In the world of cyberpunk fiction, is there such a thing as a truly happy ending? For the second season of Altered Carbon, the answer is: kind of. As the series moves from explorations of identity to interpersonal relationships, every character is trying to figure out the role of love in their complicated and sometimes immortal lives.
“Sometimes we do want a happy ending. Sometimes we want to see a functional relationship survive,” Simone Missick told Gizmodo.
When we spoke with some of the cast of Altered Carbon season two at a recent press junket, there was one phrase on everybody’s lips: “This is a love story.” That statement largely points to the relationship between Takeshi Kovacs (Anthony Mackie) and Quellcrist Falconer (Renée Elise Goldsberry), as this season is about Takeshi’s search for his long-lost love. But it’s not just a single love story, it’s everyone’s.
Every main character is exploring what love means to them in a world where people can live forever through a digital consciousness—if they’re even alive at all, as is the case with Poe (Chris Conner) and fellow AI Dig 301 (Dina Shihabi), who develop a relationship built on their intellectual connection. In the case of humans who strive so hard to live forever, accumulating power and wealth to serve those ends, what space is there to open up to others or earn their affection in return? That’s the big question behind Danica Harlan (Lela Loren) and her father, who she had killed so she could take over.
“Her father, Konrad, has been a leader for 300 years. He has raised her and reared her to be entirely in his image, to be geared for his position—and yet he won’t ever step down,” Loren said. “It’s almost like she has no other choice but to kill him, because you have this whole generation of children with these parents that never move on. In a weird way, I do think she loves her father, but she loves herself more.”
“Danica really loves autonomy and freedom,” she added. “She wants to lead by herself. Does she love people? Mmm, not that much.”
The main love story of the season is between Takeshi and Quellcrist, but not in the way you might think. During season one, Takeshi (then played by Joel Kinnaman) had visions of his girlfriend guiding him along his path—but that wasn’t the real Quellcrist, nor was it an accurate portrayal of their relationship. The real Quellcrist is a tragic hero, bent but not broken from years of being trapped in a cave with nothing but her guilty conscience to keep her company (not to mention she’s sharing her stack with an alien getting revenge over the colonisation of Harlan’s World). She’s determined to right the wrongs of her past by destroying the technology she’d invented. Takeshi’s goal may have been Quellcrist, but he was not hers. He is a distraction. Even their major sex scene revealed that, as explained by Goldsberry.
“The love moment that they have in season two is really her when she is weak, when she needs help. But when she comes to herself in full strength, she doesn’t allow herself a moment with him before she moves back on task and back on mission. I thought that was surprising to me that she would be that strong,” Goldsberry told Gizmodo. “I mean, she didn’t really have much time, she didn’t really have much choice. But probably the romantic in Renée wanted her to take a minute and just tell him that she loved him.”
Taskeshi does have other people he cares about in his life—like Poe, who’s become his companion in the second season. Carrera described them as having a “bromance,” saying their dynamic in season two is that of an old married couple. But there are some uncomfortable, unsettling ways Takeshi treats his friend. Poe spends most of the season struggling with system degradation that risks compromising Takeshi’s mission, so he continually admonishes the AI to reboot. Poe doesn’t want to because it would mean losing his memories, but that doesn’t stop Takeshi from lashing out at him about it, over and over. We asked Carrera whether he would describe their relationship as healthy.
“Codependency is something that we all struggle with, so there is definitely some codependency in this relationship. But as he says, ‘You’re gonna get me killed and you’re gonna get us killed,’” he told us. “And it’s a struggle for both to figure out where to go next because there’s no answer when you’re looking for love.”
However, the bigger non-Quellcrist relationship for Takeshi was with, surprisingly, Colonel Ivan Carrera (Torben Liebrecht). Carrera is the latest incarnation of Jaeger, the man who recruited Takeshi into CTAC to become a super-soldier, and he illegally re-sleeved a younger, OG version of Takeshi (Will Yun Lee) into a recreation of his original body. Even though Carrera is objectively a terrible person—a warmonger who tries to keep the rebellion on Harlan’s World alive just so he’s not put “back on ice”—he sees himself as a father and loves Takeshi like a son. This explains his need to recreate the Takeshi he knew and cared about, and makes it hard for him to recognise the true Takeshi who’d long moved beyond him.
“If there is a point where he has to stay on ice forever, what will remain? What’s the footprint that he has left on this Earth? You want to have something that other people inherit from you. Even if it’s only the positive memory that they have of you,” Liebrecht said. “He saw Takeshi Kovacs as the person he could call in and raise in a way within the set of values that he believes in. And it hurts him all the more to see that everything that he has to offer is not enough for Kovacs.”
Carrera’s love story with Takeshi isn’t one that ends happily. He dies having lost not just one, but two surrogate sons (in the form of old and new Takeshi). But in a show like Altered Carbon, death is not the end. There’s still a place for Carrera to come back in the future, something Liebrecht said he’d love to do if given the opportunity (though considering how easily the show moves characters from body to body, that isn’t a guarantee).
In the end, Quellcrist chooses her mission over her relationship and Takeshi dies in her place to destroy the Elder technology threatening Harlan’s World. It gives her the space to go forward and become the rebellion’s leader once again. While it’s not a true, Disney fairy-tale ending, it is happy-ish if you look at it from a certain point of view. Takeshi loved Quellcrist so much he sacrificed himself for her—and now he’s serving the same role she did in the first season, an invisible presence guiding her on her quest. His love is still with her.
However, one happy ending—one no one expected, including Missick herself—was the one with Trepp and her family. During most of the season, Trepp is in conflict with her wife, Myka (Sharon Taylor), who lost her career as an archaelogue and got a job in a bar to support their family. Their son is on his second sleeve after stepping on a landmine and the lease payments are piling up. Myka’s made sacrifices but can’t understand why Trepp, who’s spending a lot of their money searching for her brother, won’t do the same.
Eventually, things come to a head when Myka and their son are kidnapped. Myka is doing some archaeological work for Danica to keep them alive, but Trepp is determined to come in guns blazing and save them. Trepp’s father and brother didn’t make it, meaning her wife and son are all she has left. The whole confrontation is tense and comes across like Trepp is going to perform the ultimate sacrifice and die to save her family. This was something Missick was afraid of the whole time—especially given the history of the Bury Your Gays trope, or the tendency to kill off characters in non-cishet relationships. Luckily, that didn’t happen.
“I kept asking, I was like: ‘Do I die?’ ‘No you’re not going to die.’ I’m like, ‘Are you sure I’m not going to die?’ Because of that same thought [the Bury Your Gays trope],” Missick said. “Altered Carbon season two is so much about a love story, and it’s the main love story of Takeshi and Quell. But then you also see this love story between Trepp and her wife and her family and her son…The fact that that love story is to remain intact is, in a way, a beautiful thing.”
You’d be hard-pressed to find a lot of hope at the end of the season, as most of the characters are killed, but looking forward there’s a lot of it to be found, even through the smoky veneer of the cyberpunk genre. Trepp has her family and is working out of her father’s augmentation shop, Poe and Dig 301 are running their hotel, OG Takeshi is staying on Harlan’s World to help the cause, and Quellcrist has her memories of Takeshi to keep her company on her journey. The story even ends with a hint that Takeshi isn’t gone for good, as Poe had saved a back-up of his stack before rebooting.
Happy endings in cyberpunk aren’t an easy thing, because the nature of the genre is to serve as a warning for the future. But if there’s one thing Altered Carbon has wanted to teach us, it’s that love will prevail—even across galaxies and centuries. It’s no surprise the season ends in sunshine, signifying a bright future for the people who’ve lived in the shadows of gods.