'Altered Carbon' - Cyberpunk Series Review
Netflix's Biggest Cyberpunk Challenge
Adapting Richard K. Morgan's novel, Altered Carbon, isn't by any means an easy task. The complex story introduces, in detail, many new technological concepts in a dystopian future where immortality seems to be a reality and where the notion of personality can vary at any time.
During the entire plot. Takeshi Kovacs, the protagonist of the novel, has three different bodies, or as they are called in this universe, sleeves. Like him, most of the primary and secondary characters change their physical appearance as a snake changes skin. In literature, our imagination gives us the freedom to choose how to identify, and we always have the character's written name as the main anchor/reference.
But in an audiovisual medium, things change, our imagination must accept the appearance of the character that other creatives chose for us. When acting is one of the main tools to get the viewer to empathize with the characters, how does that work in a universe where different actors can play the same character at any given time?
That is just one of the great challenges that Netflix will have to face. And for now, Netflix has a rather unstable record with the future/cyberpunk sci-fi genre. Blame!, The Discovery, Spectral and Neo Yokio have had a rather timid reception. Beyond some small niches, any of those shows haven’t been able to become a massive phenomenon.
But each project is different and, perhaps aside HBO and Showtime, Netflix is the best platform for this type of creative risk.
The showrunner, Laeta Kalogridis, doesn't have an impressive resume. Writer of Alexander, Shutter Island, and Terminator Genisys, among others, Kalogridis is better known as a writer Union champion than a successful creator. This doesn’t condemn her at all, but it does cast a huge shadow of doubt about her ability to carry out this titanic project.
The staff of directors, on the other hand, is full of proven talent: Miguel Sapochnik, Nick Hurran, Alex Graves, Uta Briesewitz and Andy Goddard, among others, have high experience in TV shows like Game Of Thrones, Daredevil, Luke Cage, Fringe, Jessica Jones, Downtown Abbey, True Detective, Sherlock and Doctor Who. If the budget follows them, at least in the visual aspect, the episodes will have a guaranteed high quality.
The adaptation is on the right track. The TV Show format is the perfect medium to adapt this novel. With such a complex universe, full of twists and new information, compressing a book into a two-hour movie is an almost impossible task.
The payoff can be massive. Altered Carbon is full of shocking moments and unique imagery. It has complex characters as well as disturbing violence and futuristic sensuality. It's an interesting study about the definition of personality and, like any good cyberpunk, the control of technology by elites over the most dispossessed.
This is a true Neo-noir full of trenchcoats and futuristic rainy mega-cities full of neon lights. It also has the potential to become TV of the highest quality.
Season 1 Episode 1: “Out Of The Past”
Introducing the Altered Carbon universe in a 50-minute episode is not an easy task. That's why showrunner Laeta Kalogridis decided to give that responsibility to experienced director Miguel Sapochnik (House, True Detective, Repo Men and Game Of Thrones).
And Sapochnik, without a doubt, fulfilled the task.
In this dystopia, humans change body as snakes shed skin. From their first year of age, they have implanted cortical stacks at the base of the head, where all brain processes are stored making it easy to transfer consciousness to another vessel. The bodies are called sleeves. Therefore, a single person can live hundreds of years, as long as they have the money for it and/or their stack doesn't suffer irreparable damage.
This is the story of Takeshi Kovacs. When we see him for the first time, he is an Asian man (Will Yun Lee), who is with Sarah (Olga Fonda) in a room, cleaning and fixing some Cortical Stacks that they have collected, we don't know how. Takeshi is an Envoy, a special soldier with many enhancements, including that of Intuition, where thanks to a pattern system, he is able to identify personalities and predict behaviors or reactions.
A military group of Colonial Tactical Assault Corps (CTAC) praetorians ambush them. They arrest Takeshi, whom they accuse of treason and to work with terrorist leader Quellcrist Falconer. Takeshi tries to save Sarah by saying she is a nobody, but Jaeger, the leader of the CTAC operation and his old friend, shoots her in the head cruelly, destroying her stack. Takeshi tries to escape and is killed.
250 years later, Takeshi is resleeved in the body of a blonde strong guy (Joel Kinnaman) at Alcatraz Prison. His sleeve is also a neurachem with combat muscle memory, which makes this new sleeve kinda an upgrade.
Takeshi has been revived by the interests of millionaire Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy) of Bancroft Industries, one of the few people with more than 300 years of life, achieved partly by his massive fortune. Lt. Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda) has deep suspicions about Bancroft's intentions paying his money into reviving/pardoning a dangerous terrorist, so she maintains a vigilant attitude with both.
