The first four episodes of Netflix’s Altered Carbon explore the ramifications of humans being able to live forever and present an intriguing murder mystery as a backdrop
In Netflix‘s Altered Carbon, humanity has found a way to cheat death. The cortical stack technology stores memories, knowledge, and human consciousnesses ‒ all in the back of the neck. Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman) wakes up 250 years after the death of his previous body, or “sleeve,” and discovers that he is the property of the world’s wealthiest man, Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy). Kovacs was sentenced to an eternity in prison for his crimes against the U.N. Protectorate and Bancroft offers him a full pardon. What’s the catch? In order to obtain the pardon (and an obscene amount of money), Kovacs must solve Bancroft’s own murder.
Kovacs’ investigation, which often doesn’t take most of his attention early on, leads to him encountering Dimitri Kadmin (portrayed by several actors), a violent criminal who’s obsessed with his brother’s death and a man named Ryker. Eventually, Kovacs is captured by Dimi and is brutally tortured in a virtual construct. Kovacs and Quellcrist Falconer’s (Renée Elise Goldsberry) backstory starts to get revealed while Kovacs is tortured by Dimi. When Kovacs escapes, he reunites with Lt. Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda) and she starts to tell him her story and her connection to his current sleeve.
The first four episodes of Altered Carbon provide plenty of action, drama, and character development. Even supporting characters get to shine and stand alongside the shockingly impressive cast. While Takeshi doesn’t really have friends, he does frequently partner up with Ortega and Vernon Elliot (Ato Essandoh). After experiencing serious psychological trauma, Elliot trapped his daughter Lizzie (Hayley Law) in a virtual loop in an attempt to protect her. The artificial intelligence Poe (Chris Conner), who is literally the Raven Hotel, often assists the unlikely (and most likely temporary) allies. The murder mystery, while a focus of the series, serves more as a backdrop for exploring the cortical stack technology than as the central driving force. Takeshi’s tortured past and present, as well as the pasts of his partners, are the main draw.
The first four episodes of Altered Carbon are a lot to take in ‒ probably too much for a single viewing. Rewatches will likely be necessary to catch everything. Despite that, our roundtable guests didn’t hold back in their detailed analysis of the episodes. Let’s see what they think of them!
Lauralee (@Lauralee_xx) – Fan of horror and sci-fi. Lover of all things creepy, crawly, and monstrous.
Malice (@BeautyDestroyed) – Die-hard fan of grimdark fiction, violent science fiction, and cats.
NJ (@njnowski) – Old lady with too much time to waste
A. King Bradley (@AKingBradley) – Author, artist, gamer, nigh-invulnerable.
Sydney (@TappyToeClaws) – Part-time nerd, full-time beer-loving theropod
Candy (@Candyrose_BTV) – Music fiend, TV enthusiast, and proud weirdo.
1. The first four episodes began to explore the central concept of the series: the cortical stack. Out of all the uses shown in the first four episodes, what did you find the most disturbing about the technology? The least disturbing? Should humanity embrace such a technology if we invent or discover it?
Lauralee (@Lauralee_xx): What I found most disturbing about the technology was that you deemed much more susceptible to being completely wiped out of your character. With a blink of an eye, you could be vulnerable to a whole new life, world, family and friends. What was once known, is now a stranger!
Malice (@BeautyDestroyed): The third episode, “In a Lonely Place,” showed us what the extremely wealthy people in the Altered Carbon universe do for entertainment to fight boredom. They stage null-g fights to the death where the winner gets an upgraded sleeve. And so on. Do you think that the portrayal of humans who are effectively immortal was accurate? Or was it an overly cynical look at humanity?
NJ (@njnowski): That they use other people’s bodies is disturbing. Including kids. Your child is in an old lady’s body. Grandma in a biker body and still they see it as grandma, that’s crazy! It was all disturbing. I’m a no on ever embracing this type of technology.
A. King Bradley (@AKingBradley): I found the overall fragility of the devices to be the most disturbing. I was actually very critical of that fact during the first two episodes. Given the story’s futuristic setting, I questioned why they wouldn’t have designed the devices using some type of advanced alloy that would make them impervious to the timeframe’s conventional weapons. However, as I continued to watch I realized that the devices received and emitted signals that would likely have been blocked or interfered with if they were encased in a protective shell of sorts. In the end, I suppose that vulnerability is the price you pay for functional immortality. Overall, I have no qualms with the functions and uses of the tech.
