Altered Carbon

Altered Carbon was released on Netflix earlier this week. It's ten episodes, which I watched over the course of four days. On episode five, I was certain that I knew what I would write in this review. Now? I'm not so sure.

Spoilers for the entire season follow!

This review's going to be a little different from what I usually write. I'm having trouble synthesizing my thoughts into one coherent whole, so we're going to do this Pro-Con-Pro style. I'll list the good, the bad, and the uncertain, and hopefully I'll know where I stand on this show by the end of it.

The Good: Visual Aesthetics
Man, this show is pretty. Every setting is unique, and they all feel appropriate and real. That can be a hard thing to do in a cyberpunk, dystopian world. There wasn't any one that negatively stood out, but there were a few brilliant settings. My favorite place was the Envoy's base on Harlan's World. It was so beautiful and green, so different from the intense artificialness that made up everything else. It added to the reverence of the place. It made sense why Kovacs would fixate on it. The Raven, Poe's hotel, was also a favorite. Like the forrest, it was so different from everything else that of course Kovacs would seek it out as his base of operations. 

The Bad: Characters Who Are Not Main Characters 
This is a fairly big negative for me. Altered Carbon has a large cast, but some characters only appear for a few episodes. Or they disappear for three episodes before coming back. Or they die in a very lackluster manner that ultimately had no effect on things. Dimi the Twin, Mickey, Prescott, Tanaka, Jaeger, and more fall into this category. They could have – should have – been awesome characters, but they were just not given the attention that they deserved.    

The Good: Takeshi Kovacs
What a great lead character. Strong, vulnerable, intelligent, snarky... just all of my favorite things. He went through such an emotional journey over the course of the season, and I loved tracking every minute of it. Most of my praise needs to go to Joel Kinnaman. He was absolutely fantastic. Completely wiped his performance in Suicide Squad from my mind. Every other word out of his mouth was gold. I was glued to the screen whenever he was on it. Will Yun Lee deserves some recognition as well. He had a lot of emotional heavy lifting to do during the Stronghold scenes.

The Bad: World Building 
Where is the line between not giving your audience enough information and spoon-feeding them every little tidbit? Where is that sweet spot of just enough exposition? This show somehow manages to do all three, and I still don't know the answer. I was extremely confused during the first episode. I had no idea what was going on. But towards the end of the season, we had characters give very, very long speeches about what they've done and why. Episode seven was one, long exposition-laden flashback. We went from one extreme to another. And then by the last episode, it felt like all the rules regarding what characters could and could not do got thrown out, so who the hell knows?

The Uncertain: Gender and Racial Politics 
I almost don't even want to bring this topic up, but it is important. Earlier this week, we had a brief discussion in the Doux Review Writer's Room about the nudity in this show. There is a lot, and a lot of it is full frontal. At the time of the discussion, I said that the male/female nudity ratio was fairly even, but that ended up being very wrong. There is a lot of female nudity, and a lot of sexualized violence done to the nude female form. At times, it made me uncomfortable, so I started looking for the storytelling purpose behind the violence. The best reason that I could come up with was that this is a film noir story, and one of the hallmark conventions of that genre is sexualized violence, or at least the threat of it. I don't know if that's a good enough reason.

I also don't know if Altered Carbon whitewashes Kovacs or not. We have this Asian man who then spend the majority of the series in a white body. Yes, I know that's what happens in the book that this show is based on. But Danny Rand is also white in the comics, and a lot of people were upset over Iron Fist. I don't know, but it was a thought that kept coming back to me. What do you guys think?

The Good: The Relationship Between Kovacs and Ortega
If you've read my other reviews, then you know that I love a good romantic relationship to get involved in, and this one was very good. Kinnaman and Martha Higareda have great chemistry together, and their early interactions might be my personal highlight of the series. It was so satisfying watch them slowly work together as a team. When they finally got together, it felt natural and earned. While I still don't know how I feel about the resolution of their relationship, I enjoyed the ride.

The Bad: The Relationship Between Kovacs and Rei
I really, really wanted to like this brother/sister duo. I've loved Dichen Lachman ever since Dollhouse, and I was so excited when I realized that she had a large role in this series. I just couldn't do it. Was Rei just a little bit too crazy? Her thought process in the last couple of episodes, force my brother to love me by brutally killing everyone else he's formed a bond with, simply didn't make sense to me. She went too extreme too quickly, and so I couldn't become invested in her or in her love for her brother.

The Good: The First Half of the Murder Plot
It was essentially a locked room murder. Everything said that it had to be suicide except for the dead person himself. It seemed impossible, and those make the best mysteries. I was excited to see Kovacs track down the clues and find the inconsistencies that had to be there. Throw in basically every stock film noir character that there is, and I was in heaven. Episode five felt like such a turning point. Ortega was brutally injured. Abboud was dead. Our Ghostwalker was in the wind. I couldn't wait to see where it all went.

