Altered Carbon Season 2

“How does it feel? To be afraid of death again? Or is this your first time?”

(Mild spoilers for season two)

Altered Carbon really captured my imagination with that first season. Despite being a bit of a mixed bag and getting real generic in the latter half, it was hardcore, cerebral and provocative sci-fi noir. The second season brings back much of the same aesthetic quality as we saw before, but far less impact.

I’m not sure what it is that’s missing from the first season that we aren’t seeing in the second. The world is still cool, the action still fun, the drama very moving at times, and Anthony Mackie plays Kovacs about as well as Joel Kinnaman did. Maybe the story of this season doesn't seem as fresh and tightly-woven. Maybe it’s the missing detective angle that was so integral to the plot of the first season. Maybe it’s because I read Broken Angels, the sequel to the Altered Carbon book, recently and the show deviates heavily from that; actually, I’ve read that it draws more material from the third book (which I’ve yet to read) than the second.

I’m not sure what exactly it is, but I'll give a brief rundown of the plot: The story takes place a few decades after the events of season one. We continue to follow Takeshi Kovacs, lone wolf/ex-super soldier turned gun-for-hire and quintessential anti-hero. He’s forced to return to his former home, Harlan’s World, one of many planets controlled by The Protectorate. Someone is inflicting Real Death on the local Meths (nigh-immortal one-percenters), and Kovacs is brought in to protect one of them. Things quickly go awry, with Kovacs being framed as the Meth killer. He is faced with new antagonists, such as the planet’s ambitious governor Danica Harlan and Colonel Ivan Carrera, a lethal veteran soldier working for the Protectorate. But what matters most to Kovacs is that the real culprit might be a resurrected Quellcrist Falconer, the warrior woman he loved and lost.

As you can tell, this season’s got a lot going on just like the like last one.

And there is a lot that I like about this season. The show is still quite beautiful to look at, even some of the scenes with a really dark tone. And like I said, the setting is still quite engrossing. We get some nifty new gadgets. Kovacs's Anthony Mackie sleeve is enhanced by state of the art cybernetics, and he has two guns designed to fly right into his hands from a distance. And they do some wild things with the Orbitals, an intricate network of ancient Martian satellites designed to obliterate anything that attempts to leave the atmosphere of Harlan’s World.

Without getting into too much detail, I love the way they expand on the cyberpunk yet paranormal world of Altered Carbon.

There aren’t many other new characters of note, besides Trepp, a badass cyborg bounty hunter played by the sexy Simone Missick, who has a bit of a friendly rivalry with Kovacs.

The best part of the season for me — and I don’t feel bad about spoiling this since the trailers for the season didn’t either — is when Carrera pulls some strings to have a backed up version of the original Takeshi Kovacs, the one who is still loyal to The Protectorate, spun up to hunt down the other. They manage to do some fun stuff with that; Kovacs playing off a copy of himself was one of the best parts of the latter half of season one. Pitting him against himself is a fun plot. And Will Yun Lee is the best Kovacs, in my opinion.

I will say this season is somewhat more consistent than the previous. For the most part, it maintained the same level of quality throughout. This as opposed to the previous, where the first half really immersed me into its world and I felt like we were unraveling a very intriguing mystery, only for it to get a little too cliche and melodramatic in the second half.

However, season two compounds all of the flaws I noticed in season one. Which hurts the show even more because, as I said, it lacks several of the engaging qualities present in that first season.

I’ll get my main beef out of the way. I was never heavily invested in the romance between Kovacs and Quell, but that seems to be the heart of the show now. At one point, a hardened Yakuza boss and long-lived Meth basically gives his life to give Kovacs a chance to reunite with Quell, his dying wish being for them to prove that love transcends death or something. And I'm just sitting there like, "Seriously!"

On top of this, I’m not a huge fan of Quell as a character. I already thought she was way too convoluted in the first season, and this season takes it even further. I feel bad for the actor playing her, because she has to be so many things at once. On the hand, she’s the Morpheus to Tak’s Neo, but she’s also Trinity and they’re passionately in love. She’s both a radical terrorist and a controversial philosopher, a warrior poet who founded her own league of revolutionary super soldiers and an ancient scientist who is actually the reason why everything in this show happens.

Which leads me to my second biggest issue. The writers seem to be going for this real spiritual angle, where everything that has happened in this universe appears to be connected somehow.

In the show, everything related to Kovacs ends up being of great significance not only to him, but to everyone involved in the plot. Example: one of this season’s main villains has their book counterpart changed from being someone who is ruthless but ultimately just doing their job to a cruel sadist who is actually responsible for a lot of the pain and trauma in Tak's life. They did the same thing with Reileen in season one, turning the clear-cut but very effective villain that her book counterpart was into our hero's tragically monstrous little sister.

This is a problem for the show, in general. Feeling the need to have this weighty sense of pathos hanging off of every character like a neon sign. You don’t have to make your villains total scumbags who we never want to sympathize with and then throw in some lame reason for me to sympathize with them. Not every character needs a tragic backstory or a token family to make them more relatable.

