Fully realized, believable, futuristic world with relatable characters.
Diverse and highly talented cast.
Effectively deals with uncomfortable and difficult subject matter.
Amazing production values make it look like a big budget movie.
Cinematography and direction perfectly capture the rain-soaked, gritty, futuristic Bay City.
Fast-paced and well-choreographed action scenes.
The flashback episode “Nora Inu.”
Violence and subject matter might be off putting to some.
Will Yun Lee and Renée Elise Goldsberry should have been used more.
Logical but unsatisfying resolution to murder mystery.
Altered Carbon doesn’t hold back when exploring its futuristic setting and, in the midst of that, delivers a smart, captivating cyberpunk story with equally engaging characters
Altered Carbon is Netflix’s first serious, big-budget attempt at telling a cyberpunk story in live-action. Humanity, through the use of technology installed at the base of the neck, has developed the ability to encode and transfer the human mind into other bodies, or “sleeves.” This “cortical stack” technology has allowed humanity to spread far beyond Earth’s solar system into the stars. Takeshi Kovacs (Byron Mann) is a former Envoy freedom fighter (or terrorist if you’re the U.N. Protectorate) turned mercenary.
Within minutes, Kovacs’s sleeve is brutally killed by Colonial Tactical Assault Corps (CTAC) Praetorians and his stack is taken into custody. Kovacs violently wakes up 250 years later in 2384 in another sleeve (Joel Kinnaman), discovers that he has been sentenced to prison for eternity, and is now the property of the wealthiest man on Earth, Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy). Bancroft hires Kovacs to solve a murder: his own.
From there, the story branches out in several directions. With the help of Bay City Police Department detective Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda), artificial intelligence Poe (Chris Conner), and former Tac Marine medic Vernon Elliot (Ato Essandoh), Kovacs goes about solving the murder. Throughout the season, Kovacs obtains help through memories of the long-dead Envoy leader, Quellcrist Falconer (Renée Elise Goldsberry). The story becomes increasingly complicated as Kovacs and Ortega end up in the crosshairs of Mr. Leung (Trieu Tran), a devoutly religious hitman who has the ability to erase himself in real-time from all forms of surveillance. Who is this “ghostwalker” working for? What is he trying to accomplish?
Despite Altered Carbon introducing us to a murder mystery as a hook in the first episode, it serves more as a backdrop for exploring the characters, the cortical stack technology, and a larger story that’s connected to Kovacs’s complicated past. While that might be disappointing for those going into the show expecting a murder mystery to be the focus, the real strength of the show comes from its exploration of the cortical stack technology, how it has impacted humanity, and how it impacts the main characters. The characters themselves are equally complicated and are portrayed by a highly talented and diverse cast.
How does Altered Carbon balance the murder mystery, world building, its characters, and the larger story in the shadows? Aside from some disappointing developments in the murder mystery and how it’s resolved, it balances these elements extremely well. If the show isn’t exploring a disturbing application of human bodies being used as discardable vessels, it’s looking at the large divide between the super wealthy and everyone else. Or it’s taking a closer look at how families are impacted when a loved one is brought back in another sleeve. If you need information extracted from someone, why not bring them to an illegal clinic that specializes in torturing and killing people over and over again in a virtual construct until they’re broken? The ramifications of using the stack technology are disquieting and its applications are endless. The threat lurking in the shadows throughout the season makes extensive use of all of these unsettling applications and make things deeply personal for both Kovacs and Ortega.
When introducing such a rich and detailed world along with an intricate story woven throughout, there’s always a danger that a show may lose its footing and get bogged down with unnecessary distractions as it progresses. Does Altered Carbon lose its footing and fall from Head in the Clouds to its demise? No, it carefully balances along the edge, does a backflip, and shows other cyberpunk stories how it’s done.
The premise of living forever and how humanity would evolve (or devolve) under those conditions is explored at length in Altered Carbon, and it brings the series to some appropriately disturbing places
The concept of the cortical stack at the center of Altered Carbon is relatively straightforward. However, the exploration of it is anything but simple, and it raises difficult moral, ethical, and societal questions about how humans would adapt to such technology. The cortical stack has allowed for humanity to spread out well beyond our solar system to what have become known as the Settled Worlds. The human mind, which is encoded in Digital Human Freight (DHF), can be transmitted, or “needlecast,” almost instantaneously across the stars to any remote body. It allows for humans to overcome vast distances and see the universe across multiple lifetimes.
