In a world where changing your appearance is as simple and as dispassionate as taking your “Stack”, which houses the essence of who you are, and placing it into another “sleeve” or body, cultivating and retaining a sense of self is a very real and vital thing.
Especially if you are Takeshi Kovacs (Anthony Mackie, season 2; Will-Yun Lee as “Takeshi Prime”), a man who was put on ice for 300 years, only to emerge in the sleeve of a former police officer before segueing into another sleeve by season 2 because it suits the interests of a Meth or Methusaleh, long-living humans who have the wealthy and thus the means of picking the very best sleeves and staying immortally alive as it pleases them.
In theory, everyone in this future set 360 years from our own where humanity has spread rapaciously and imperialistically to the stars, has access to living forever still “Stacks” can be moved from body to body ad infinitum.
But people being people what sounds like a charmingly idealistic idea, has been corrupted by power, money and privilege to the point where the rich can avail themselves of the very best of everything sleeves-related while those further down the run, and their numbers, then as now, are considerable, have to make to do with whatever their limited funds will but them.
Thus on Harlan’s World, founded many years earlier by a generational ship from Earth that deposited Conrad Harlan (Neal McDonough) and his band of intrepid and much-lauded “founders” upon a virginal world – so the fabled lore of this new human society goes; the truth, of course, is far more complicated and deadly (the alien shield technology ringing the planet should be a dead giveaway of that) and forms the thematic core of the rich storytelling of the second season – the leaders of the planet dwell in the very best of sleeves and attendant mansions and grounds while the poorer descendants of the original colonists such as married bounty hunter Trepp (Simone Missick; her performance is the star of the season) struggle to make a living and gather up the crumbs of immortality where they can.
It is an unjust world in a great many ways, run as a kleptocracy by Harlan’s daughter Danica (Lela Loren) who is technically the Governor but effectively operates as a crime lord heading a cabal who oversee the mining of the precious metals which make up most of the “Stacks” and whose wealth and ability to Meth-like status grab them a distorted view of what is human, right and good.
Altered Carbon, based on the book of the same name by Richard K. Morgan whose first season was a tour de force of violently futuristic Agatha Christie whodunnit and a elegantly, vividly realised evocation of what it means to be human, brilliantly examines what happens to the human psyche when “real death”, as it is referred in hushed, horrified tones, is a concept forever pushed to the margins of possibility by a seemingly inviolable technology that allows men and women to become gods in effect.
What begins as an idealistic concept, rich with hope for an endless and richly-realised future, soon becomes twisted and distorted to the point where what seems right and just bears no resemblance to its more mortally-arrived at original idea.
In season 2, the corrupting influences of lives forever-lived finds expression in musings by a number of characters of how the thrilling possibilities of lives without end also come with attendant pasts beset and besmirched by innumerable mistakes and fatal missteps that never stop haunting you.
It’s a richly-compelling idea that the second season of Altered Carbon doesn’t always use to full effect in its headlong rush to tell a story that isn’t as powerful or as deeply-executed as the morass-like moral conundrums of the first season, but which forms much of the narrative’s drive in which Kovacs, a man who knows about a blighted hundreds-of-years-old past weighing heavily on someone’s present, continues his quest to find his lost love Quellcrist “Quell” Falconer (Renée Elise Goldsberry), the one good thing in a life marked by childhood violence and adult loss and pain, of both the physical and existential types.
But love, like many things in Altered Carbon has been muddied and corrupted by overweening technology and his quest, though noble and impelling, isn’t strong enough to overcome prevailing forces which have been built upon an illegally-seized mandate.
Or perhaps it is, but it must face obstacles of degrees of magnitude greater than that which a mere person on the street can handle; the good news is that Kovacs, a man of existential grief but also of formidable training and ability, is not even remotely average, able to meet these obstacles if not with brute force then with a tenacious, implacable forward momentum that eventually most things to yield to him.
It’s a precious quality in a world where the sheer act of carving out some form of workable life takes everything most people have got and Kovacs, though he is waylaid on a number of occasions in a second season story that lacks the visual and emotional resonance of season 1, is more than up to the task of facing corrupt leadership, calcified mythology and criminal force.
It is, as you might well expect, a grim recipe but it is leavened by the reappearance of Poe (Chris Conner), a resolutely loyal and lovable A.I. who is the heart and soul of the show, aided in this season by the effervescently loveliness and melancholic gravitas of Dig 301 (Dina Shihabi), an AI archaeologue who forms a close, vital relationship with Poe and who together demonstrate a humanity that is more vital and compelling than that of many of the actual people in the show.
They are in many ways the very best of what it means to be human and the form a magnificent counterpoint to the failings evinced by Kovacs, Danica Harlan and the myriad other flawed people of Altered Carbon season 2 which grimly admits to the fact humanity is really neither good nor bad, just different, violently-expressed degrees of damaged.
While the story of season 2 might not be as riveting as its predecessor, failing to make the most of its themes of imperialism, and the fatal consequences of rapacious greed and twisted manifest destiny, and of the regret they can engender, it is still a beguiling watch, powered by vividly-realised characters, a grounded, vivacious exploration of humanity, connection and a sense that while technology may offer a great deal of promise, it is nothing if we, rather disastrously as it turns out, lose sight of our humanity, the very thing that makes us, US, and without which we are little more than a collection of blinking lights and failed ideals.
Altered Carbon season 2 is now available of Netflix.