Takeshi is transported to the above-the-clouds-mansion of the Bancroft. There, Laurens explains everything. He was recently killed. He was shot in the head in his own house, destroying his stack. But Laurens, being the billionaire he is, is perhaps the only human with a full-spectrum DHF remote storage backup rotating the planet, which is updated every 48 hours, which is why he was able to be resleeved. Unfortunately, he doesn't recall the last 48 hours before the attack. Laurens also claims that there was an attempt to hack the satellite feed of his backup data. He and his wife Mirian were the only ones with access to the murder weapon. Mirian passed all possible lying detections tests, so the case was quickly dismissed as a suicide.
But Laurens doesn't believe that. And his best option to solve the enigma is to pay for the freedom and the pardon of perhaps the last Envoy of the planet.
But Takeshi doesn't want any of that. Not only has he also dismissed the whole case as a mere suicide, but he prefers to return "to the freezer" rather than work for millionaires against whom he fought all his life.
Taking advantage of the last hours of his freedom (paid for by Laurens), Takeshi decides to go down the path of sex, drugs and rock N 'Roll. He enters The Raven Hotel, where he is greeted by an A.I. who emulates Edgar Allan Poe, with the firm intention of hiring some prostitutes and continue using drugs.
But an armed gang ambushes him in the lobby. They know that he’s an Envoy and they are there to neutralize him. In a fantastic action sequence, Takeshi pays the hotel bill, activating the armed protection of the place. Seeing Edgar Allan Poe tear apart villains with a shotgun it's a thing of beauty.
Lt. Ortega arrives to investigate the massacre and identifies Dimitri Kadmin, a hitman who double sleeves (that is, he has a duplicate) as the leader.
Takeshi is now intrigued. If an armed group wanted to avoid investigating the death of Laurens, it's for a reason.
Takeshi rides out his hallucinations. He talks with his old love, the alleged terrorist leader Quellcrist Falconer, who died "for real" 250 years ago. He doesn't want to live without her.
But "imaginary" Quell persuaded him to "finish the job". Takeshi now has a purpose.
Season 1 Episode 2: “Fallen Angel”
This second episode has convinced me. We are facing the first successful non-anthological full-blown cyberpunk TV show of this century. The main characters continue to develop, the secondary and itinerant give color to a universe that already has a wonderful cinematography that reminds the nightly a-la-Blade-Runner neon. On top of everything, the story is engaging and the neo-noir element starts to have a full effect here.
Because Kovacs is already in a detective mindset, raincoat included. Along with Bancroft's attorney Prescott, he visits Psychasec to learn more about the needlecasting process of their employers.
One of the biggest problems of the process is that after several resleeving, the subject ends up developing a personality frag, an acute psychosis. Which means that for the average person, life will undoubtedly be longer, but not eternal.
But for a billionaire Meth like the Bancrofts, that's no problem. Psychasec is responsible for creating ultra expensive sleeves' clones, making the personality frag problem impossible. That's why Laurens has lived for more than 300 years.
In this episode, we know Ortega's backstory a little. She is a vessel to show the cult and religion aspects of this universe. She's the black sheep of her strongly Catholic family. Her mother still reproaches her decision to left religion to pursue her career. Religion forbids resleeving. Her very devout father decline the offer of extending his life because of his beliefs.
Ortega has to deal with Mary Lou Henchy's mother, a victim whose body is being held by the police for unknown reasons. In the end, Ortega illegally extracts the stack from Henchy's corpse, to better understand the situation.
Kovacs does a cross-reference work with all the death threats videos that Lauren has received. After deciphering the serial of one of the weapons of one video, Kovacs is interested in a possible suspect: an ex-Marine named Vernon Elliot.
After a bit of hostility, Kovacs discovers that Vernon Elliot jealously maintains the stack of his daughter Lizzie, who has entered a traumatic loop after being wildly beaten one night, several weeks ago. Vernon blames Bancroft, as his daughter confessed that she was dating him.
Kovacs understands that Vernon is not the culprit. He wouldn't expose himself in that way to be killed, leaving his daughter unprotected. But the story catches his attention. After investigating a little more, Kovacs discovers that Lizzie was a prostitute and that apparently Bancroft was really "caring". When leaving the brothel, he's again attacked by a small gang, which he manages to neutralize.