While that is significant, the more direct ramification of the stack technology is the ability for humans to effectively live forever. If your sleeve gets too old or sick to continue functioning, you can transfer your DHF into a new stack in a new sleeve. Or if you’re rich enough, you can clone your birth sleeve and repeat the process over and over again. If you don’t like your birth sleeve, you can purchase a more attractive sleeve to wear. You can easily live as a woman or as a man. Or you can experience life as a child again. The possibilities are only limited by the imagination.
“The first thing you’ll learn is that nothing is what it seems. Ignore your assumptions. Don’t trust anything. What you see, what you hear, what people tell you, what you think you remember. Let experience wash over you. Absorb it like a sponge. Expect nothing. Only then can you be prepared for anything. Your body is not who you are. You shed it like a snake sheds its skin. Leave it, forgotten, behind you.”
‒ Quellcrist Falconer
Altered Carbon explores stack technology in two main ways. It does it through worldbuilding or by directly showing viewers the various uses of the technology through its characters. Early on, the show introduces a class of wealthy elite called Meths, who are named after Methuselah in the Hebrew Bible. Many of these elite have lived for hundreds of years and are no longer satisfied with normal human experiences. They crave newer and increasingly twisted experiences to quell their boredom. They prey on the less fortunate members of society. Meths have such immense wealth and influence over government officials that they effectively have unlimited power.
While the modern world is quite far removed from such an extreme situation, it isn’t as big of a stretch as it may seem at first glance. In the modern United States of America, groups of wealthy individuals on both sides of the political spectrum have enormous influence over elected officials. They may not directly pay for votes but they’re involved with powerful lobby groups that have millions of dollars at their disposal. They place political pressure on elected officials and attempt to get favorable legislation passed to advance their personal agendas. Altered Carbon takes this concept and injects the ability for these individuals to live forever. What would society look like after hundreds of years of the same people being able to repeat this process for their own personal gain? This is only one of many examples the show explores.
Would we give into our darkest impulses and instincts? Despite being so evolved technologically, would we devolve as a species and become more primal over time? As Kovacs says, would we bring our demons with us across the stars? Without providing quick and easy answers to these uncomfortable questions, the show expects a lot from its viewers and that helps it stand alongside some of the best sci-fi shows.
The murder mystery that jump starts the series has numerous twists and turns, but its unsatisfying, anticlimactic resolution is impossible to ignore
Many of the early episodes of Altered Carbon feature Kovacs and Ortega attempting to solve Laurens Bancroft’s murder. Their investigation leads to numerous intriguing concepts and helps reveal parts of the larger story about Kovacs and his sister Reileen Kawahara (Dichen Lachman). There are several false leads and misdirects scattered throughout. All of those leads and misdirects are important to the bigger picture even if many of them aren’t directly about the murder. The investigation causes Kovacs and Ortega to become closer and it allows the show to explore Ortega’s connection to Kovacs’s current sleeve. This character development is critical to the way the rest of the season plays out. Without it, the final few episodes and the way Kovacs and Ortega will do almost anything for each other wouldn’t work nearly as well from a dramatic standpoint.
Bancroft’s murder causes Kovacs to engage in the world he wakes up in. The pain of losing Quell over 250 years earlier almost causes him to commit suicide ‒ real death by shooting out his stack. It draws us in and gets us invested in both Kovacs and the people he finds himself forced to work with. Starting around the sixth episode, “Man with My Face,” the story begins to move away from the murder mystery and focuses more on the threat from the shadows. At the end of the final episode, the murder mystery re-enters the picture and is solved.
Bancroft: “Now, all I ask of you is that you solve a murder.”
Bancroft: “Mine. […] This is where I died. When Miriam found me, my head had been vaporized.”
Kovacs: “It’s an energy weapon?”
Bancroft: “Yes. A particle blaster. I keep one for personal protection in a biometric safe that only Miriam and I can open. Go ahead, say it. Everyone else has. Either I committed suicide, or my wife murdered me.”
Unfortunately, the answer to who killed Bancroft isn’t a particularly interesting one and falls flat once it’s revealed. What makes this reveal even less interesting is the way the show stops the action and essentially does an information dump that leads to a confession. While that kind of information dump might work well for a Sherlock Holmes story, and it could have potentially worked here, the way its executed doesn’t really work in Altered Carbon. Nor does it fit the way the rest of the season plays out. The guilty party doesn’t even request to have a lawyer present. It isn’t unwatchable and it doesn’t destroy the season, but it’s a disappointing conclusion to what could and should have been far more interesting.
