Let's Talk About... Altered Carbon Season 2

by Angus McNicholl, Tom Grundy, Yana Koleva

Let’s Talk About… Altered Carbon Season 2
June 19, 2020 Angus McNicholl, Tom Grundy, Yana Koleva

Tom:

Well, I’ve just finished this, and really enjoyed it. I loved the first season of Altered Carbon; I love the dark futuristic setting, I love the depiction of social dystopia, and the noiry feel. It’s still a load of nonsense, obviously — visions of the future involving humanoid AIs scampering about and people fighting each other in VR ‘constructs’ is starting to look as dated today as Asimov’s predicted future of androids driving forklifts. But it’s great fun. 

 

Angus:

I was a real fan of Season One, prompting me to rush out and buy the books (which I have yet to read). The rampant dystopian setting is one that really appeals to me, and is great as inspiration for games and stories of my own.

 

Yana: 

I absolutely loved the first season! It was well directed, beautifully shot, and the narrative was revealed in a very well-calculated way so that it never felt like anything was missing. As much as it pains me to say it, the second season was missing just the right elements to make me feel like the essence of the show had been left on ice together with the Bancrofts. Like my partner said: “the second season feels like low-budget Altered Carbon fan fiction with 200% more emotional speeches and 0% envoy intuition”. 

 

Tom:

One of the things I loved about the first season was the grim depiction of rampant inequality. Yes, there was lots of punching and shooting and people with LEDs on their heads, but underneath all that there were some chewy questions about what happens to us when you extend human life ad infinitum — what that means for families, inheritance, inequality, and so on. The first season’s inherently personal mystery thriller format was also one of its strengths.

 

The second season dwells on these questions less, and is less thoughtful in general. The fundamental sci-fi ‘what if?’ that underpins the franchise is still there, and it’s still interesting, but it’s explored less. 

 

Angus:

I was interested in the idea of resleeving and effective immortality through clone bodies. What is it like to be resleeved into the ‘wrong’ body? But I am guessing these are questions more effectively dealt with in the books than in the TV series, though it does attempt it in passing.

I was also intrigued by the glitches and degradation suffered by the AI character Poe, and his obvious distress at the idea of a reboot that might take his memories and thus destroy the core of what made him him. Interesting that the human character seemed to care little about his ‘friend’ or his obvious distress. Is that a throwback to a servile past when AI are little more than servants, toys and entertainment — less than human?

Yana: 

I was hoping that the exploration of social, economic, and political implications of the cortical stack technology would continue in the second season, but alas, the themes that gave me (and surely many other viewers) opportunities to relate, reflect and engage, were absent. The second season disrupted the multi-layer conversation about things like the place of religion in the Altered Carbon world, or the way individuals cope with being cross-sleeved against their will, and replaced it with a love story with plenty of forced interactions and a competition about who gets to save the day.

 

Tom:

I’d tentatively suggest that the action scenes in Season Two might actually be better than Season One. I really enjoyed the gunplay and martial arts scenes; they reminded me of Equilibrium, with all the silly batting people’s guns away at point blank. 

 

Angus:

Ah yes, I love a bit of Gun-Fu action. I am going to disagree with Tom though. Season One was definitely better. Season Two was trying to offer more but somehow didn’t manage to deliver. It could be that it didn’t have the budget of the original. I felt the political history of both Harlan’s World and the Kellist movement should have been handled head on in Episode One, rather than left flopping about. I mean it’s not like our protagonist is a stranger to this planet — he grew up there, he lived there. So it’s not like you’re learning alongside him as he discovers these things.

 

Tom:

There were bits of good writing — especially in the later episodes. “Why is it always ‘fix it, then die’ with you?” really made me smile. 

 

Angus:

There were definitely some nicely-paced scenes. The choreography of the fight scenes was really good too.

 

Tom: 

Bringing Quellcrist Falconer back as a main character was interesting. She overshadows Takeshi Kovacs throughout; she thinks bigger, she’s more dominant, and she has more agency. I quite liked that change in dynamic. 

 

Angus:
I have to admit I rolled my eyes at the return of Quellcrist — it all felt a little contrived. But then I have yet to read the book upon which the series is based, so I have no idea how close to the original the second season is.

