Finding good and compelling science fiction shows to watch can be a daunting task. As opposed to when I was just a young geek there was little for me to go to. Now there is a plethora of programming out there, but there is still the challenge of trying to find good programming, especially if hard science fiction is your cup of tea. Lucky for us the streaming service Netflix gave us a phenomenal series titled Altered Carbon that looks like it could have come right out of the mind of Phillip K. Dick. Now it is back for a second season, but does it hold up?
At the end of the last season the last Envoy, Takeshi Kovacs, went on a search to find the love of his life, Quellcrist Falconer. It is because of her he stopped serving with the elite fighting force (The Wedge). He lives in a world where human consciousness is digitally preserved and can be put into a new body, or sleeve that is conscious free. A perverse form of immortality now exists for many humans, but Kovacs and Falconer fought to eliminate this way of that that they view to be an offense to humanity. Now in his new sleeve, he’s looking for Falconer. However, his mission is aborted when he’s suddenly recruited to help a Meth (very wealthy people who can clone their bodies move their consciousness from one body to the next) who is asking for Kovac’s special skills as a protector. In exchange, this meth (Horace Axley) will deliver Falconer to him. Unfortunately, before Kovacs has an opportunity to be released in his new sleeve (in the same complex where Axley is) and acclimate to his new surroundings, Axley and his men are killed, and because Kovacs was there it is believed he’s responsible for Axley’s murder. Now he’s on the run and accompanied by a damaged AI named Poe. Along the way, he meets with a bounty hunter named Trepp (who was hired by Axley to find Kovacs) and she is on her own mission to find her brother. With this motley crew, Kovacs has two goals. First, to find Falconer, and second, to learn who killed Axley, and why was he killed.
Altered Carbon is not necessarily for the casual viewer. This series is an investment. The stories are incredibly dense and the amount of world-building can be overwhelming. However, if viewers manage to get through the first season they will be rewarded with a general enough understanding of the universe this show inhabits. Sadly, so much time has passed between the end of season 1 and the new season on Netflix that a refresher might be viewed as necessary. Luckily, the amount of information needed to get back on track is minimal compared to the world-building done in season 1, and by the time I got to the end of the third episode I felt more than adequately up to speed, and much of that needed information was simply names and terminology. The stories are pretty full of violent action and an interesting mystery that continually twists as new facts are revealed. Another element is how the characters are developed. For lack of a better term, there is no true black or white here. Every character in this show operates in some shady grey area, especially when it comes to the soldier Ivan Carrera. He was Kovacs’ commanding officer before Kovac went roque, and nothing would make him happier than to get Kovac back and learn what it was that made him become a rebel. As ruthless as Carrera can be, he objects when the governor of Harlan’s World (where much of these stories take place) makes off with a prisoner that Carrera wants simply because she has a secret to hide and has no desire for Carrera, or anyone else, to learn what that secret is. One moment I’m cheering for Carrera to fail, and then the next I want him to succeed. It’s this complexity of characters where Altered Carbon finds its storytelling strength and the best way to have strong characters is to have an equally strong cast.
Anthony Mackie has the unenviable task of playing Kovacs, and he takes over the role after Joel Kinnaman played the part during the first season. Fans of science fiction aren’t unfamiliar with the concept of new and changing actors inhabiting old characters as seen in Doctor Who. However, the challenge is that characters who are “re-sleeved” are not supposed to see a shift in personality. The Kovacs we see in the show’s flashbacks is the same person we see as played by Mackie. The only difference there should be the voice, but not the speech pattern. Everything that made Kovacs tick should be here inside Mackie. Arguably, he doesn’t quite have the delivery that Kinnaman had, and yet I’ve been enjoying his performance. Perhaps it is because this role is a complete departure from Sam Wilson/Falcon in the movies put out by Marvel Studios. Sam is a good-natured soldier, so it is refreshing to see him play a character who has issues. He may not be nailing Kinnaman’s performance, but Mackie still plays him with enough baggage and vulnerability that makes him very interesting to follow.
Then there is Simone Missick as bounty hunter Trepp. This is a person with more baggage than a Samsonite store, and Missick’s performance is so entertaining that I quite literally forgot about her performance in Luke Cage. Much of the no-nonsense behavior as Misty Knight is brought into the role of Trepp as she impatiently tries to get to the bottom of her brother’s disappearance, and her anger plays off beautifully against Mackie.
Torben Liebrecht plays the character of Ivan Carrera, and to say that he IS Carrera is an understatement. Liebrecht plays him with an almost terrifying sense of both obsession and duty, and while he’s not above breaking rules to serve his needs, he has no problem telling someone they are in the wrong and will try intimidation to get what he wants. Given Liebrecht’s physical presence that is not a problem for him. He also delivers a believability to the character when you see loyalties shift throughout the story. To make a character unlikeable one minute and sympathetic the next can be quite the challenge. Liebrecht makes it look easy.
We also have Renée Elise Goldsberry as Falconer, but as of now, she is something of a cipher. We aren’t meant to know much about her at this stage of the story, and all we have to work with are flashbacks when we see what kind of person she used to be. Goldsberry plays Falconer differently now, flipping back and forth from a confused romantic interest for Kovacs to a highly trained assassin with a very interesting ability. Lastly, we have Poe. Played by Chris Conner, Poe arguably became the breakout character from the first season of this series, and it looked like Poe was meeting an unpleasant ending before the first season was over. Now he’s back, but to keep the character interesting Conner now plays him as damaged. This puts Poe in an unpleasant position of having to reboot himself, but the fear he deals with is how will such a process affect him? Will he remember any portion of his “life” while he was serving Kovacs? Will any of his character growth get lost after this type of reset? Conner plays Poe with just the right amount of strength to continually make him interesting but without going overboard or too far with the performance.
Based on the 2002 novel of the same name by Richard K. Morgan, there is some question as to how close to the source will this show follow. I haven’t read the book so I’m in the dark regarding this, but creator Laeta Kalogridis has done an amazing job at giving viewers a dystopian future that is bright, colorful, and bleak at the same time. It also does a wonderful job of looking at the dangers of human immortality through the process of re-sleeving. Science fiction can be at its best when it tackles complex issues and questions, and after three episodes of its second season, Altered Carbon continues to do that.