After spending so much time in the first six episodes attempting to solve the murder, the answer that’s given is underwhelming. That answer is logical and naturally flows from what is revealed throughout the entire season. The motive makes sense and is in character. It’s directly connected to larger parts of the story as well. But after so much misdirection and detours along the way, it makes us wonder why the show spent so much time building up the murder mystery if the actual answer to the question of who killed Bancroft was answered in the same scene he was originally introduced in. The end result is a very simplistic murder mystery embedded in a more complicated, interesting story.
The flashback episode, “Nora Inu,” is a gorgeously shot and brilliantly written showcase for multiple actors that also fleshes out Kovacs’s backstory at a critical point in the narrative
After Reileen reenters the story in the sixth episode, “Man with My Face,” Altered Carbon jumps into an extended flashback episode to fill in important details in Kovacs’s backstory. “Nora Inu,” or “stray dog” in Japanese, starts when Kovacs and his sister are children on Harlan’s World. Their father is abusive and violent. One day, he murders their mother. To protect his sister, Kovacs kills their father.
Kovacs’s body is stolen from him and his stack is taken into Colonial Tactical Assault Corps (CTAC) custody. The CTAC officer who takes him into custody recruits him and promises to protect his sister Rei (a lie). Years later, Kovacs runs into Rei during a CTAC raid on the yakuza on Harlan’s World. The two immediately turn on the CTAC Praetorians and yakuza, and go on the run. Quellcrist Falconer captures and recruits them into her Uprising against the Protectorate. As an Envoy, Kovacs hones his skills as a killer and over time masters the ability to jump into any sleeve on any world with limited disorientation. All of this backstory directly connects to current events in shocking and unexpected ways.
Jaeger: “The Settled Worlds are full of lawlessness. Killers, rapists, slavers, gangs. They leave behind victims. Innocents. We travel between planets, protect our citizens.”
Young Kovacs: “Mister, I’ve got nothing left for you to take. They took my body, probably sold it off already. What do you want?”
Jaeger: “To recruit you. Colonial Tactical Assault Corps.”
Young Kovacs: “You’re CTAC?”
Jaeger: “Looking at you, I see potential. I can make something out of you, son.”
“Nora Inu” is a massive undertaking on every level and feels like a short movie. Due to the flashback nature of the episode, the bulk of it focuses on Kovacs’s original sleeve, who is portrayed by Will Yun Lee. Lee jumps into the leading role in the flashbacks with relative ease. His portrayal of Kovacs is unique yet similar enough to Kinnaman’s that he’s clearly the same character. Renée Elise Goldsberry also steps into a leading role by playing the actual Quellcrist Falconer. She has a commanding presence in every scene she appears in. But under all of that strength she skillfully portrays a sadness and loneliness.
Toward the end of the episode the Rawling virus is introduced. The virus directly infects stacks and causes people of all ages (including children) to turn on each other or themselves. The deployment of the virus is played out in several nightmarish scenes. It starts slow. Children stab each other with eating utensils. Envoys stab themselves in the eyes and other body parts to try to cut out whatever hallucination the virus is causing them to see. They scream in agony as they try to escape a virtual construct that doesn’t exist. Some aren’t even able to kill themselves because the virus prevents them from doing so.
While this is happening, the U.N. Protectorate starts bombing the surrounding area, which sets the forest on fire. Ash falls like snow and covers everything. The transformation of the calm, peaceful forest on Harlan’s World into a fiery, ash-filled, hellish nightmare full of bodies, gunfire, and screams is one of the most memorable and effective moments in the series. It’s also a defining moment for Kovacs as he believes the two women he loves, Quell and his sister, are killed as a result of the hell he’s forced to live through. Without these deeply personal and traumatic experiences that were caused by his own sister, Kovacs’s decision to go after and stop her in the present wouldn’t carry nearly as much weight, sadness, or tragedy. “Nora Inu” does drastically slow the pace of the present day storyline but the payoff is well worth the sacrifice to the pace.
From a psychologically damaged woman who violently loses her birth sleeve to a badass fighting machine, the evolution of Lizzie Elliot is powerful, inspiring, relevant to the modern political landscape, and downright terrifying
When we first meet Lizzie Elliot (Hayley Law), she’s trapped in a trauma loop in a virtual construct. After she’s brutally attacked by an unknown assailant, her birth sleeve is killed and so is the baby she’s carrying. Her father Vernon saves her stack but he’s unable to afford a new sleeve for her to wear. Instead, he spins her up in a virtual environment so that he can visit her. But she’s so psychologically damaged and disconnected that she is incapable of even basic conversation. She’s in a constant state of panic, fear, and turmoil. She isn’t even able to talk to her own father.