I guess it's kind of the problem I've previously had with shows like The Walking Dead. They set up this hyper-real yet raw and intense world filled with all of these complex characters and heady concepts, and they clearly want us to take it all as seriously as we can despite how over the top it is. And then they also want to be really sentimental and mawkish, in a way that is very contradictory to what's been established. Because we can give you a vivid depiction of a nightmare world that might be a funhouse mirror image of a future you might one day find yourself living in... but hey, at least we'll let you know that family is important, the bad guys all secretly crave affection and love conquers all.

Despite its technical beauty, it's just a tonally inconsistent show. It could have worked in the same way the books seem to, with each story being a standalone adventure that is largely unrelated to what Kovacs was doing before; where the universe is just something he is trying to survive, not something that revolves around him. I have a feeling that the show's need to give Kovacs and all these other characters a series-long arc is going to fall flat in the long run.

Stacks and Sleeves

* "Miami Showdown" by Digitalism.

* They find various excuses to bring a good portion of the main first season cast back at different points. The most egregious example is the one I ended up minding the least. That being the AI hotel concierge Poe, who somehow survived being killed previously and now acts as Tak’s main companion. If I’m being honest, Poe was the most compelling character this season. When an incorporeal AI among a bunch of diverse humans is the most compelling character, you’ve got a bit of a problem.

* Poe is given a colleague in Dig, formerly an archaeologue's AI helper. Her character seems more in line with the plot of the second book, despite being original to the show as far as I know.

* Neal McDonough shows up for about a minute of screen-time as Conrad Harlan, the mysteriously absent founder of Harlan's World.

* The best scene features Kovacs waking up and realizing he's hanging by his fingertips from a high up cliff face.

* Fewer gratuitous sex scenes is one of this season's most notable improvements; not that I mind a little gratuitous sex in fiction, but I can usually see where to draw the line. Overall, the show is much more restrained than the books when it comes to illustrating Kovacs's... carnality.

* I wish there were more scenes of Kovacs utilizing his Envoy skills. That's another drawback to having Tak spend most of his time with Quell. Quell is superior to Tak, so it's her skills that are most emphasized. It makes Tak feel less unique.

* Final complaint about this season: the show is pretty heavy handed with its themes and messages. It's even willing to sacrifice character and story potential for the sake of getting the point across that elitist one-percenters are scum and capitalist/corporatist interests control everything in favor of the elites. I mean, it's not entirely wrong, but there's probably a less obvious way of getting these things across in the writing.

Quotes:

Poe: May I suggest temperance? Your sorrows may be infinite, but the supply of whiskey is not.

Danica Harlan: Find the Meth killer, Colonel. Then get the fuck off my planet.
Colonel Ivan Carrera: It’s the Protectorate’s planet, Governor. They all are.

Takeshi Kovacs: (narrating) Nothing is sacred. Every gift we’ve been given, every resource discovered, each new and shining thing that catches our eye, we pollute. Disrespect. Violate. We tell each other this is progress, selling each other the fruits of our destruction. Sparing no thought to what we lose or leave behind, churning in our wake.

Danica Harlan: Have you heard of The Circle?
Takeshi Kovacs: No, but I’m guessing it’s round.

Ivan Carrera: It goes all the way back to the Neo-American Empire. They used to use neural mappers of their soldiers’ cortical stacks to extract memories of people they hated. They found if they projected those faces in combat—
Takeshi Kovacs: Soldiers wouldn’t hesitate to pull the trigger.
Carrera: It was the most effective motivational tool ever created. Firing rate increased to 100 percent, no hesitation. Like the Green Berets used to say, “Caedite eos, Novit enim Dominus qui sun eius.”
Kovacs: Kill them all and let God sort them out. Seems like an argument for atheism, if you ask me.
Carrera: You’re very well-informed… for a murderer.
Kovacs: If you’re gonna extract the faces of all the people I hate, we’re gonna be here a long time.

Kovacs: You have no idea who you’re dealing with.
Carrera: Neither do you.

Kovacs: You want people to live, not just exist.

Season two of Altered Carbon was entertaining, but I didn't really get much out of it beyond that. Three out of five Orbitals.

2 comments:

magritte said...

It sounds as though I may have liked this season better than you, although I wasn't very engaged by the first couple of episodes. I actually stopped watching and binged four seasons of Outlander before continuing and might never have gone back if it hadn't been for COVID-19.

I never found Kovacs a particularly compelling character, so picking up with him two centuries later in an essentially new setting with new secondary characters didn't immediately grab me. But the AI storyline was very strong, and for me the season gained momentum as I learned more about the governor and Carrera, whereas the previous season lost momentum as I didn't like Rei as an antagonist at all. I found Carrera's wacky obsession with Kovacs more interesting than hers. The romance still isn't particularly compelling, but the story behind the development of the technology worked for me. The notable reduction in sexualized violence was an improvement for my taste, as well.

Logan Cox said...

Magritte, I'm glad to know you got more out of it than I did. Like I said, the aesthetic quality is still very much alive in this show, but season two just didn't have the same impact as that first season.

Sadly, I think you're right about Kovacs in the show. I mean, he still mostly works for me as an anti-hero. But I think it's like I said, he's not as interesting when we're given the impression that everything revolves around him; I rolled my eyes when the secret passage to Hometree was actually located on the beach where Tak and Rei used to play as kids. The Kovacs character works best when he is just a morally grey independent operator, like Snake Plissken from Escape From New York.

I'll admit, though, my impression of the show has been somewhat tainted by my reading of the books. But that's my own doing.