Sydney (@TappyToeClaws): Once human consciousness can be digitized – it can be copied. Once it can be copied, someone is going to do be doing it illegally. We see the purposeful copying and double-sleeving of assassins in bright and glaring relief, of course, but I have to assume that someone would try to copy a non-consenting party. Suddenly there’s an extra version of you, who didn’t ask to be made. After a while, who’s the copy? Who gets to make the choice?
Candy (@Candyrose_BTV): Honestly, most of its uses to some degree are disturbing. Immortality, for example, may sound appealing, but how practical is it to expect to live for potentially hundreds of years and still live a fulfilling life? Do we grow tired of the things which once gave us satisfaction, consequently continuing to push boundaries in pursuit of something to fill the void? The use of the cortical stack as a means of solving “murders” is another prevalent practice that seems relatively benign, but even this is slightly disturbing when the victims are not permanently dead because their bodies can be carted off to a lab, where they are re-sleeved. Does it count as murder if the person can essentially be resurrected into a different body? At some point, we have to ask ourselves how our own finiteness gives value to our lives. No, I wouldn’t advise humanity to embrace this technology because there are a myriad of ways in which it can be abused.
2. The Elders, an alien race whose technology humanity discovered, were briefly mentioned in the first four episodes. Many cyberpunk stories feature advanced human-made technology as the main source of cybernetic enhancements and prolonged life. Do you think using discovered alien technology was a good direction to head in?
Lauralee: With the discovery of new and foreign technologies. The human race nonetheless will be curious as to see how it will affect their way of life, I believe it was a good direction to head in because there’s always room for growth! Trial and error.
Malice: I’m not sure that’s where the extended life comes from. In the books (I believe, I’d have to go read them again) the extinct alien race doesn’t really come into play on Earth at all. I don’t think that it’s a good or bad direction to head in – so long as it’s consistent.
NJ: I have not made up my mind yet.
A. King Bradley: Absolutely. In fact, it actually makes more sense, given the relatively short amount of time that has passed between now and the timeframe in which the story takes place. I seriously doubt humanity could have transcended its current Type 0 classification in no more than a few centuries without some kind of influence from a more advanced species.
Sydney: For a TV-series, an alien elder race progenitor is a tidy way of saving some screen time on explanations. We have plenty of examples in the cultural sci-fi zeitgeist that viewers are going to accept it with an easy nod. I highly recommend to anyone interested in this “elder race” to pick up a copy of Altered Carbon the novel, regardless of whether or not the show goes into more detail. You’ll be in for a treat, most definitely.
Candy: Utilizing exclusively human-made technology is not a prerequisite for being classified as cyberpunk. The story has many other elements which fans of the genre can appreciate. One of the most appealing aspects of this genre is how it has no obligation to realism and can, therefore, venture beyond the scope of what viewers might expect to see. The story places a lot of emphasis on how this technology is used and the consequences of its use. In this respect, where the technology came from is not nearly as important as the world its use helped create.
3. It’s unclear how many sleeves Takeshi has inhabited by the time we catch up with him in “Out of the Past,” but it’s a relatively high number. If human bodies are nothing more than discardable vessels, does life lose its meaning? Are the people that inhabit the sleeves still human or are they merely a digital approximation of humans?
Lauralee: With Ortega’s mother and grandmother, I connect to her way of thinking. Everything seems so artificially forced and we don’t respect the cycle of life and letting the world continue as is. The sleeves the individuals inhabit are still “human,” but I believe they lack some of their own original self. War and tragedy, the bold emotions seems to bring out the most of the past.
Malice: Your body doesn’t determine your humanity any more than your gender identity, appearance, or race. Physicality is just that. It is a part of us, but it is not “us”. I think the much more interesting question is if people are uploaded, is it still death when they die? Certainly, that version of the person ceases to exist with the destruction of that stack. Does death lose its meaning?
NJ: Those are deep questions and why I am intrigued with this series. I found myself flip-flopping on it all.
