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Altered Carbon Season 2 Is Toned Down, Slightly Shallower, But A Decent Story: Review

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BY March 14, 2020
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Netflix original series can only look forward to two seasons, usually. The conventional wisdom is that past that, the cost of the series versus the subscribers they bring in is a case of diminishing returns. So, while nothing is yet official, Altered Carbon season 2 could be the last we get to review. Sure, there is the upcoming anime set in the Altered Carbon universe, but that may be its own thing entirely. The adventures of Takeshi Kovacs could very well end right here. We won’t spoil anything in this review that the second season trailer didn’t already give away. Yet, we will talk about how the story could serve as ending, though there are plenty of threads to pick up if a third season gets the greenlight.

Ultimately, the series shifted in a lot of ways under new showrunner Alison Schapker. The overall tone feels different, and a series that once felt “edgy” (in all the good ways) lacks that quality now. Still, Anthony Mackie does an excellent job as Takeshi Kovacs, taking over the role from Joel Kinnamen. Chris Conner delights as Poe, the AI compatriot of our hero. Renée Elise Goldsberry is very good as Quellcrist Falconer, the rebellion’s Messiah and love interest for our hero. Season 2 of Altered Carbon is almost precisely what you’d expect it to be. But is that good or bad?

Altered Carbon Season 2 Is a Sweet Cyberpunk Romance With Interludes of Hyper-Violence.

Altered Carbon Season 2 review Anthony Mackie Takeshi Kovacs Chris Conner Poe Image via Netflix

Unless you are overly fond of Richard Morgan’s original novels, the story offered by Altered Carbon is a fulfilling one. It poses an interesting question about immortality, makes a middling commentary on class, and remains one of the best premises in modern sci-fi. On its face, it is one of Netflix’s best sci-fi original series. Kinnamen helped define the later-in-life Kovacs as a brooding drinker with a sharp word for everyone. In a way, the naturally charismatic Mackie struggles to maintain that characterization. The 30 years that passed between the first and second seasons has done little to soften his mood.

Again, in trying to avoid spoilers for this review, Altered Carbon season 2 is delivers pretty much what you expect. A final twist, delivered in the penultimate episode, will surprise all but the savviest sci-fi fans. Yet, the moral questions it poses are given no space to be considered with the shortened episode order. (Altered Carbon season 2 offers eight instead of ten episodes for review, and not one of them is over an hour long.)

Still, the story is satisfying. It’s a hell of a ride in a world full of stunningly beautiful imagery. It wraps up the character stories in a way that feels both surprising and inevitable. The action is as good as anything in the John Wick films. Like most genre adaptations, Altered Carbon season 2 is only really critiqued on what it could be. Mostly, this is because of how the series muddies the political themes raised in the source material. Also, I don’t know how I forgot to mention it, but Simone Missick is the MVP of this season. (Just as she was in Luke Cage season 1 and Iron Fist season 2.) I would watch a spin-off about her character, graciously and without question.

The Politics of Altered Carbon Are So Muddied, the ‘Hero’ Is Mostly Wrong

Altered Carbon Season 2 review Goldsberry Quellcrist Falconer Sith Lord Image via Netflix

As mentioned above, the Richard Morgan novels that inspired this series are heady political commentaries on top of everything else. In the series, this is not always the case. The changes made are drastic. For example, Quell existed long before Kovacs did in the books. All of the character relationships are made more personal. Dichen Lachman’s Reileen goes from being a former underworld contact to his sister. So, Kovacs’ commitment to Quell’s cause is less about politics and more about his personal devotion to her. Also, Quell’s cause is significantly different in the books. In order to make it simpler, the storytellers made her, well, wrong.

The main difference comes with her original plan as revealed in the first season. She wants to destroy the Cortical Stacks that allow for humans to live beyond their natural lifespan. While it’s true the Meths, this world’s version of the “one percent,” are essentially immortal, other humans also live much longer lives. In the series, Quell wants to destroy this ability (given that she created it) for everyone. Such a drastic action is no different than the sins of the Meths. She is making the decision to bring back “real death” for everyone.