After Kovacs enters the picture, he offers to help rehabilitate Lizzie. Kovacs has Poe obtain an expensive psychosurgery therapeutics license. Poe puts Lizzie in a heavily protected virtual room in the Raven Hotel. From there, he begins to rehabilitate her and teaches her various forms of self-defense. Lizzie’s transformation from a scared, psychologically damaged woman to a confident, powerful fighting machine is a slow, subtle process that takes place over the course of most of the season.
Watching Lizzie go from a scared, helpless woman that’s consumed and defined by severe psychological trauma to some sort of artificial intelligence/human hybrid that is full of confidence is a remarkable transformation. Instead of running away and hiding, Lizzie runs toward those who have victimized others to bring them to justice. She seeks them out and confronts them. With violence, and sexual violence against women in particular, front and center in Bay City, Lizzie’s role in the story is a critical one, and her transformation sends a powerful message. Those who have been victimized don’t need to stay that way.
Lizzie: “I’ll go, but I don’t run away anymore. I run toward. Send me up to the sky. I know the tree now, the branches spreading in every direction. And I can see them all. […] If you don’t send me, they catch me.”
Poe: “What is it that you see?”
Lizzie: “Salvation. Death. […] Retribution.”
Poe: “Perhaps you could tell me in what order?”
Lizzie: “It’s time for you to send me away. […] You gave me so much. Whatever it means to be human, Eddie, you are. […]”
Poe: “I’m sending your mind to Head in the Clouds. Be careful, Lizzie.”
Lizzie: “You shouldn’t be afraid for me. You should be afraid for the monsters.”
When looked at in the context of the modern political climate ‒ Hollywood producers sexually assaulting and harassing women for decades, members of the United States Congress getting away with doing the same, the President of the U.S. bragging about doing such things, and far too many other examples to list ‒ this message about victims of sexual violence becomes even more important. Victims don’t need to stay victims. That trauma doesn’t need to define them forever. They can fight back against those who have exploited or harmed them. Those who carry out the abuse should and can be held accountable for their actions.
After downloading into a synthetic body, Lizzie becomes judge, jury, and executioner on Head in the Clouds. Her choice of a dominatrix outfit to bring people to justice in is oddly fitting and amusing in a twisted sort of way. But Altered Carbon takes its message about victims and fighting back a step further. Is Lizzie still human? Did Poe go too far with his rehabilitation program? Is Lizzie’s approach an ethical one? Does she have the right to murder those who have murdered, abused, or sexually assaulted others in cold blood? Should we be cheering her on or should we be deeply concerned for her humanity?
Altered Carbon doesn’t directly answer these questions, and like all good sci-fi, it leaves the answers up to viewers and hypothetical future seasons to explore. But the message about fighting back against sexual assault and other forms of abuse/violence is critical to one of the show’s core messages. Without it, the intense violence at various points would be meaningless. Lizzie’s transformation turns that violence into a vehicle to make an incredibly important and relevant point about sexual violence and those who are victims of it in the modern world. It does that masterfully.
Netflix’s Altered Carbon uncompromisingly explores its futuristic, dystopian setting of Bay City with such finesse and sophistication that it should be looked at as a model for how to handle cyberpunk in live-action going forward
Visually, Altered Carbon is truly a work of art. From the very first scene to the final shot of the series, the show looks like a big budget Hollywood movie. The cinematography perfectly captures Bay City’s dark, futuristic look. The special effects are consistently outstanding and are used to enhance the presentation of the story rather than overwhelm viewers. When combined with the cinematography, Bay City feels like a real living, breathing dystopian city. The visual style of the series adds an enormous amount of atmosphere that bleeds into every part of the show right down to the action scenes to the moody rooms of the Raven Hotel to the rain-soaked streets. Directors Alex Graves, Andy Goddard, and Uta Briesewitz stand out especially well, with the latter directing a complex (and unsettling) naked fight sequence involving Martha Higareda and Dichen Lachman in “Clash by Night.”