Arriving at the Raven Hotel after an interesting day, Kovacs encounters another surprise: Miriam Bancroft, who seduces him easily, among other things because her state-of-the-art sleeve secretes Merge9, a biochemical pheromone impossible to resist.
Season 1 Episode 3: “In a Lonely Place”
The episode begins with a flashback of Kovacs' childhood along with his little sister Rei. Both are hidden in a closet watching a man (their father?) savagely beat who we assume is their mother. Kovacs and Rei combat fear together, by promising each other to never face "the monsters" alone.
Back in the present, Kovacs receives an invitation from Laurens to an exclusive party at his ridiculous mansion above the clouds. But this is work. There, all the possible Meth suspects of Laurens' murder will be concentrated, and Kovacs has the mission to subtly scan/interrogate them.
At the same time, Kovacs receives from Poe the news that a small cyber drone captured images of his sexual encounter with Miriam Bancroft. Kovacs goes into paranoia mode. He decides to propose to Vernon Elliot to be his backup at the party, in case something happens.
To convince him, Kovacs manages to get Poe, an AI with access to all available knowledge on the mainframe, to specialize in psychosurgery therapeutics (The Matrix Style) and treat Lizzie, to get her out of her traumatic loop. All, of course, courtesy of Laurens' credit.
Quickly, Poe makes preparations. She takes Lizzie to one of the hotel virtual suites, isolating her from human contact. In a short time, Poe manages to make her talk, although there is still a lot of work to be done.
The stage is set. All the characters meet at the pompous party. Vernon is undercover as a waiter. Lt. Ortega, forced by her superiors to make amends with the Bancroft, attends the party as the security supervisor (something that is considered "an honor") of the special event: Fights to the death in a null g-force field (that's zero gravity) between two combat sleeves. The winner receives an upgraded sleeve, the loser a downgraded one.
Kovacs meets Clarissa Severin, the art/history curator who, having proposed Laurens to acquire the last Envoy, received a great "finder's feed".
The party, of course, is a disgusting display of the rich mocking the rest of society and displaying their exotic acquisitions. "Rules don't apply to us" says one woman, who boasts a snake with an illegally transferred stack of a criminal human prisoner. Laurens himself introduces Kovacs, the last Envoy, as his most precious possession, initiating the applause of the guests, the empathy of Ortega and the fury of Kovacs.
Season 1 Episode 4: “Force of Evil”
"Force of Evil" is my favorite Altered Carbon episode so far. Already without the enormous responsibility of introducing a complex universe, this hour, written by Russel Friend and Garrett Lernes (both responsible of several House episodes) and directed by Alex Graves (Game Of Thrones, Nuff said), focuses on two dramatic situations with torture and manipulation to get answers like the backdrop.
Kovacs is in the Wei Clinic, about to enter a Virtual Interrogation Program, which is just a nice name for an endless infernal torture created virtually, with 100% success in breaking its victims and getting answers. As there is no risk of death, torture is eternal, creative and effective.
Kovacs is in serious trouble. He doesn't have the possibility of "breaking" because he doesn't know what's happening. Dimi, his torturer, doesn't stop calling him “Ryker” and demands answers about who "order the hit".
But Kovacs has a last resort. He did a strong Envoy training with Quellcrist Falconer to survive this type of torture.
Meanwhile, Kristin Ortega is fed up and stressed by the mediocrity of her colleagues. She's in such bad mood, that she even tases an arrested violent street thug. Ortega then decides to go to spend Dia de Muertos with her family.
But Ortega has a big surprise. She has borrowed the giant, pierced and tattooed sleeve from the incapacitated thug and has put the stack of her late grandmother, who renounced the religious code and now has the authorization to resleeve. It's a perfect Dia de Muertos sci-fi twist.
Of course, the presence of her grandmother causes multiple reactions in her family, especially on her mother, who is deeply devoted and cannot accept with ease what she considers blasphemy. It's a unique and interesting dynamic that speaks volume of how dogma always fears changes and always takes time to adapt to cultural, social and scientific advances.
After enduring dozens of tortures and resettings, Kovacs manages to put into practice what he learned with Quell. He manages to get out of the simulation, deceiving the local puny workers by telling them that he is a CTAC officer and that they have sealed their fate by torturing him. Whoever releases him from the stretcher will be forgiven.
"Divide et Impera", his imaginary Quell tells him. Kovacs is released and immediately begins a deeply satisfying and violent butchery against his captors and ALL the staff of the clinic with PJ Harvey's This Wicked Tongue as a musical background. Good Ol' buildup with a fantastic release.