A. King Bradley: They’re still human, just in a more “modern” sense. I’ve always believed that an individual’s consciousness is who and what they are. If you swap my mind with a dog’s mind, does the dog somehow become human just because it suddenly inhabits the physical form of one? I don’t think so. He’d still be a dog in human form and I would be a human trapped in a dog’s body.
Sydney: The concept of humanity is certainly thrown into the hands of the beholder, isn’t it? The series presents interesting moral quandaries in a visceral and immediately accessible way that a lot of other hard sci-fi series lack, which is part of the reason that I fell in love with it so hard and fast. I’m entirely tickled to what the broader community does with the topic of transhumanism now that’s in been put into this (relatively) easily palatable package of Altered Carbon.
Candy: The question is: what makes us human? Are our bodies a core part of our identity, or are they merely flesh and bone that serve as hosts for the essence of our being? And if our bodies do influence the formation of our identities, does this still hold if our bodies are easily replaceable? Regardless, the meaning we assign life is heavily influenced by our experiences, many of which are shaped by the relationships we have with others. The cortical stack preserves these memories, and, by extension, the meanings attached to them, regardless of the body worn. A disposable body does not translate into a disposable human if our humanness is marked by what is within us.
4. The third episode, “In a Lonely Place,” showed us what the extremely wealthy people in the Altered Carbon universe do for entertainment to fight boredom. They stage null-g fights to the death where the winner gets an upgraded sleeve. And so on. Do you think that the portrayal of humans who are effectively immortal was accurate? Or was it an overly cynical look at humanity?
Lauralee: The third episode, “In a Lonely Place,” depicted the many ways humans can easily be driven to being enslaved by a higher power much greater than their own. The Bancrofts did a great portrayal on toying with you, your sleeve is just a mere shell.
Malice: I think humans are cynical by nature, and given endless time and zero accountability, most people would eventually become a bit deranged out of sheer boredom. Eternal life would be incredibly demoralizing after a while, just watching people go through the same cycles over and over, running out of books to read, having no conversations you haven’t already had a hundred times before, and just becoming numb to experience. Yeah, I think it’s a safe bet that people would eventually go to extreme lengths to keep themselves entertained. If people with wealth and power abuse it in real life by the time they’re in their 50s, imagine what they’d get up to by their 350s?
NJ: It was eye-opening but not shocking. Not in the least cynical! In fact, it could be a metaphor for the wealthy elitist who uses lower class people for their gain in today’s world.
A. King Bradley: Is it cynical? Yes, but based on my understanding of our species I also think it’s accurate. I supposed that makes me a bit cynical as well but that certainly doesn’t mean I’m wrong.
Sydney: As a self-proclaimed and card-carrying “Cynical-Asshole” myself, this is part of the reason that I fell in love with Morgan’s work in the first place. This seems like an accurate, if harsh, portrayal of what this society would, or at least could look like. It takes a certain quality of person to want to live a nigh-immortal life, it seems that a curious detachment to the rest of humanity could follow seems in keeping.
Candy: Accurate, maybe. Overly cynical, no. More of a possibility than anything else. Our society already indulges in these experiences, albeit in a more limited capacity. Moreover, our history is rife with examples of exploitation, and as far as we may have progressed as a society, exploitation nevertheless exists in a myriad of forms today. Staged fights, even to the death, can be found throughout history, for example. Technology is already transforming how we express our sexuality and experience intimacy. From sexting to virtual reality, people are able to play out their sexual fantasies and assume different personas. It doesn’t require a stretch of the imagination to envision people utilizing advanced technology to expand and heighten their experiences, even if it’s at the expense of others.
5. It was strongly suggested that the Envoys were only considered terrorists by the U.N. Protectorate. As Takeshi said, the victors write history. We were given more information on their backstory over the course of the first four episodes. Do you think they were actually fighting for a greater purpose (e.g., for the good of humanity) or is our view of them clouded due to Takeshi being one of them?
Lauralee: The Envoys, I thought, were on an individual mission together to bring peace to their own beliefs. Overthrowing the enemy in their eyes and also their own “demons” they’re battling.
Malice: The Envoys in the series are wildly different than the Envoys in the book, where they’re basically a hyper-elite military Spec-Ops group. But none of the groups struck me as being “good guys”. One recruits children and abandons their families, and the other thinks they have the right to impose an end-of-life sentence on the entirety of humanity because reasons. Yeah, I’m not too down with either of those.
