Altered Carbon has returned with a new sleeve and a new lease on life, as Anthony Mackie’s arrival marks just one of the ways this season is a major departure from its debut. Overall it was successful, with a few bumps along the way. Here are our spoiler-light thoughts on what synched and what sank.
Based on the novel series by Richard K. Morgan, Altered Carbon tells the story of Takeshi Kovacs, a former rebel in a world where the human consciousness has been digitised and can be moved from body to body. In the first season from showrunner Laeta Kalogridis, Takeshi had been re-sleeved in the body of Joel Kinnaman to be a private eye for a centuries-old rich person, called a Meth, whose latest sleeve had been murdered. That death turned out to be part of a larger conspiracy, with Takeshi’s sister at the helm.
Between seasons, executive producer Alison Schapker took over as showrunner. Now Takeshi (played by Mackie) has found himself back on his home planet of Harlan’s World in search of Quellcrist Falconer (Renée Elise Goldsberry), the rebel hero who’d died centuries ago. She’s not only back, she’s killing Meths and destroying their stacks to ensure they can’t be re-sleeved, and Colonel Ivan Carrera (Torben Liebrecht)—a CTAC officer with secrets of his own—has been tasked with stopping her. However, much like season one, there’s a larger game afoot, this time involving the founder of Harlan’s World and his daughter, the new governor. We won’t be spoiling the major story of the season here, but some plot points will be discussed.
Anthony Mackie and Will Yun Lee as Takeshi Kovacs
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier star Anthony Mackie is the latest sleeve to step into the role of Takeshi Kovacs, the (seemingly) last surviving member of the Envoy rebellion. The part was first played by Joel Kinnaman, who gave the role a stern intensity but also felt limited at times. Mackie, on the other hand, feels like an open book.
His Takeshi has spent 30 years hopping from body to body in search of Quellcrist, and with that has come a great deal of growth. He’s still intense and prone to violence, but he’s thoughtful and clever—with a wry sense of humour. His tête-a-tête scenes with Trell (Simone Missick) are some of the most fun of the season. We also see him at his most exposed, sharing moments of emotional and physical intimacy with Quell, and it was refreshing to see in a show normally devoid of vulnerability.
But he’s not the only one: OG Takeshi is back, only not in the way you’d expect. In season one, Will Yun Lee portrayed Takeshi in flashbacks to his days in CTAC and the Envoys, but there are no flashbacks to be found here. Carrera has broken one of the only unbreakable rules and double-sleeved an older archive of Takeshi Kovacs into a recreation of his original body (it’s unclear why double-sleeving isn’t allowed, you’d think egotistical Meths would be dying to have multiple versions of themselves running around).
This helps address the whitewashing issue from last season by putting Takeshi in a body he identifies with and gives us a fantastic “for want of a nail” situation where we see what Takeshi would’ve been like if he’d stayed by his surrogate father’s side. That is, until Quellcrist comes along again.
The real Quellcrist Falconer
Takeshi might be the protagonist of Altered Carbon, but Renée Elise Goldsberry as Quellcrist is the star. This is her season and the show does not let us forget it. At the start of season two, Quellcrist has been running around brutally murdering Meths on Harlan’s World with a weapon that destroys their stacks and remotely erases their backups. I won’t say why she’s doing this, as it’s the key to the season’s big mystery.
For most of these first two seasons, Quellcrist isn’t a person so much as a reflection of the people around her. Whether she’s the long-dead martyr of the revolution, the brutal assassin targeting Meths, or Takeshi’s lost love who guides him through visions, she’s always seen through the lens of someone else. It’s a smart take on the hero myth and one that leaves us speechless when all the layers are stripped away and we learn who she really is after everything she’s been through. The pain and guilt she feels over creating the stacks, the knowledge that Takeshi is both the worst and best thing to ever happen to her. She manages to be both ethereal and broken, and it’s one of the best character journeys of the entire series so far.
Removing the exploitation
Season one of Altered Carbon largely centered around violence and exploitation, particularly against women. It did make sense given the story, but that didn’t change the fact that it turned women into victims and commodities. This season largely does away with that, with only a few select scenes of nudity and no sexual harassment or assault of any kind. The only uncomfortable situation involving stolen consent happens when OG Takeshi forces Dig 301 (Dina Shihabi), an AI, to reveal his counterpart’s location. It was a powerful scene that recalled similar feelings of helplessness without making it about exploiting women’s bodies or sexual agency. It showed that Altered Carbon doesn’t need excessive amounts of nudity, sex, and sexual violence to tell its story.
Carrera’s demented father figure
I was not prepared for Colonel Ivan Carrera. German actor Torben Liebrecht (in his first major U.S. role) came in like a wrecking ball, giving us a terrifying villain who’s way more complex than a role like this would typically be. Carrera is the latest sleeve of Jaeger, the CTAC officer who recruited young Takeshi into the Protectorate. He’s a soldier who’s normally kept on ice until there’s a moment of conflict, at which point he is re-sleeved so he can resolve it. That gives him the incentive to keep any war going so he can stay alive as long as he can.