The Bad: The Second Half of the Murder Plot 
That is until it went somewhere complicated, convoluted and, honestly, kind of boring. The initial mystery of who killed Bancroft was completely shove to the side, forgotten until Kovacs had to frame someone for the deed. Kovacs swore up and down that everything was connected, but I couldn't see the connections until Rei spelled them out for us. The ultimate resolution was alright. I liked that Bancroft did in fact kill himself. I just wish that the path getting there wasn't so confusing.

The Fantastic: The Cast 
If there was a lesser cast, I might have thrown in the towel and seen if any of my fellow writers would write this review instead. Everyone was fantastic. Everyone. Even the non-major characters that I complained about already. The script didn't give them the love and attention that they deserved, but the actors and actresses elevated them anyways. It was also lovely to see so many faces that I recognized and have grown to champion over the years. A special shout out has to go to Chris Conner as Poe. The one time that I cried during this show was when Poe died. I adored that AI.


Okay, so I still don't know where I stand on this show. I think that it requires a certain kind of audience, one that is willing to follow a complex world and story without necessarily worrying about how much sense it all makes. Or it just requires someone who gets very invested during the first half of the season and therefore feels like they need to see how the story ends.

I might need to think about it more. If I come up with anything, I'll post a comment, but I'm mostly just interested in hearing what other people think. This is a tough one for me.

---
An Honest Fangirl loves superheroes, science fiction, fantasy, and really bad horror movies. And sometimes she writes about them.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great review :) But maybe you should add that it is a review for those who already watched the show? It does give out a lot of spoilers.

I agree with you on most points, but the thing I like the most about the show is that it doesn't shy away from dealing with philosophical issues, and I'm really curious to see what they will focus on in the next season, if there is one.

Also, it really bugged me that a lot of reviews describe it as a dystopian future, since there really can't be a utopia, but this was mostly realistic
and not as bad as it could've been... what do you think?

An Honest Fangirl said...

Thanks, Anonymous! I just added a spoiler warning.

I would classify this as dystopian. Merriam-Webster has the definition as "an imaginary place where people lead dehumanized and often fearful lives." I feel like that fits what we've seen, at least from this season. I mean, in the opening minutes we see a young girl resleeved into an older, male body with absolutely no sympathy given to either the family or the victim. It's a good quick and early indication of just how much non-Meth lives are worth. (Not much)

Lisianpeia said...

(spoilers on this comment)

I understand the difficulty in writing a review for this show, the Pro-Con-Pro structure it's a good fit. I liked the story A LOT, but being fair I'm in a scifi/cyberpunk kinda mood, so it was perfect for me in that sense. I think I mostly agree with you on everything you said, excepet two things. I don't think some characters needed more screen time, like Tanaka, Mickey or Dimi the Twin; but Prescott and Abboud could have used more storylines. Also, the IAs! I wanted to see more of them - and I think it wouldn't necessarily serve the story, but it'd would be interesting. And I loved Poe too ^^

I also loved the Elliots and their storyline. It really hit me in the feels everything the family went through.

I didn't have a problem with the world building. There was, indeed, a lot of exposition by the ending in a very bookish manner. So to me, it felt like they couldn't translate to screen the last chapters of the book (I haven't read it, it was just a feeling). But it didn't bother me.

And yes.. the second half is a bit convoluted. I think the flashbacks in episode 7 could have been sparsed out across two episodes - but I didn't think it was necessarily bad as it was done. And I loved seeing more of Quell, so I was happy. And Rei.. I could see, for instance, why she would betray the resistance. It made sense 'cause it was clear she wans't really into it. I could see how she became some egoist-doesn't-care-about-anything because that's one of the philosophical questions the series is discussing (when you live long enough, do you stop being human?). But her obsession with her brother? Nope. It seems to me they should have shown some scenes of her after Takeshi left Harlan's World to build her character properly... And by the two last episodes her obsession was really annoying. And part of me was a bit disappointed that the villain was a woman obsessed with a man, even if it was his sister and not a lover.

I'm uncertain as you are with the gender and racial politics. The story doesn't break narrative genders and race patterns, in the sense that if I tell someone about the main protagonist, without stating gender or race, I bet they would picture a white guy. But the story also has interesting characters that break away from stereotypes. Ortega could just be the woman who kicks ass and is cold and distant. But she isn't. We see her with family and Elias, for instance. She is a warm person and the story doesn't diminishes her for it. I think the story should have discussed the fact that we have a Asian man spent the majority of the series in a white body in more explicit ways. I'm not saying the show would get away with the whitewashing of did this, but I think the story lends itself to it and I can't figure out why they didn't.

Regarding violence against women as a part of noir/cyberpunk narratives.. I really don't know. In many ways it also bothers me, it some ways I think the series does interesting things when it's approaching this. Bottom line, I'm confused and my feminism clashes with my love for noir/cyberpunk narratives.

(sorry this comment turned out to be huge)

Mark Greig said...

