Netflix’s Altered Carbon has a highly talented cast, but it’s Martha Higareda’s remarkable performance that sticks with us
At the center of Netflix’s Altered Carbon, a sci-fi/cyberpunk series set on Earth in 2384, is the concept of humanity being able to live forever through the use of advanced cortical stack technology. Human bodies, or “sleeves,” have become discardable vessels for the human consciousness to inhabit. From godlike Meths who are so wealthy they can live forever to clingy artificial intelligences to Envoy terrorists that are accustomed to changing sleeves for each mission, the futuristic Bay City is populated with many unique characters. To play those characters, Netflix assembled an incredibly talented and diverse group of actors. So when we say that Martha Higareda’s portrayal of Detective Kristin Ortega stands out among the rest of the cast, we don’t say that lightly. She manages to steal every scene she’s in despite the amount of talent the show has at its disposal, and that is no small feat.
Kristin Ortega’s role (and by extension, Higareda’s) throughout the first season of Altered Carbon may seem straightforward on the surface. Ortega starts off as an unlikely ally for Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman). She has a potty mouth (good luck finding a scene without her dropping f-bombs in English and Spanish) and a seemingly abrasive personality. Despite that apparent abrasiveness, it’s revealed that Ortega deeply cares about other grounders and will go to great lengths to help them at considerable personal risk to herself. The character has an underlying toughness and fierceness that serves as a reminder that Ortega won’t take any nonsense from anyone but she’s also deeply conflicted.
She’s caught between embracing the cortical stack technology and her Neo-Catholic upbringing that forbids bringing people back from the dead in new sleeves. Kovacs himself is placed in the sleeve of Ortega’s former partner and lover, which complicates things further. Higareda skillfully adds nuance and depth that makes Ortega an unmistakably human and relatable character despite the futuristic technology on display.
Rei: “That wasn’t very nice.”
Ortega: “I wasn’t trying to be nice, you b–ch.”
Ortega is smart, tough, down-to-earth, and funny ‒ sometimes all at the same time. Her relentless pursuit of the truth regarding the death of Mary Lou Henchy is admirable. The loss of her boyfriend Ryker and the constant reminder of that loss through Kovacs’ current sleeve is heartbreaking yet decidedly human. Higareda deftly balances all of these seemingly conflicting qualities and helps bring Ortega to life in a manner that makes her performance and character highly memorable. Without a doubt, that makes her Altered Carbon’s scene stealer and an indispensable member of the cast.
Ortega’s initial introduction is somewhat harsh but Higareda forces us to love the character through her natural charm and layered portrayal
Kristin Ortega initially comes across as a calm and collected character. That continues until Kovacs discovers that she’s interrogating him. Then the gloves come off. Ortega’s politeness and kindness evaporate and she immediately starts hurling curses. The transformation happens incredibly quickly and Martha Higareda handles it brilliantly. There’s a subtle shift in the way she carries herself that is easy to miss.
From there, Ortega is set up as a potential antagonist for Kovacs but the two soon become allies when their interests align. Ortega’s tenaciousness and relentless pursuit of solving the murder of Mary Lou Henchy regardless of the cost to herself begin to show that she isn’t just a hot-headed detective out for blood.
Ortega: “For just a few hours, stay out of trouble, okay? Saving your ass is not my only job.”
Kovacs: “Whatever you say, Lieutenant.”
Elliot: “I like her.”
Kovacs: “Wait ten minutes.”
While Higareda does an amazing job selling Ortega in action scenes and through the more intense experiences her character goes through, it’s often in the quieter scenes with the character’s mother, abuela, partner, or Kovacs where her natural charm really shines through. Little by little, she wins us over with a smile here, a simple facial expression there, or an incredibly rude comment with just the right amount of force in Spanish (or English). Even though Kovacs may have difficulty admitting it, he begins to love her, and so do we. By the end of the season, we can’t help but want another ten minutes of time with Martha Higareda’s Ortega. Followed by another ten minutes, and another ten…
The crass, f-bomb dropping, no-nonsense detective comes with a sardonic yet oddly charming sense of humor, and Higareda’s delivery couldn’t be more on point
Altered Carbon is an incredibly dark show that often deals with subject matter that is uncomfortable. There are multiple characters that help inject some humor into the dystopia that is Bay City. Ortega is one such character, and she does so in the only way she can: by injecting sarcasm, cynicism, and a lot of cursing. Sometimes all of that comes with the threat of violence or actual violence. Higareda’s comedic timing is, quite simply, impeccable.
Early in the third episode, “In a Lonely Place,” Ortega meets with a Meth lawyer and greets her by saying, “Ms. Prescott, to what do I owe the complete lack of pleasure?” Ms. Prescott says she’s just there to invite her to dinner. After a short pause, Ortega responds with, “I’d rather starve.” Higareda’s shift from a look of amused disbelief to absolute disdain over the course of delivering a single line is a perfect example of her ability take a simple line and inject a tremendous amount of attitude that we can’t help but love.
Kovacs: “So, about the arm‒”
Ortega: “I’m unconscious for ten f—ing minutes and you start replacing my body parts?”
Kovacs: “It was either replace the arm or lose the sleeve. And that’s the best Bancroft money can buy.”
Ortega: “Anything else you told them to change out while I was under? Since you were doing renovations.”
It’s impossible not to be drawn in by Ortega’s mix of toughness, sass, and biting sarcasm. Whether Ortega and Kovacs are breaking and entering or fighting for their lives, Ortega almost always has something to add, sarcastic or otherwise. When paired with Joel Kinnaman’s deadpan delivery, it always results in a consistently entertaining duo. A great example of this occurs in the fifth episode, “The Wrong Man.” Ortega and Kovacs go to investigate a Meth property and encounter a locked door.
