planet where the people who founded it are still alive. It’s like the original sin is still around. We’re not dealing with successive generations where whatever atrocities were committed are long gone. Nope, they’re still around, and they’re still sitting on all that wealth. What must that be like? Here’s Danica Harlan, raised by her father, but weirdly fascinated by Quellcrist Falconer. That was one thing we dialed into: She’s aware that the Protectorate wants to basically takes all the resources from her planet, and she would like to have some leverage against that. She’s on her colony’s side, but at the same time she’s watching her father make these decisions. What would succession look like in a world where people can, for all practical purposes, live forever? She basically kills her dad, but then comes up with almost a media narrative. She’s got a lot of plates spinning. Super smart and super ruthless, but also under a lot of pressure, and ultimately she’s not really finding the freedom she’s looking for. It’s interesting that when she and Quell come face to face, and they’re both kind of using each other in the finale because they need to get to Carrera, and Quell says, "we’re on the same side, we both want to fight the Protectorate." There is truth in that so I hope that’s a believable moment. But it's also true that they both have secrets up their sleeves.
What did you like about the orbitals on Harlan's World? Personally I always enjoy the sci-fi concept of inscrutable alien satellites left over from a past civilization with unclear purpose, and here they shape the season finale in a big way.
I love the orbitals too. I love the idea that this is a planet that was once inhabited by a species that is no longer present, but they’ve left technology behind and humans do not fully understand how it works. I felt like the de-centering of human beings in that was really important, but (and I feel like this is both our greatness and our hubris) that wasn’t gonna stop humans from using that technology or the resources that are part of it to their own ends. So there’s this alloy on the planet that becomes the material for our stacks, and thus the natural resource for immortality, but we don’t understand that that’s also gonna make us vulnerable. That felt very human too. I’ve been saying it felt like how the Romans built pipes, which was great because we have water, but they’re made of lead so we’re poisoning ourselves. We can do these great things but there are always limits to our knowledge and we don’t know the consequences.
Elders are a great example on this planet, where we are literally limited by our knowledge. Things cannot fly above a certain height or they’re gonna be exploded, except for this little hole over the equator where things can get shipped in and out. Otherwise it’s this pretty impenetrable planet, but through this force we can’t control. So the Protectorate would have a hard time attacking Harlan’s World, but at the same time it limits Harlan’s World as well. I found all of that fascinating. So often we think of ourselves as a species in our own category, on top of the food chain with the biggest brains, but I think just existing on a planet with Elder technology cuts humans down to size a little bit in a way that was fascinating to me. Of course there’s a coveting on Danica’s part, and on humanity’s part, to control any power that exists. Isn’t that something we could turn to our own ends? As a weapon out there that our characters would have their eye on was fascinating. To me, it’s significant that Kovacs took the Elder inside of him and then during that final scene in the finale, a lot of those orbitals exploded in the sky. That’s all I’m gonna say.
What should we make of Kovacs’ fate at the end? The older version has had his stack melted and now he lives on in Quell’s memory like she used to for him, but Kovacs Prime is still alive. What could you see happening to that character in the future?
As a writer I am so excited by the pieces that are left on the chessboard, in terms of where the story can go. I love that we leave Kovacs Prime and he’s embedded in the Protectorate, I love that Quell is on her way to a planet and finally gonna ignite the uprising on her terms. I think we should keep the fun going of “every season, a new sleeve.” The idea is that Kovacs is in that stack that Poe copied. That was one of my favorite moments of season 1, when those boots walked out of the elevator, and I really wanted to give that to people in season 2. There’s gonna be that fun of discovery like, how are we gonna find Kovacs next? I have ideas, but we’re very pleased with the reaction we’re getting to season 2. We’re just crossing our fingers and hoping. Season 2 turned inward: We did reckon with the past, with ghosts, we did go back to Kovacs’ home planet. But I also think now we need to turn outward: The Protectorate is still out there, and Quell’s larger revolution is out there to be addressed. I feel like the battle needs to continue. What I’d like to continue exploring in season 3, now that this work has been done in s2, what does it mean to have reckoned with these demons? Where does that get you and how does that shape the fight that is to come? Skydance and Netflix have been incredible partners, and the fans have been wonderful, so we’re just hoping we get to do more.