Back in February 2018 Netflix launched the streaming series adaptation of Richard K Morgan’s novel of the same name, Altered Carbon. We called it a nuanced and detailed Blade Runner for the small screen.
The series sees humanity’s evolution into a digitised age, where memories and human consciousness can be backed up onto a digital drive called “stacks” and downloaded into new bodies called “sleeves”. Enabling the rich, known as Meths, to practically live forever, and the poor to scrounge for whatever they can find. Here we are introduced to Takeshi Kovacs, a veteran soldier turned freedom fighter who gets recruited to solve a murder mystery.
Conceptually having interchangeable bodies means that you can drop a new actor into any of the existing characters and provide a fresh injection into the series. Season 1’s Takeshi Kovacs was predominantly portrayed by Joel Kinnaman with his stoic broody persona and nearly 6ft 3inch frame he managed to steer the detective noir series well.
This time around in Season 2, we see Anthony Mackie take on the role of Kovacs. Returning as Kovacs’ trusty Artificial Intelligence sidekick Poe is Chris Conner. In the time between seasons, Kovacs has been a fugitive and jumping from world to world searching for his long lost love Quellcrist Falconer (Renee Elise Goldsberry) and trying to avoid detection from the galactic militia known as the Protectorate.
Kovacs is lured back to his former home planet of Harlan’s World, when told that Falconer is there and given an opportunity to find her by a wealthy Meth. But before he can get the information he needs, the Meth is murdered and he ends up on the run again. Short on help and friends, Kovacs teams up with a bounty hunter named Trepp (Simone Missick) to try and track down who is assassinating all the ruling elite of Harlan’s World.
Chasing after Kovacs is Colonel Carrerra (Torben Liebrecht), a brutal elite soldier with a mysterious connection to Kovacs’ past. The more Kovacs delves into trying to unravel the mystery, the more he discovers about what happened to Falconer and also the truth about his home world.
The show’s strong suit has been utilising its cyberpunk aesthetic and visuals to really embed the viewer in the world. Showrunner Laeta Kalogridis returns along with some recurring episode directors in Ciaran Donnelly, M.J. Bassett, Jeremy Webb and Salli Richardson-Whitfiled to steer the 8 episode season.
The overarching mystery in this season though is a little more convoluted than in the first and sees our protagonist’s manhunt cover misdeeds of the past and retribution of the present. There’s also a political side-story featuring Danica Harlan (Lela Loren), daughter of founder Konrad Harlan (Neal McDonough) involving the ongoing feud with the Quellist rebellion. Despite the politics always being the weaker part of the show, it’s annoyingly necessary to pay attention because at some point it will intersect with Kovacs’ story.
The performance by newcomer Mackie is a standout, and a definite tonal shift away from Kinnaman. Mackie is more vocally emotive and has occasional bursts of charisma, charm and even attitude something that imbues Kovacs with a bit more humanity and warmth. Conner’s performance as Poe is yet again a stand out. As the AI desperate to learn more about humans and humanity in an attempt to better himself. His plight of constant glitches and wanting to retain some shred of his current self is desperately moving. Torn between his loyalty to his friend, and his own desire to retain his “persona” and not be lost is one of the more moving subplots. And in fact it’s Kovacs’ overtly harsh treatment of him that seems unjust and unfair leaving us once again to root for the AI.
Liebrecht, as the merciless super soldier is also phenomenal to watch as he mows down all in his path to track down his quarry. His menace and malice are chilling and make for a great villain.
Another of the show’s assets is its consistent casting of diverse actors, and representation of different races, genders and sexualities.
Following on from season one there are some fierce females on show again here, with Goldsberry reprising her role of the visionary Falconer. Missick has traded in Luke Cage and Iron Fist for a slot in this future and still continues to be a badass plus her character is in a lesbian relationship. Whilst Loren is a woman intent on power and ensuring her rule over Harlan’s World remains intact. She is possibly the weakest supporting female character due to her lack of screen time and development but we get enough to learn how she is her father’s daughter.
For a show that taps into the ability of being able to use old characters in new bodies, it prefers to utilise some familiar faces in its third episode “Nightmare Alley”. This is probably more of a let down than what it was aiming for. It feels like it’s retreading old ground and we’re just enduring more of Kovacs’ angst and guilt from his past.
Thematically, guilt is a driving emotion in this series, so it explains why they use it as a motivation, but it comes across as an easy to play tactic. The mystery to be solved is also not as intriguing as the first season, and relies too heavily on understanding the history between Kovacs and Falconer. This alienates any potential new fans that might want to jump on board without having to have seen season one.
Altered Carbon Season 2 is not as strong as its debut, lacking a simpler narrative plot that makes it easier to follow. It fails to tap into some of the exciting possibilities that come with its own sci-fi concepts. However it still manages to continue channelling its cyberpunk aesthetic, and strong performances manage to keep you engaged. Ironically, once again, the non-human character ends up being the true MVP of the series, courtesy of a phenomenal performance by Chris Conner. Whilst the ending of course leaves us with a possible third season tease.
THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Altered Carbon: Season 2 is currently streaming on Netflix Australia