While Ortega is explaining the legal methods of entry she can obtain, Kovacs takes out his modified Nemex gun and obliterates the lock without hesitation. Ortega simply says, “Or Kovacs. We could Kovacs.” Higareda manages to convey a sense that Ortega is oddly impressed and amused by how casually Kovacs breaks into the house with a simple change in voice inflection and facial expression. She always has just the right amount of force in her delivery to prevent the character from being too over the top or too understated.
Higareda’s performance helps sell the complexity of living in a world where your current body may not be the one you were born with
Spread throughout the first season of Altered Carbon is the concept that the face you see may not match the mind. While there are many examples demonstrating this, it’s Ortega’s experiences throughout the season that really help ground and humanize the concept. Her abuela gave up her Neo-Catholic religious coding to be able to be spun-up in whatever sleeve is available in the future. Ortega spins up her abuela in the sleeve of a male gang member (the only sleeve available) for Día de Muertos to temporarily reunite with her.
Higareda sells the temporary reunion flawlessly but it’s the final goodbye that really hits hard, and she only has two lines of dialogue. Ortega’s abuela decides to stay in storage permanently and forces Ortega to confront what is effectively the real death of a loved one. Higareda doesn’t go overboard with emotions. Instead, she opts to go with a quiet, sad acceptance that conveys just how much pain Ortega is in while also demonstrating her incredible strength.
Another example involves Ortega’s loss of her former partner and boyfriend, Elias Ryker. After Ryker is framed and falsely imprisoned, Kovacs turns up in his sleeve. This deeply disturbs and terrifies Ortega because a convicted murderer and terrorist is walking around in her boyfriend’s sleeve. If the sleeve is destroyed, so is Ryker’s original body. Higareda captures Ortega’s internal conflict about that perfectly through her body language and occasionally letting a little emotion seep into her voice. Ortega frequently becomes defensive when confronting her fears and doesn’t do a very good job hiding them. So she angrily lashes out or tries to lie her way out of the situation.
A particularly notable scene occurs after Kovacs is brutally tortured in a virtual construct after a Russian hitman thinks he’s Ryker. Kovacs confronts Ortega and threatens to harm his sleeve. Ortega’s complete surrender to her emotions by admitting her loss to Kovacs is devastating. Watching Higareda evolve over the course of the scene from angry and confident to being unable to hold back tears is heartbreakingly effective. It makes Ortega immediately relatable even if being able to change bodies isn’t (yet) a concept we have to deal with in our lives.
Martha Higareda playing Rei wearing Ortega’s sleeve is delightfully twisted and convincing
One of the most impressive and disturbing moments in Martha Higareda’s performance doesn’t even occur while she’s directly playing Ortega. In the ninth episode, “Rage in Heaven,” Ortega returns to the Raven Hotel after fighting for her life and barely surviving against Reileen’s (Dichen Lachman) clones. She’s still seriously injured and leads Kovacs on by indicating that she barely escaped. To help lay the groundwork for what comes next, Ortega strips naked and Kovacs helps patch her up as she takes a bath. But something about Ortega seems slightly off.
Rei (wearing Ortega): “That took you way too long, Tak. What gave it away?”
Kovacs: “What did you do with her, Rei?”
Rei (wearing Ortega): “I can see what you like about this sleeve. It’s…nice.”
Kovacs: “What’d you do with her?”
Rei (wearing Ortega): “Relax. When you’ve lived long enough, you’ll get it. There are no rules. We do what we want.”
After a suspicious series of questions, Kovacs demands to know what Rei has done with Ortega. In an instant, Higareda’s body language and mannerisms completely change and it’s clear that it’s actually Rei inhabiting Ortega’s sleeve. The shift from Rei pretending to be Ortega to her revealing herself is downright masterful. As “Ortega” continues to talk, more of Lachman’s mannerisms appear in Higareda’s movements and line delivery until she’s perfectly emulating Lachman’s. It’s incredibly creepy, twisted, and brilliantly executed.
Throughout the first season of Altered Carbon, Martha Higareda consistently delivers a captivating and entertaining performance, and we can’t imagine the show moving forward without her
Kristin Ortega is one of the earliest characters introduced in in Altered Carbon. The character starts as a potential antagonist for Takeshi Kovacs but she soon evolves into an invaluable ally and love interest. But the character is far more complicated than that. She helps ground the series by providing personal and relatable experiences that result from human lives being extended indefinitely.
Ortega helps inject dark and sarcastic humor at critical points to help break the tension in the otherwise relentlessly dark storyline. Her desire to help and protect other grounders by getting vengeance for her boyfriend’s arrest is both admirable and morally gray. But none of that complexity would be possible without Martha Higareda’s nuanced and heartfelt performance as a member of the Bay City Police Department.
While it’s unclear if Altered Carbon is getting a second season at this point or if Martha Higareda would be involved given where the first season ends, we really can’t imagine a second season without her. When Ortega hurts, we hurt. When she’s kicking enormous amounts of butt, it’s impossible not to root for her. She’s sassy yet tough and caring. All of that is possible because of Higareda’s commanding, unflinching presence whenever she’s on screen. Takeshi Kovacs might be the protagonist of Altered Carbon but make no mistake. Martha Higareda’s Kristin Ortega is just as critical to the show’s DNA and her performance as that character isn’t one we’ll be forgetting anytime soon.