But there’s also the issue of Takeshi, who he raised to be his successor only to then be betrayed by him. Carrera is possessive and controlling of his surrogate son, but with it comes love. It’s twisted and unhealthy, but it’s love all the same. Carrera could’ve easily been just another baddie, but the writing and Liebrecht’s performance combined to give us a memorable character.
Shifting away from film noir
Cyberpunk and film noir are genres that go as well together as replicants and the Voight-Kampff test, but it’s also something that’s been done a million times before—including in the first season of Altered Carbon.
Following the overall trek of Richard K. Morgan’s book series, the second season has moved away from film noir to a general sci-fi action drama, focusing on interpersonal stories and individual character arcs. There’s still an overarching mystery of why Quellcrist is targeting these Meths, which I’ll have thoughts on below, but it’s not the focus of this season. With this also comes a smaller focus on identity as season two is more about the connections between people, which mostly works but also felt like it was ignoring its core premise—the very existence of digital consciousness and who has access to immortality—at times.
The love stories
You might be sensing a theme from some of the previous sections. Season two of Altered Carbon is, at its core, a love story—but not just one, it’s everybody’s love story. Every character is exploring the role of love and connection in their lives, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. In addition to Takeshi and Quellcrist’s romance, which involves not one but two Takeshis, we’ve got Poe (Chris Conner) suffering from an unhealthy relationship with Takeshi while growing a new kinship with Dig 301.
There’s Trell, who’s going to great lengths to find her brother while struggling to keep her own family together. We even see what happens when love dies, as Danica Harlan (Lela Loren) struggles to uphold her father’s complicated legacy while asserting her own power. Season one asked the question: What does it mean to be human? This one came in with the answer.
We stan a cyberpunk show where things happen in the daytime.
We Didn’t Love
Please note this is not a dig on the actress at all—Loren did a fine job with what she was given. The problem is this season didn’t seem to care as much about her, or Meths in general, and it showed.
Danica, the newly elected governor of Harlan’s World, came across like a generic wealthy aristocratic villain. The show just didn’t know what to do with her. She kept shifting between megalomaniacal and kinda-maybe sympathetic, seemingly at a whim, lacking the complexity that Carrera had. Plus, the fact that she was a Meth barely factored into it—even her clothes felt like Hunger Games cast-offs instead of the godly garments of an eternal creature. This did not feel like a woman who’s lived for hundreds of years. Granted, that wasn’t the focus of the season, but at the same time, it shouldn’t be ignored entirely.
The mystery was boring
As mentioned previously, this season of Altered Carbon is more focused on the love stories than the main mystery—which ends up being a good thing because the mystery kind of sucked. It centres around Konrad Harlan’s (Neal McDonough) discovery and colonisation of Harlan’s World, a planet that was previously inhabited by an alien race referred to as the Elders. Danica is connected by way of the ongoing rebellion from the Quellcrists (a group named after Quell), and there are some other details involving archaeological sites being shut down and miners being put out of work.
It didn’t feel well put together and lacked the complexity of season one’s mystery, so I didn’t really care about trying to solve it. The resolution was satisfying, with Takeshi giving us a solid heroic moment, but overall it wasn’t worth it. And I’m sorry: There wasn’t nearly enough McDonough. It’s Damien Darhk, for crying out loud. That man’s earned our respect and more speaking lines.
Altered Carbon’s author is a bigot
The first episode of season two opens with Takeshi in the body of a female lounge singer (played by musician and Mortal Instruments’ actress Jihae), singing a gorgeous song and loving every minute of it. While the series has never directly addressed issues of gender identity (although its something Kalogridis has mentioned wanting to explore), Altered Carbon does present a world where gender is fluid and people can choose the bodies they most identify with. It’s also worth noting that the Netflix series is inclusive behind the scenes, with two female showrunners and half of season two’s episodes directed by women—two of them from M.J. Bassett, a trans woman.
The reason I bring all of this up is because Altered Carbon’s creator is an anti-trans bigot. Last year, Richard K. Morgan tweeted his support after J.K. Rowling rallied behind an anti-trans researcher, and he was later banned from Twitter for going after critics who called him a TERF (or trans-exclusionary radical feminist). We can’t speak to Morgan’s identity as a feminist, but in a blog post from January he affirmed his regressive views toward gender identity.
People say that audiences should separate art from the artist, especially in adaptations that have been taken out of their hands, but that doesn’t mean the artist is immune to criticism. Especially in this case, when Morgan’s personal views directly conflict with the world he created... and can even cloud LGBTQ+ interpretations of his work. The series has addressed some of the issues from season one and clearly wants to move past its source material, and I plan on continuing to support Netflix’s Altered Carbon for that. But I refuse to ignore the artist, or forgive him.