It’s no wonder that with a cause that weak, the storytellers chose to make her personally important to Kovacs. Altered Carbon season 2 corrects this problem somewhat, but it still doesn’t really make a political point at all. Sure, rich immortals are a terrible idea. However, that a mother could “spin up” a child taken before his or her time in a new “sleeve” sounds like the kind of miracle any parent would want. Also, the idea of human bodies as mere objects to be discarded is barely touched on.

Altered Carbon Season 2 Strips Away Everything That Made the Series ‘Dangerous’

Altered Carbon Season 2 review Danica Harlan Lela Loren Image via Netflix

Artistic nudity in films and series serves two purposes, ultimately. The first is dependent on the context of the nudity and the second, almost always, is audience titillation. The latter bit, especially when the titillation seems aimed at the male gaze, is often criticized. Yet, Altered Carbon’s use of nudity was almost never about titillation. In almost all cases, it was used to compare and contrast the idea of intimacy in this world. Meths would practically parade around nude, their bodies just another outfit. In one scene last year Kristin Lehman’s Miriam Bancroft appears to be cheating on her husband, only for Kovacs to discover its actually Miriam’s daughter, taking her mother’s sleeve for a spin. The question of how much of a person is their body was central, and the nudity helped show the indifference many felt about their sleeves.

Yet, in Altered Carbon season 2, there is almost no nudity at all. Only Lela Loren, Mackie, and Goldsberry are shown sans clothing. The latter two actors’ scenes are nothing that couldn’t be shown on basic cable after 9 PM. Loren’s scene is the only one reminiscent of the first season. She’s nude, of course, and should be vulnerable (due to the events that led to her re-sleeving), but she’s not. Instead she’s angry and, arguably, more confident in the power she wields than in almost any other scene where she’s clothed.

Also gone, it seems, are the ways the show challenged our modern ideas about things like race and gender. Cross-sleeving into different races is not even a concern, despite the problematic look of having an Asian man’s consciousness in a white man’s body. The show never really touches on gender, despite the many possibilities there were to examine that concept with this premise.

Altered Carbon Could End or Continue, But We Should Temper Our Expectations

Altered Carbon Season 2 review Simone Missick Trepp Image via Netflix

So many series or films never live up to the promise they have in their most passionate fans’ minds. One need only see the reaction to Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker to understand how that can be.

For what it’s worth, Altered Carbon season 2 is a great story and well worth your time. It has Blade Runner vibes, neo-noir mystery, and all-out action sequences. The central character stories, essentially people out of time trying to find their place in a world that’s mostly moved past death, are good. We may not understand fully why characters feel the way they do about each other. Yet, these relationships are paid off in a satisfying way. The finale hits the perfect sweet spot of wrapping the story we invested in, while leaving things open. Kovacs, Quell, Poe, and the others can go on having adventures either in a successive season or just our imaginations.

Yet, if you come to Altered Carbon looking for examinations of philosophical and moral questions, you will find the series wanting. The second season seems to back off from any of the dangerous topics it flirted with in the first. And, that’s okay, even if it feels like the storytellers wasted some of the potential this premise provides. One has to wonder how this criticism will even hold up as the series ages and, hopefully, real-world humanity sorts out its feelings on these issues.

Grade: What You See Is What You Get

Personally, I hope this series gets one more bite at the apple, if only because it takes place in such a strange and vibrant world. Also, the characters are all left in a place where they could, legitimately, move on from what drove them up until now. It’s fresh territory and the storytellers could take bigger swings with their settings and characters. However, if it doesn’t come back, that’s okay, too. The story they told is a personal tale of obsession, identity, and the way personal failings can corrupt big causes.

What did you think of the series? Share your Altered Carbon season 2 review in the comments below, and tell us if you think it should end or go on?

Featured image via Netflix

ReviewsTV ShowsAltered CarbonNetflix

Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. The first books he read on his own were comics, and he's loved the medium ever since. He is the greatest star-pilot in the galaxy, a cunning warrior, and a good friend. His book "What I Learned: Stories, Essays, and More" is available in print from Amazon and from all electronic booksellers.

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