Netflix adapted Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon into a series which has now run for two seasons. This review of Season One, which I watched via Amazon Prime, might contain spoilers for the show. In this column, my goal is to review the show without comparing it to the book.
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Altered Carbon, Season One is a hyper-violent, hyper-male noirish adventure set in a moody Blade-Runneresque world. It carried me right along, nicely balancing mood, exposition, special effects and action, but stumbled into cliché at the end, and I was troubled by certain aspects of the male gaze that permeated the season. The villain and the resolution were disappointments.
I know I said “hyper-male” in the paragraph above, but male-centric doesn’t have to mean, or shouldn’t have to mean, the commodification of women as an assumption.
Joel Kinnaman plays Takeshi Kovacs (“Kovach”), a government assassin-turned-rebel-turned-criminal, in a futuristic world where a human consciousness can be saved and stored in an implant called a cortical stack and downloaded into any human body. Because this is a gritty, neon-lit high-tech Science Fiction Adventure I will try not to call the stack the “magical soul amulet.”
Kovacs is downloaded into a vacant body—they’re called “sleeves,” one of many clues about how this tech has cheapened the value of life—in Bay City (formerly San Francisco) on Earth. Kovacs had been left in a suspended state for two hundred fifty years following his role in a failed rebellion against the Protectorate, but his consciousness was requested specifically. Kovacs was originally one of the Protectorate’s shock troops, an expert in murder and torture, but he switched sides when he met revolutionary Quellcrist Falconer on Harlan’s World. In his current “sleeving,” Kovacs is regularly visited by the memory of Falconer, played by Renee Elise Goldsberry. Soon he discovers that he has been decanted into this body to solve the murder of a wealthy, powerful man who lives on an estate above the constant cloud cover brought on by global warming. He’s been hired by the man himself, who of course isn’t really dead, even though the up-close blast that killed him wiped out his stack, because Laurens Bancroft, played by James Purefoy, is one of those rare people who remembers to back things up, including himself, and of course he has sixty or seventy clones of himself hanging in the closet. (Not literally a closet, but you get the idea.) The mystery of his shooting is an updated version of a locked room mystery.
Just solving the murder of a Rich Old Guy (Bancroft and his wife are more than 300 years old,) is no fun at all unless people are trying to kill you, and almost immediately Kovacs is set upon by people trying to do just that. He befriends an AI hotel who uses Edgar Allen Poe (Chris Conner) as its human avatar. Poe is, well, aggressive, when it comes to protecting its guests. I loved Poe.
Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda) is a police detective who failed to solve Bancroft’s murder (which she still believes was a suicide). To punish her, Bancroft chose her dead and disgraced partner as the “sleeve” for Kovacs. Kovacs can’t figure out why Ortega, who really doesn’t like him much at first, keeps showing up to help him. Ortega is neo-Catholic, a Christian sect who believe that downloading a dead person’s consciousness into any subsequent body after death keeps their soul from moving on. Ortega does not believe this and supported a failed UN resolution to allow law enforcement to download murder victims into VR so that the victims can say who killed them. There are all kinds of flaws with this reasoning as the show points out, but to Ortega it’s a way to give the dead a voice, and justice. It puts her at odds with most of her family, especially her mother. Neo-Caths have special coding, basically a Do Not Resuscitate order, which is believed to be unhackable. (Spoiler alert…) Ortega is less interested in the death of Bancroft than in the unexplained death of a young woman, coded neo-Cath even though no one in her family is, who appears to have fallen from a great height. The two mysteries are entwined.
Kovacs has a lot of skills, but frankly, detecting isn’t really one of them. The show is entertaining enough though, as we watch him stumble over clues by mistake, make enemies, and attract allies if not friends. Will Yun Lee plays The Original Flavor Takeshi in the story’s flashbacks, and the chemistry between him and Goldsberry makes their love story plausible. The contrast between the emotionally accessible Lee and the stoic Kinnaman also plays very well. I liked the slow moments with Ortega, her partner and her mother, and I loved the episode that showed the family observing the Day of the Dead, even if I had all kinds of questions about what that day would mean in this world.
The story is very clear that capitalism and imperialism appropriated the cortical stack and used it to cheapen life and consolidate the wealth and power of a few. It was in this area, and the development of Falconer, that I started having issues with the male gaze.
Any story that deals with body-hopping as least glances at sexual experimentation. With the rich and powerful and their many clones, designer sex is part of the lifestyle. There is a lot of prostitution, from very exclusive, high-end to tawdry, everyday sex clubs. Will it surprise you if I say that all the sex workers we see are female and mostly naked? Sex workers are also physically abused and damaged, so the show, for all its attempts to explore convoluted questions of privilege, consciousness, gender and identity, falls back on the tired detective cliché of vulnerable women sex workers being exploited. This was a failure of imagination.
That failure continues with Miriam Bancroft, Laurens’s beautiful, privileged wife. Her sole achievement in centuries has been that she gave Laurens “21 children.” In this world, did she even have to go through pregnancy? It seems unlikely. She has no interests or work of her own beside being beautiful and caring about her children, all of whom are grown.
The biggest failure of imagination, the way the male gaze makes the lead male the only “subject” and everyone/thing else an object, comes with the villain, who starts off as interesting and within one episode devolves into a stereotype. (The season begs for a drinking game; take a sip every time, in the last two episodes, the villain says, “I did it all for you.”) And the terrible secret is basically a snuff-film plot. Along the way, Falconer’s backstory ends with a revelation that removes all her agency. In one scene, she is reduced from a visionary revolutionary to purely a love object—emphasis on object. When the villain says, “She didn’t even know I did it,” that tells us all we need to know.
The use of nudity in the show is a very good clue about the assumptions here. We see a naked Kovacs when he is first “decanted” into the new body, and there are a couple of nice shower scenes of him, artfully lit from the back. There is a full-frontal nudity moment with Bancroft when the multi-billionaire waits casually enters a room naked while his attendant trails him with the custom bathrobe. In that scene, Bancroft’s nudity reflects power; he is so very powerful that be can be completely vulnerable in a room full of subordinate men.
In contrast, the nudity of the women throughout the show connotes commodification. They are objects to rent or buy. “You break it, you bought it,” is a real thing in Altered Carbon, but women are the vast majority of broken objects in Season One.
I was disappointed, but there were bright spots. Throughout the season, Poe tries to help the consciousness of a young woman named Lizzie who was tortured into madness. Lizzie arises near the end as Badass Lizzie, and I did love every minute of it. Matt Frewer delivers a classic scary/funny Frewer performance. And the fight choreography is excellent. To my shock, while I usually look away from arena scenes (oh, come on! You knew there were going to be arena scenes,) both of them held me captivated. And Ortega tossing a bad guy up and down a corridor in a fight scene while cussing him out in Spanish was a highlight.
The supporting characters, particularly Vernon and Ava, who help Kovacs, were great. Hayley Law as Lizzie, and Dichen Lachman as Rae, were both stellar. The show did a good job of conveying the consequences of the cortical stacks. I enjoyed the various categories of crime; Stack Death or Real Death; Sleeve Death; Gross Physical Harm; Physical Harm; Double Sleeving. In the early eps, a sense of weirdness and dislocation was well depicted.
I was troubled by Season One, but I enjoyed most of it. I might, in the future, give Season Two a look-in, now that I’ve calibrated my expectations. Kovacs is in a new sleeve, and it’s Anthony Mackie.