Finished this yesterday and agree with a lot of what everyone says here. This show created an interesting world, one I'd be happy to spend more time in, but didn't really tell a very interesting story from that world.

Thomas Ijon Tichy said...

Just going to limit myself to saying I didn't think the show sold me on the protagonist's falling in love with the leader of the resistance; it felt like rather shallow idol worship. Not enough buildup.

magritte said...

While the show looks great and has an interesting setting, I liked it less than you. I didn't really connect to the protagonist and it bothered me that the episode which starts with a flashback to Riker, I figured out that it was Riker by context, not by him seeming like a different person. I would have liked to see more focus on the issues raised by the technology (like how do Vernon and Ava deal with Ava's new body), and less on the murder mystery.

And yeah, the number of bleeding nude female bodies seemed gratuitous to me. Also, the race/gender politics seem weirdly stuck in our time, as if nothing much has changed. It seems like it's mostly white (and Asian?) males on top of society, and I was struck by the "sensitivity training" comment. My feeling is that three centuries from now either we'll progress to the point where sensitivity training isn't really a thing, or we'll regress to the point that it isn't done.

magritte said...

Just to add as explanation of my last comment: I could imagine them having "sensitivity training" for cops centuries from now, but my feeling is the things they'd need to learn to be sensitive about would be different than are now.

Logan Cox said...

Just finished the season last night. My thoughts about it are pretty close to yours. Especially in regards to Takeshi Kovacs; I couldn't have asked for a better anti-hero. And yes, the visuals and sets are all stunning and eerily convincing. I had to take a minute just to stare at the cubic patterned floor in The Raven lobby.

Ortega and Poe were awesome as well. Even though I loved the flashback episode and Dichen Lachman as Rei too, I agree that the first half of the season is far superior to the first. Too many exposition dumps too close together.

What surprised me the most was the way show was able to balance its intensely cerebral atmosphere with a generic yet highly-enjoyable tone. It casually features all and more of the tech a show like Black Mirror sensationalizes, but it never loses its sense of direction as a cyberpunk action thriller. The material isn't inundated by its own messages and real-life applicability.

The one thing I didn't care for was the resolution of Elizabeth Elliot's subplot. It was super confusing and she just ended up feeling like a huge deus ex machina.

As for the whitewashing, it kept occurring to me too but it didn't bother me because there was really never a moment I didn't think of Kovacs as an Asian man; even Joel Kinnaman as Kovacs kind of looks like he walked out of a Japanese anime, along with a lot of other stuff in this show. His race is not the sum total of his character, yet it's never forgotten either.

This along with the aforementioned sexualized violence and other heavy themes of gender fluidity, socio-economic inequality and science vs. faith leads me to think that you're right: This is a show for a certain audience. Probably not for people too politically correct or too politically incorrect.

Overall, I had a hell of a time watching Altered Carbon. I think I might have to read the book now.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this great list. I loved this series, but I agree that the first half was considerably better than the second. I read more than a few critic reviews and it's something no critic pointed out as far as I can tell. I would rate the first half of the series 4,5 out of 5 Hello Unicorn backpacks, the second more like 3. (I've been coming here since 2004 when I was in high school and reading as much as I could about Alias, Lost and later Dollhouse. Altered Carbon was, in my mind, just the kind of series Billie Doux might have something to say about.)

I'm not sure about the whitewashing, I didn't see it like that. However, I'm white, female and European, so I'm not exactly one to ask, but I actually kind of liked the diversity in people, languages and religions. I liked the sort of softness in that moment when Ortega's mother is speaking with her daughter's partner about God even though they don't pray to the same one. I felt that all the different sleeves and the way everyone understands all languages meant that people in the future aren't separated as much by race or culture or language anymore, but rather by the biggest separator: money. I liked that one of the smartest people in the world, the inventor of what is basically immortality, is a black woman and that much as the inventor of the atomic bomb, she feels remorse.

The New York Times called the nudity in Altered Carbon 'gratuitous', but when I was watching the series, I thought it was another way to show that the relationship with bodies would change if we could choose them like outfits. If you were super rich and you had picked a very expensive and fashionable designer sleeve, would you cover it (much)? I agree you do have to be willing to go along with the story, but the story absorbed me quickly so I felt a little weird that it didn't feel weird. If that makes sense.

Is there more female than male nudity in this series? Yes, probably. And thank god for that. Maybe I should feel differently being a woman and all, but I don't, I thought those were some pretty pretty boobs. And frankly I would feel a bit uncomfortable with the, you know, #Stallion of all the different actors on the screen, especially if they waved 'em around like they did the pretty boobs. I don't know, any time I go to the beach I'm surrounded by as much topless women as topless men, and maybe that's equality too.

An Honest Fangirl said...

So many excellent, thoughtful comments here. I love the community on this site. Thank you, everyone! (Even if I’m a few months late in doing so for most of the comments!)