Created by Laeta Kalogridis
Produced by Virago Productions, Mythology Entertainment, Phoenix Pictures, and Skydance Television
First Season released 2018
We open with our main character, Takeshi Kovacs (Byron Mann), gunned down by soldiers in his apartment. Then we jump forward 250 years into the future, where Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman) wakes up in an unfamiliar body. As we later learn in flashbacks to his training, Takeshi Kovacs (Will Yun Lee) is an Envoy, a super-soldier trained to have a preternatural understanding of human behavior and an impossible eye for detail. Takeshi has been woken up by 300-year-old Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy) to solve a mystery: Who killed Laurens Bancroft?
This is the world of Altered Carbon, a thrilling cyberpunk dystopia based on the first novel of a trilogy by Richard K. Morgan, a world in which human beings have discovered immortality, though at a profound cost. In Altered Carbon, human consciousness is stored on cortical stacks, mental hard drives implanted into children at an early age. The only way to permanently kill someone is to destroy the stack. Otherwise, you can theoretically live forever, your mind moving between bodies, “sleeves,” while your consciousness remains intact.
We follow Takeshi as he searches for Bancroft’s killer in a surreal, cyberpunk city of the future. Along the way, we meet a variety of noir archetypes. There’s Miriam Bancroft (Kristin Lehman), Laurens’s wife, the femme fatale. Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda), the no-nonsense detective who has taken an interest in Kovacs. Vernon Elliot (Ato Essandoh), a mysterious man with a grudge against Bancroft. And Poe (Chris Conner), the AI avatar of an Edgar Allen Poe-themed hotel (you know, regular noir stuff). At the same time, Takeshi struggles with his past, particularly memories of Quillcrest Falconer (Renée Elise Goldsberry), leader of the Envoys, and his sister Reileen (Dichen Lachman).
Altered Carbon’s main strengths are its ideas and its visuals. It really is one of the most gorgeously shot shows I have seen in some time, and its ideas are genuinely interesting. Even when the plot wavers, the images always remain compelling. The concepts are very cool, though the show has a tendency to spell out and underline everything to really make sure you get it. If you ever miss the subtext of a scene, don’t worry, someone will eventually explain it out loud for you. The show’s weaknesses come from its tendency to rely on flat noir cliches and lazy use of sex and violence. While there are a number of strong and interesting female characters in the narrative, the show defaults to a sort of lazy sexism quite often. For all the strange wonders of Altered Carbon’s world, the first thing Takeshi wants to do after getting woken up and exposited at is to go to a future strip club, which seems exactly like the strip clubs of today but with an extremely complex lighting setup. Multiple times, Takeshi is warned against staying in AI hotels because they are like “possessive ex-girlfriends.” Violence against sex workers is featured prominently in the plot. While this does tie into the main themes of the show, the ways in which the powerful exploit the powerless, one cannot help but sense a prurient interest.
One of the biggest disappointments for me was how little the show explored the philosophical implications of its premise. It is entirely accepted within the show’s world that the stack is what makes a person who they are, that the sleeve is just an outfit, a shell. The Takeshi we meet in the present timeline is Takeshi, not a random guy who thinks he is Takeshi. The show seems interested in exploring the nature of consciousness and how we perceive reality, but always seems to stop short before really digging in.
Still, the show doesn’t avoid exploring the implications of its premise. Instead, it focuses on the material implications of its conceit. In a world in which death has been largely eliminated, human bodies have become commodities. The rich have access to whatever bodies they want, including clones of themselves. The poor are not so lucky. Bodies are at a premium. Rich Meths (short for Methuselahs) can potentially live forever, but the average person can not afford more than a few resleeves. The Neo-Catholics, a religious group who see resleeving as a sin against God, seem a bit silly at first, until you realize that the final fate of most people in this world will be to sit on a shelf somewhere until the end of time, not quite dead and not quite alive. Ultimately, the show is concerned with resleeving largely as a metaphor for wealth inequality and a vehicle for how the rich exploit the bodies of the poor, certainly an extremely resonant topic.
The elephant in the room with Altered Carbon is the whitewashing. The show uses the same conceit as the much-maligned Ghost in the Shell live-action adaptation. The protagonists of both are “really” Japanese (mixed-race in Takeshi’s case), but are inhabiting white bodies for sci-fi future reasons. While it still feels a bit like the show is having its cake and eating it too, Altered Carbon at least does not withhold this information from us as Ghost in the Shell did. We see Takeshi’s past self before we meet Kinnaman’s version, and frequent flashbacks to this and other versions of Takeshi, all played by Asian actors, never let us forget that Takeshi is really Asian and considers this a meaningful part of his self-identity, and that the white body he has is just temporary. This conceit was present in the original novels on which the series was based, whereas the whitewashing was introduced in Ghost in the Shell whole cloth, presumably to make the film more palatable to white audiences. Still, while it’s interesting as a science-fiction concept in this imagined world, the reality is that the show’s protagonist is an Asian man played by a white actor in a world in which roles for Asian actors in Hollywood are scarce. It is perhaps not as infuriatingly offensive as other examples of this kind of whitewashing, it’s still fairly problematic, to say the least. The show implies (and its producers have flat out stated) that if given the choice, Takeshi would pick an Asian body if possible, so hopefully future seasons will give the role to Asian actors, though a development near the end of the season makes me wonder if this will actually come to pass.
Altered Carbon is, at its core, an engaging noir thriller. It’s perhaps not quite as smart as it thinks it is, but even its stumbles can be charming, and for all its grittiness, there is a pleasantly goofy streak as it seeks to fill in its world with generation upon generation of future tech. It only truly fails in its depiction of women and sex, as well as its racial politics. The show wants to be thoughtful, but doesn’t quite achieve it, but it is almost always engaging.
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