Two years a go I gave high-praise to the first season of Netflix‘s Altered Carbon. The series is as a faithful adaptation of the source novels by author by Richard K. Morgan. Faithful in spirit more than the actual written word. Show creator Laeta Kalogridis managed to devise an entirely new high-concept series that had me on the edge of my seat just like with Westworld. In fact I referred to it as a hardboiled cyberpunk marvel. Now after two years we finally get season 2.
Because in the world of Altered Carbon you can ‘re-sleeve’ into a new body upon death the lead actor has been replaced. Takeshi Kovacs formerly played by Joel Kinnaman is now played by Anthony Mackie (The Falcon in the Marvel Cinematic Universe). In fact, the story is set on a new planet and so many former characters do not return. Though there are notable cameos.
Below is a review of Altered Carbon Season 2 which starts with a recap of the first. Afterwards I give a high-level overview of the story of season 2. As there is a lot of details in 8 episodes I consider it to be mostly spoiler-free. After that I give my opinion of this season and where it differs from the first.
The story of Altered Carbon Season 2
In season 1 of Altered Carbon we saw Kovacs re-integrating into the society of Bay City after several hundreds of years of incarceration. That plot started just like season 2 with the murder of a Methuselah or ‘Meth’. Yet it culminated with Kovacs confronting his sister Reileen (Dichen Lachman) over her betrayal of the rebellion they had joined. This rebellion, led by Quellcrist Falconer (Renée Elise Goldsberry), sought to undo the immortality humans gained by backing up their conscious into a cortical stack.
Season 2 deals with the aftermath of the failed rebellion. The story takes place on the planet Harlan’s World. It is the birthplace of Takeshi Kovacs and origin of the rare metal used to manufacture cortical stacks. The metal is harvested from the remains of an alien civilization, whose orbital defense platforms still dominate the sky. Kovacs returns to Harlan’s World to find Quellcrist Falconer. Whom he still believes to be alive.
In this season, just like with the first, there are number of subplots that are revealed to be intertwined. Kovacs is pitted against his old mentor Jaeger (played by Torben Liebrecht) who with his team ensure the interest of the Protectorate are maintained. Meanwhile Kovacs’s A.I. companion Poe (Chris Conner) is slowly malfunctioning. Poe gets assistance from another A.I. Dig 301 (Dina Shihabi) whose task it was to investigate the alien civilization known as the Elder. This is a roundabout subplot that reveals what the original settlers of Harlan’s World did to the Elders. And why the ‘Meths’ are murdered – cortical stack and back-ups as well.
The above description gives you an impression about what to expect about the story. I think this is the best part of season 2. It is intricate but not difficult to understand. Unlike the bloated story of season 1, season 2 has multiple layers. The characters also do not spend most of the season chasing after one another. Quickly Kovacs and Quellcrist join up and this leads to more interpersonal development than it did with season 1.
A step down from season 1
itsSadly, not everything is an improvement over season 1. Right from the start it is obvious the production values are scaled back considerably. The expansive Bay City with its Utopian / Dystopian schism is traded in for the relatively small scale of Harlan’s World. It was an effort to save on the large and diverse sets and special effects. The result is that there is ample reuse of sets and use of real-world locations. The shootouts are also less destructive. All this means the viewer is watching a show that tightened its belt. However, a step down is not per se a failure. As I mentioned before, the story of season 2 comes better to the fore.
Another notable absence is the nudity. Season 1 of Altered Carbon built a reputation on the ample use of nudity and gore. I personally believe it served the story well. The nudity felt like meta for the pseudo-Utopian life enjoyed by the rich such as ‘Meth’ Laurens Bancroft and his family. The ample use of violence and resultant gore was indicative of the Dystopian lives of everybody else. Just as with Westworld and Game of Thrones nudity can create a hard-edge to a situation. In season 1 the story culminates in the epic nude sword fight between Reileen and Kristin Ortega.
Little nudity in Altered Carbon Season 2
Season 2 does not have any of this. There is bit of partial nudity. We see Anthony Mackie’s ass twice and some boobs here and there. It is not until the final episode directed by Salli Richardson that there is full body nudity, and even then it is not full-frontal. The character Danica Harlan (Lela Loren), daughter of Harlan’s World founder, is briefly shown nude as she re-sleeves into a new body after her assassination. Just as with season 1 this scene symbolizes her power. Nudity for everyone else is subjugation, but for her it is flaunting her immortality. Of course I understand the choice in omitting nudity, in season 1 it bordered on the gratuitous. This way season two can receive a more favorable rating.
All told Altered Carbon Season 2 is a success. The story and character development is strong. The story is epic and detailed and reminds me a lot of the novels by Dan Simmons and Peter F. Hamilton. Anthony Mackie is a wonderful Takeshi Kovacs, and so is Will Yun Lee. Renée Elise Goldsberry acts another standout performance as Quellcrist Falconer. The difficult love-doubt relationship between the two feels more rewarding than it did with the first season. Altered Carbon Season 2 sports a large number of secondary characters: James Saito plays the memorable role of Oyabun Tanaseda Hideki and Michael Shanks as one of the founders of Harlan’s World – Horace Axley.
I am not certain what season 3 will bring. This season ends with Quellcrist hoping to invigorate her rebellion on other worlds. But I am not up-to-date with the source material, and I believe the show’s creative staff have already deviated from that. I hope Altered Carbon will return, hopefully with higher production values.