 

What I really did like was the idea of physical memory — that a person is more than just a mind, or just a stack. This was touched on a little in Season One, but more so in Season Two when our hero inflicts an injury on himself to ‘remember’ who knifed him. I think this is likely one of the most interesting questions posed by Altered Carbon so far: are humans losing part of their humanity by treating their bodies as disposable assets, not just body swapping, but loss of the physical memories that augment the intellectual personality within the stack?

 

In fact the stack is just a copy of the mind, so it would be interesting to explore the difference between what is in the stack, and what is in the organic mind and body of the original.

Yana: 

Ironically, Poe’s character was the most human and relatable element of the second season and also the one that redeems it. 

 

Tom:

The second season is a bit more epic in scope than the first and, in my view, the weaker for it. There is a mystery here — a pretty good whodunnit, as well as a whydunnit — but that falls away about 60% of the way through the series to leave a standard race against time to save the world. In lots of ways, the series feels more generic; the showrunners play standard, tired TV tricks with us, of the “they’re dead! Lol no they’re not” variety. 

 

Angus:

I did a lot of eye-rolling during the first few episodes. Oh look, the return of Quellcrest, who should most definitely have been dead for the last 280 years. Oh, another AI hotel to shack up in, that looks like an exact replica of the first (thanks to Poe’s nanotech). Oh look — I’m not just going to execute you, Mr. Bond, I am going to make a slow spectacle of it so that you can escape… Yawn! 

 

Tom: 

I also agree that the budget for Season Two seemed smaller than for One. It didn’t feel as panoramic, in a way — I didn’t feel the city was as spectacular, and most of the scenes seemed to be filmed in a handful of interior locations, or woodland. This isn’t a criticism as much as an observation. But one of the things I enjoyed most about Season One was the juxtaposition between the opulence and splendour of the homes of the rich above the clouds, and the cyberpunk neon slums of the city below. I don’t think Season Two had an equivalent to that.

 

Yana: 

The underlying problem with the second season was the striking lack of that attention to detail which had particularly impressed me in the first season. This is where I believe most of the issues stem from. The script failed to deliver intellectually stimulating lines even when the narrative built up to moments that not only allowed, but even required it. I was looking forward to seeing more of the amazing camerawork, editing, and the stylistic choice of using implicit audio-visual hints in order to ’show’ things without really showing them. Unfortunately, there wasn’t thorough stylistic continuity into the second season, and I ended up disappointed by the absence of things like the trippy effects in VR and dramatic slow-motion close-up shots that gave the combat scenes in Season One some artistic value. Even if the budget for season Two was smaller, I think that if more ingenuity had been involved in the technical approach towards directing and shooting it, this would have eliminated certain awkward moments of the ‘Power Rangers’-type combat scenes. 

 

For me the biggest downfall of this season was that Takeshi Kovacs somehow went from being a notorious, hilariously cynical, and weirdly relatable anti-hero to a good old glossy, boring, stoic protagonist. Joel Kinnaman’s Takeshi had a dark and twisted sense of humour, made use of his envoy intuition, carried around a small pink backpack that was either equipped with guns or copious amounts of drugs, and was addictively entertaining. Subjectively, the personality of Anthony Mackie’s Takeshi has been replaced by the ability to summon guns. This is not me saying that Mackie didn’t play the role well, but rather that his role wasn’t written well. The lack of continuity and quality writing also affect the performances of Will Jun Lee (Takeshi’s original sleeve) and Renée Elise Goldsberry (Quellcrist Falconer) who felt like they were different characters in Season One.

 

One thing hasn’t changed though: in both seasons Takeshi winds up double-sleeved, and one of them is always taking a shower.  

 

Tom:

Season Two does some interesting things — particularly focusing so heavily on Quellcrist Falconer as a main character — but it feels intellectually lightweight compared to the first, with none of the thought experiments and explorations of what its sci-fi assumptions could lead to. That said, I did enjoy it — it’s well-structured, fun, well-paced, and entertaining.

 

Angus:

Yeah, Season Two was definitely less intellectually challenging. I had hoped for more on the Elders. I had expectations having read the back of the Broken Angels book sleeve that I don’t think were met.

 

Yana: 

“It’s all in the details” says Kovacs while strolling across Bancroft’s gallery in Season One. Too bad they forgot about that in Season Two.