NJ: I think it’s too early to tell. Power has a way of corrupting your humanity.
A. King Bradley: From a technical standpoint, I believe Takeshi’s POV. He doesn’t “know we’re watching” when we see his flashbacks and such. Therefore, I believe the events we have seen through his eyes are an honest portrayal of what has happened. The same can’t be said for the obvious Protectorate propaganda. In short, Takeshi’s my dude. Screw the Protectorate!
Sydney: Once again, I’ve got book-reader knowledge in my pocket on this. Although, we do have a slight departure from canon in some of the details. So I suppose more importantly I’ve got ‘student of history’ perspective. Short answer? Yes.
Candy: We see much of this world through the eyes of Takeshi, so to a certain extent, yes, our perception of the Envoys is clouded due to him being one of them. Two worlds are being juxtaposed: one in which the wealthy enjoy unfettered power and access to unlimited resources, living high in the sky like Olympian gods, and another in which everyone else lives in a world of darkness rife with pain and suffering. However, I wouldn’t say their motives were intrinsically altruistic because conflict leads to loss, which is oftentimes a strong motivator to fight. As a viewer, I have to ask myself how much of it is personal.
6. In the fourth episode, “Force of Evil,” the show took a darker turn and explored the highly disturbing concept of using a virtual construct to torture people. Did you find the show’s exploration of that technology effective? Did it take things too far? Do you think it’ll serve a larger purpose in the story?
Lauralee: The fourth episode, “Force of Evil,” the sleeves have already gone through a “New Day, New Me” phase. Torture just seems hardcore! Only having to relive the moment over and over, but in all honesty, it could definitely bring out the truth without really physically and emotionally bringing harm to the body.
Malice: That scene doesn’t hold a candle to the book version. If you think that was rough, then definitely don’t read the original. haha Trust me. In the series, it reminded me of the White Christmas episode of Black Mirror. The idea of not ever having the release of sleep or death is pretty horrifying. There is a certain peace in being able to assume that all things have at least those limitations. But what if you knew it didn’t?
NJ: Torture is disturbing, virtual or not. Too far? There is a lot of violence in this show so I guess no. Larger purpose? It just added to the list of everything I never imagined before watching this. So it was effective.
A. King Bradley: All things considered, I found VR torture as a SYSTEM to be practical ‒ but like most systems there is no contingency for the “human factor”. Simply put, we’re scum and there’s no boundary we won’t push and no regulation we won’t ignore.
Sydney: Not to be that person, but I’m more than willing if no one else will: the book was far more violent. The version we saw in episode four was probably about as close as we could get without a seriously extreme rating and some very nasty press. I appreciate that show was willing to go as far as it did, we get to see what people might actually do if given the motivation and opportunity. Bad people are, predictably, bad. But more importantly, everyday people can become nauseatingly desensitized.
Candy: It was certainly effective, if not outright shocking. Without the threat of death being a central concern, the brutality of the torture is limited only by imagination and the torture could conceivably continue for as long as it takes to extract the desired information. This serves the larger purpose of the story because it poses salient ethical questions concerning how we use the technology we have at our disposal. If we, as a society, do not impose limits on ourselves, then how can we ever know when we have gone too far? And how do we determine where we draw that line? There’s a certain level of responsibility that comes with technological advancements which we must be mindful of.
7. Now that you’ve seen four episodes of Altered Carbon, how are you feeling about the show overall? What does the show do best? Where do you think it could improve?
Lauralee: Altered Carbon is beautifully designed. The visuals, the characters, the story, the emotions, are out-of-this-world! The perfectly imperfect dynamic between old and new sleeves brings out that soulful voice to the whole show.
Malice: It was a little disjointed in the beginning, but visually it’s very beautiful. A lot of it was nearly verbatim to the book, and it was kind of bizarre how many of the settings matched up with the version I had in my head sometimes. I do think they traded in some of the intensity for a bit of slightly-more-mass-acceptable drama, but I expected that.
NJ: I’m going to keep watching but it took me till the end of episode 2 to get into it. So I wonder if it will lose people from watching. Best shower scenes ever. 😉 Less sex and violence. Instead, more suspense. Do I really need so much background story? I’d rather see the “who done it” suspense.
