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‘Altered Carbon’ Is Still the Wildest Sci-Fi Series on Television

The Netflix series, which returned for a second season on Thursday, is to hard sci-fi what ‘The Witcher’ is to high fantasy: sprawling, dense, fun, and weird as hell

Netflix/Ringer illustration

When the protagonists of The Good Place (spoiler alert) finally headed to the actual Good Place in the show’s closing episodes, they ran into an obstacle: heaven was broken. The Good Place’s inhabitants were basically zombified by everlasting bliss—turns out, when it comes to immortality and the afterlife, you can have too much of a good thing. The solution the series provided was simple, but effective: Once a person felt real fulfillment and closure, they could opt out of nirvana for a “death” where they truly ceased to exist, their essence becoming one with the universe. In its own compelling way, The Good Place emphasized how death—on Earth and in the afterlife—is essential to the human experience.

If The Good Place showed the ill effects of immortality in heaven, then the Netflix series Altered Carbon demonstrates the dangers of opting out of death entirely. Set hundreds of years in the future, humanity has developed a technology that can digitize a person’s consciousness onto a “Stack,” a small device that is inserted in one’s neck. That means there is less of an emphasis on and value placed in human bodies, now known colloquially as “Sleeves,” since people can body hop and, if they so choose, stay young and live forever. But while the Stack technology was initially created for space exploration—why travel for decades through the cosmos when you can just transfer your consciousness onto a Sleeve on a faraway planet?—it has been commodified by the 1-percent and basically has turned them into gods.

The überwealthy of Altered Carbon, called “Meths,” can have tons of Sleeves, create clones of their preferred Sleeve body, and have remote backups of their Stacks in case something were to happen to the original Stack. The working class, meanwhile, are mostly priced out of such luxuries—widening the wealth gap to an alarming degree. (Bernie, my guy, watch Altered Carbon!) And with human bodies deemed expendable, extreme violence is desensitized to the extent that fighting to Sleeve death is a form of entertainment; wealthy men can maim and murder prostitutes—so long as they don’t damage their Stack and actually kill them. (Or, as they call it in the show, “Real Death.”) Welcome to hell.

This is as concise a description of Altered Carbon as I can muster—the series is sprawling, dense, and weird as hell. I haven’t even gotten to the AI hotel manager built around the image of Edgar Allan Poe, an idea that sounds like it was conceived in a stoner’s basement but I assure you is a very real thing. Watching the first few episodes, you’ll probably need to consult an Altered Carbon glossary to keep track of what the hell is going on. When the first season debuted in 2018, it was rumored to be one of the most expensive series Netflix had ever produced; that’s quite surprising given that the series is an adaptation of a Richard K. Morgan novel of the same name that would mostly interest a limited number of hardcore sci-fi devotees looking for a show with the cyberpunk sensibilities of Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell, and The Matrix. Of course, it’s hard to know just how popular a series is because Netflix doesn’t disclose most of its viewing numbers, but the fact that Altered Carbon was renewed for a second season must mean enough people watched the first season to justify another absurd spending spree.

But perhaps the best way to understand Altered Carbon’s appeal is to compare it to another reportedly expensive genre series, The Witcher, which hit Netflix with a lot of fanfare and one extremely catchy song. (Sorry if I just got “Toss a Coin to Your Witcher” stuck in your head again, but at least it’s an absolute banger.) When it’s firing on all cylinders, Altered Carbon is to hard sci-fi what The Witcher is to high fantasy: a series that just plunges you into its strange and meticulously detailed world, one that’s fun and accessible as long as you understand that the ridiculousness is part of the appeal.

Because the characters of Altered Carbon aren’t necessarily restricted to one body, the series can have multiple actors that serve as Sleeves for one Stack. The show’s main protagonist, a rogue mercenary named Takeshi Kovacs, already has been played by three actors: Joel Kinnaman (in Season 1), Will Yun Lee (in flashbacks as the character’s original Sleeve), and Anthony Mackie (in Season 2). (This is a minor spoiler but, were the show to be renewed for a third season, it would set the stage for yet another actor to portray Kovacs in place of Mackie, who’ll be busy playing the next Captain America.) The second season is set 30 years after the first, with Kovacs searching the known universe for the stored Stack of his lover, the incredibly named Quellcrist Falconer, who was responsible for creating the Stack technology in the first place. After Stacks were used to extend human life in perpetuity, Falconer formed a rebellion whose platform was basically Make Mortality Great Again—which is how she and Kovacs crossed paths and fell in love centuries ago.

Kovacs’s quest leads him back to his home planet, Harlan’s World, where he’s hired by a Meth as protection from an assassin who’s been killing all the planet’s original, wealthy founders. As was the case in the first season—when Kovacs was hired by a wealthy man in Cyberpunk San Francisco to investigate his own murder, since his rebooted Stack didn’t restore the memories of his death—the mystery of the assassin, the planet, and how it relates to Falconer will embroil Kovacs in a complex power struggle that asks probing questions about what it means to be human.

But while that’s all well and good—and I could go into plot specifics and the absurdity of AI Edgar Allan Poe for another 2,000 words, which neither you nor my exasperated editor would want—what makes Altered Carbon a rewarding experience is feeling immersed is its cybernetic future and, more importantly, how it enables the series to create entertainingly preposterous fight scenes. One of the wildest things I’ve ever seen on television happened in Altered Carbon’s first season, when a character kept getting gunned down and rebooted into a naked, replicant body—the process repeating itself until there were literally dozens of corpses on the floor.

There is nothing quite like that in Season 2, but Kovacs’s new Sleeve (i.e., Anthony Mackie) comes with enhanced cybernetic upgrades that simply fucking rip. Mackie-as-Kovacs is biometrically linked to his weapons, meaning he can summon dual-wielding pistols into his hands like Thor with Mjölnir. That nifty trick has the unintended consequence of making you want to grab a controller and turn Altered Carbon into a video game. His new Stack is also—I can’t believe I’m typing this—infused with canine DNA, because the only way to make supersoldiers more effective is, I suppose, to give them the genetic traits of an actual wolfpack. Sadly, this upgrade doesn’t lead to an acclaimed actor howling like a wolf.

Altered Carbon is still inconsistent and sometimes too confusing for its own good, which, like The Witcher, prevents it from belonging in the upper echelons of Peak TV. But there’s something to be said about the power of such rich, distinctive world-building—especially in a series with such a prescient message about class divides, violence, and the nature of identity. Absurd as it may be at times, the futuristic universe of Altered Carbon feels real, and that authenticity justifies Netflix’s decision to spare no expense.

Like The Witcher, an equally strange and endearing series in which Henry Cavill mostly grunts, fights monsters, and takes baths, I hope Altered Carbon and the many bodies of Takeshi Kovacs are here to stay. Television might be in the midst of a sci-fi boom, but despite surface similarities to Ghost in the Shell and Blade Runner, Altered Carbon has enough unique DNA to stand on its own, apart from its genre peers. Netflix might as well toss a coin to a few more Sleeves.

An earlier version of this piece misstated the role Mackie plays in Season 2; he is a Sleeve, not a Stack.