All sophomore seasons of TV shows are, in a sense, haunted by the ghosts of what came before. But at times, Altered Carbon Season Two is quite literally consumed by memories of its past at times, even while it tries to move forward with a new adventure — and a new star.
In case your stack is on the fritz and you need a reminder, in the future world of the Netflix sci-fi drama, a person’s essence can be downloaded or transferred to a new body, to the point where many people have achieved something resembling immortality. While this has enabled humanity to explore the galaxy on a whole new level, the rich, of course, afford a far better quality of life than the poor in this cyberpunk universe, which is rife with corruption and evil.
Hip-deep in this mess is Takashi Kovacs, a former badass soldier who, after the events of season one, is traveling from planet to planet on a singular quest — tracking down his long-lost love Quellcrest Falconer (always played by Renee Elise Goldsberry). Quellcrest, the original creator of stacks, was also the revolutionary leader who saw the damage done to the human spirit by the supposed cheating of death, and tried to find a way to restore people’s mortality so that instead of existing, people might live. Season Two begins much like Season One did, with a murder mystery — however, the mystery quickly deepens with the introduction of far bigger issues, as seems to be the pattern when Kovacs gets caught up in such drama.
Kovacs swaps bodies with some frequency, which is how Anthony Mackie inherits the role of Kovacs this season. Unfortunately, his primary predecessor didn’t leave him much to work with: The character is more often than not a stoic cypher who, in theory, is supposed to be both empathic and charismatic, but those qualities rarely come through.
This isn’t really Mackie’s fault (who can be incredibly engaging on screen — just check out this recent interview on The Daily Show as one example). In Season One, then-star Joel Kinnaman‘s grim onscreen presence reflected an actor in search of a personality for his character, and it’s understandable that Mackie at times seems to be struggling to find his own performance in Kinnaman’s wake. (Will Yun Lee, who played another incarnation of Kovacs in Season One and also appears in season two, fares significantly better in straddling the line between both actors.) Without getting into spoilers, Mackie does manage to find real chemistry with the rest of the ensemble cast, especially when things get into more romantic territory.
Many of the other characters feature paper-thin development and as a result unengaging performances, such as new political force Danica Harlan (Lela Loren), who rules over Harlan’s World (Kovacs’ home planet, where the vast majority of the season is set). However, the returning Chris Conner as Kovacs’ erstwhile A.I. bestie Poe remains a charming element of comic relief, new player Dina Shihabi as Poe’s new A.I. friend Miss Digg is equally enjoyable, and Simone Missick, as bounty hunter Trepp, almost single-handedly saves the season. Trepp, a character who speaks common sense, never loses sight of her own mission and passions, and brings enough relatable engagement to the screen to make her storyline over the course of the season one of its biggest highlights.
The look of this show is incredible — on an aesthetic level, whatever amount of money Netflix is spending to make every episode look like a Ridley Scott-esque blockbuster is very clearly on the screen — the neon-lit noir cinematography remains especially stunning. The many, many fight sequences, as well, feature clean choreography (never to be underestimated) and expert execution.
But the biggest problem with Altered Carbon is one that has been a problem for the series from the beginning: The ideas behind the premise are so good, the potential to examine existential issues about identity and humanity and how they’re tied up in our physical form are so great, that it’s frustrating to see how often the show takes a too-shallow approach. A future where one’s physical form is not just disposable but customizable inspires plenty of fascinating questions; unfortunately, the writers either find those questions uninteresting or beyond the scope of their storytelling.
This definitely stands out in relation to gender, an issue which you would think would be privy to a certain level of fluidity given the ease with which one can choose the body they occupy. But in Season Two, the very few times a character occupies a sleeve that differs from their previously established gender happen as part of a ruse; they quickly return to their previous side of the supposed gender binary.
It’s the sort of idea that other creators haven’t been afraid to explore: A fun bit of Matrix trivia is the fact that the original plan for Switch was to have the character played by a man in “real life” and then played by a woman while inside the Matrix — an idea deemed too much for 1999, but the kind of concept that viewers in 2020 would be more than able to handle. (There’s probably an alternate universe where the Wachowskis are behind the adaptation of Altered Carbon, and it’s a much better TV show. Though in fairness, Altered Carbon is such a retread of The Matrix in so many ways that it’s a good thing, in the long run, the Wachowskis pursued far more creatively challenging projects instead.)
Altered Carbon doesn’t really feel like a show built to last for years to come — the smart money is probably on a “third and final” season renewal, if even that. And in some ways, for fans of big-concept sci-fi, that feels like a bit of a shame. But what also feels like a bit of a shame is how this series has gotten two full seasons of opportunity, which in some ways have been wasted.
Rating: ★★ Fair