Not everything in Altered Carbon is about its visuals, however. The writing is sharp, the dialogue witty. Whether it’s Poe saying something perverted in an amusingly polite manner or Ortega making a cynical, profanity-filled remark, the dialogue is often smart and entertaining. The concepts Altered Carbon deals with are disconcerting, thought-provoking, and highly relevant to where society might be headed. It touches on everything from men and women being bought and sold in the sex trade to humans living for too long to murder victims being brought back to testify against those who killed them. The highly diverse cast mixed with the occasional switch to other languages mid-conversation helps portray a futuristic society where race and language don’t appear to be major hold-ups. Instead, wealth, privilege, and influence have taken their place. Netflix also assembled a top of the line cast to portray the show’s complicated characters.
The first season of Altered Carbon asks so many questions that it’s difficult to know where to begin. Was Rei telling the truth about making a backup of Quellcrist Falconer’s DHF? How would Kovacs even begin to find it? With Ryker released from prison and cleared of all charges, will he and Ortega pick up from where they left off, or has Ortega fallen in love with Kovacs? Will Kovacs clone his original body and would that pave the way for Will Yun Lee to take on a starring role if Netflix renews the series? Will Kovacs continue the Envoy mission and attempt to destroy stack technology? Have all of the copies of Rei’s DHF truly been destroyed or is there another copy hidden somewhere on one of the Settled Worlds? What is Lizzie and how will she play a role moving forward? Should humans live forever if we develop the technology to do so?
Altered Carbon has a lot working in its favor but not everything is perfect. The murder mystery, while engaging and appearing to be fairly complicated, ultimately isn’t very complicated at all. The resolution is believable and makes sense but it’s still somewhat disappointing. The pace of the series can be somewhat slow at times. It’s never sluggish. Something is almost always happening to move the characters and story forward. However, Altered Carbon isn’t usually a fast-paced action series and expects viewers to have patience while watching the story unfold.
The dark and frequently disturbing subject matter the show deals with will likely be a huge turnoff for some viewers. Altered Carbon doesn’t shy away from showing violence or the troubling uses for stack technology. The show’s ability to deal with that subject matter the way it does is a strength but it’s still something to be aware of.
Despite the murder mystery not being all that interesting on its own, the material the show explores while Kovacs is attempting to solve the case is exceptional and more than makes up for the weaknesses of that mystery. The close look at the cortical stack technology and how it impacts the majority of the population is consistently front and center in the storyline. The complicated dynamic between Kovacs and Rei and how the past and present mirror each other is especially well-done.
Joel Kinnaman perfectly captures Kovacs’s deadpan humor, cynicism, and intensity as an Envoy without ever making the character seem inhuman (as do the other actors who portray him). Martha Higareda as Ortega is a force of nature and completely takes over whenever she’s on screen. Chris Conner’s Poe helps add comic relief in what could have easily become an overwhelmingly dark show. Reileen could have easily come across as a one-note, psychotic antagonist but Dichen Lachman adds layer upon layer to the character to convey tiny aspects of her humanity that are still intact. But these are only a handful of examples. The entire cast is in top form throughout.
The first season of Altered Carbon mostly tells a complete story. The murder mystery that opened the series is resolved by the end of the final episode and the threat that Reileen posed to Bay City has been neutralized. Many of the subplots are also resolved by the end of the season. However, the final episode also leaves many subplots open-ended in case the show continues beyond a single season. With Kovacs presumably in a new sleeve and the entirety of the Settled Worlds at the disposal of the writers, the possibilities for future seasons are pretty much endless. Where will Kovacs go next? Will he search for Quell or will he attempt to move on? Will he attempt to complete his mission?
Regardless of whether the show gets additional seasons, the first season of Altered Carbon is a massive achievement in storytelling, writing, acting, cinematography, and direction. Netflix didn’t hesitate to spend a lot of money and treat its first cyberpunk series with the level of seriousness it deserves, and it really shines through in every level of the production. Cyberpunk is a difficult subgenre of science fiction to adapt and Netflix managed to nail its complexity along with its moral and ethical gray areas with ease. The series is beautiful, disconcerting, violent, riveting, and extremely relevant to modern society and our increasing reliance on technology. With that in mind, when are we getting a second season, Netflix? We’ll be patiently waiting.
The first season of ALTERED CARBON is now streaming on NETFLIX.
The first season of Netflix's Altered Carbon is a dark yet intelligent look at a future where humanity has found a way to live forever and is hopefully only the beginning of an ongoing cyberpunk seriesIf you love Altered Carbon, why not check out the rest of our coverage of the first season? Also, don’t forget to follow us on Twitter for more on Altered Carbon and other sci-fi/streaming shows!
Altered Carbon Season 1: Final Verdict [Netflix]