A. King Bradley: It’s dope! My first tweet about the series was, “They made this for me”, which couldn’t be closer to the truth. THINGS I LIKE SO FAR: Kristin Ortega (fave character by a mile). The opening sequence is a work of art and it’s short enough to let it play with each episode. The attention to detail is remarkable (scars and bruises don’t magically disappear, etc). So far, the characters are three dimensional and there are no annoying teen characters. The world building is flawless and the exposition is organic. Despite the story’s rich history, I don’t feel like we’ve had to endure any exposition dumps (which is rare for a story like this). As far as my suggestions for possible improvements, I don’t have any at this time (which is also rare).
Sydney: I’ll take the designated comment, as a book-purist, that they “should have kept more to the source material.” So far only a few things have left a strange taste in my mouth but I’m just starting to see how some of the narrative shifts could start running a little wide. That’s an old and tired debate, though. Let’s talk good stuff. Casting. Great. Production quality. Holy sh-t. I’m buying this soundtrack as soon as I can get my hands on it. Costuming?! Fantastic. I’m getting a “Hello Unicorn” backpack and wearing it everywhere.
Candy: The show’s most striking feature is its stunning visual effects. This is by far one of its greatest assets because it convincingly brings an imagined world to life and does so in a way that captivates the viewer. Moreover, it serves as an impressive backdrop that effectively accentuates the overall theme of the story but does so in a way that doesn’t overwhelm it. The creators took on the endeavor of creating what is probably Netflix’s most ambitious project to date, and I was not in the slightest bit disappointed. I am continually amazed by the pure artistry and innovation that has brought the cinematic experience to the small screen, as Altered Carbon clearly exemplifies. The people involved with bringing this story to life ‒ from the writers to the actors ‒ have done an excellent job of giving us a vividly constructed world that doesn’t compromise the integrity of the story.
Final Verdict: Altered Carbon‘s central murder mystery might be a slow burn, but the worldbuilding, character development, storytelling, and production values result in some of the best live-action cyberpunk there is
Visually, Netflix’s Altered Carbon is a work of art. It has the look of a big budget Hollywood movie and so much atmosphere you may begin to think you’re actually in Bay City. Okay, perhaps not but the world it presents feels and looks real. The dark, rainy, and dreary Bay City is a character all in itself. There’s an intriguing blend of futuristic technology with high tech forms of technology such as bicycles.
The series isn’t all about impressive visuals, though. On the contrary, it also delivers a very diverse cast of characters who are portrayed by an equally diverse group of actors. The main standouts are Joel Kinnaman (Kovacs), Martha Higareda (Ortega), James Purefoy (Bancroft), Chris Conner (Poe), Ato Essandoh (Vernon), Renée Elise Goldsberry (Quell), and Will Lee Yun (Kovacs). But even actors with more minor roles such as Hayley Law (Lizzie) stand out. The worldbuilding itself is equally impressive. The world the characters inhabit is so detailed that it might overwhelm on a first viewing but sci-fi and cyberpunk fans will likely feel right at home. The miracles and horrors of humans with the ability to live forever is front and center throughout the first four episodes.
Altered Carbon‘s pace, while not sluggish, isn’t exactly breakneck either. This means it takes several episodes before major questions begin to be answered and equally long before much progress is made in the murder mystery. This is no doubt by design to give viewers time to absorb the complex and brutal world it takes place in as well as getting to know the large cast of characters.
However, viewers that tune in expecting the murder mystery to be the focus will likely be disappointed. It’s a part of the story and it’s one of Takeshi’s driving forces. But it isn’t really the main point of the show in the first four episodes. The intense violence at various points will likely be a huge turn off for some. The brutal torture Kovacs undergoes in a virtual construct at the hand of Dimi is very disturbing. It’s effective at exploring that side of the cortical stack technology. It just doesn’t make for easy viewing.
The murder mystery at the center of Altered Carbon may not advance much in the first four episodes, but that part of the series doesn’t seem to be the point in the early episodes. The fourth episode ends with a highly fulfilling action sequence and an intriguing hook about Kovacs’ sleeve’s identity. If you’re a fan of sci-fi or cyberpunk, you better clear a large block of time because once Altered Carbon grabs onto you, it doesn’t let go.