After visiting the crime scene, Ortega confronts Kovacs at the Raven Hotel. But Kovacs has questions. Kovacs accuses Ortega of keeping track of him and is convinced that his current sleeve was a police officer. If Ortega wasn't tracking him, she was tracking the sleeve.
Ortega hesitates. Kovacs threatens to cut his jugular, which would eliminate that sleeve. Ortega breaks down and tells him that she will explain everything.
Season 1 Episode 5: “The Wrong Man”
The episode opens with an expected flashback: A little backstory by Elias Ryker.
Ryker has a violent crusade to solve the case of Mary Lou Henchy, which we discovered is her childhood friend. Not only has she been killed by being released from the sky into the ocean, but she couldn't be resleeved since she is a Neo-C, that is, someone converted to Christianity. Ryker is convinced that they falsified her code to prevent her from returning to life and thus pointing fingers at her victimizers. Ryker, in fact, believes that it’s a methodical everyday illegal practice.
But Ryker has several internal demons that would play against him. Violent and drug-fueled, he illegally interrogates a CTAC technical agent. Ortega convinces him that the conspiracy is only in his head. And it's the only reason why Ryker stops his anger. Days later, he is arrested for the murder of a CTAC agent. His demons kinda convince his friends and Ortega that it's plausible. His stack is extracted and placed in captivity, making his sleeve available.
The Plot Thickens. Thanks to the torture session, Kovacs learned that Dimi the Twin framed Ryker for the murder of a CTAC. There's definitely a connection with Laurens there.
Kovacs looks for Laurens in his house, but is received by Miriam, who informs him that the millionaire is in the Old City, "to minister to the masses". Miriam offers a shocking offer: she wants Kovacs to drop the case. She'll give him twice as much money and the certainty of a new identity. Kovacs ignores her.
Laurens is really at the Old City, in one of the areas where the most dispossessed, those with a violently contagious virus, are isolated. Laurens goes there every so often to give gifts and to "sacrifice himself", that is, interact and touch the infected, and die of the sickness in a matter of minutes, in front of their eyes. He is treated as a messiah. He seems to be doing this for altruistic reasons, but Kovacs thinks is a show. He just wants to know the reason why Laurens chose Ryker's sleeve for him. Laurens admits it: In addition to the great quality of the sleeve, it was a good opportunity to teach rebel Ortega a lesson.
Thanks to a lead by Poe, Ortega and Kovacs visit the "Fight Dome", where the disturbing Carnage (Matt Frewer) and his modifiable synth sleeve is forced to show them the security cameras of the night in which Laurens Bancroft died. The tape shows Laurens beating his son Isaac to the pulp while screaming things along the line of "you'll never be me".
Season 1 Episode 6: “Man With My Face”
So much information. Never let it be said that Altered Carbon doesn't take full advantage of the possibilities that its sci-fi universe gives. The casual viewer could easily get lost before so many uses and reuses of sleeves, but that debate about identity it's precisely one of the main motifs of this series.
The ghostwalker has a name. Mr. Leung. Not only that but we also get to know Hemingway (Arnold Pinnock), who is behind all the apparent hostility towards Kovacs. And we say "apparent" because his intentions are unclear. The order that he gave to Dimi 1 was to extract Kovacs and to take him to his presence ALIVE. But Dimi 1 saw Ryker's sleeve and his emotions got him killed. Dimi 2 wants revenge, but Hemingway is determined: Kovacs must live. Dimi 2 will be escorted by Mr. Leung until everything is resolved.
But Dimi 2 manages to escape from Mr. Leung's surveillance, accepting a mysterious offer to be remotely extracted from his sleeve. And here is when things get more twisted: Dimi 2 is transferred to one of Kovac's previous sleeve. All courtesy of Carnage and the Fight Drome. You get the idea where this confusion is going.
Ortega survives. Well, her sleeve survives, since her stack was never in danger. She lost her original arm but thanks to Laurens' money via Kovacs, she now has a powerful, kickass bionic arm. A silver lining, after all.
While Ortega recovers, Kovacs updates Laurens. Isaac used his sleeve to carry out the Osaka negotiations. Laurens discovered this and that's why he went to the Fight Drome to confront his son and almost beat him to death.
But Kovacs is convinced that Isaac is not really the murderer, but just an eternal son desperate to get the attention and respect of his father. Isaac confirms this. He wanted to show his father what he was capable of. Kovacs concluded this by appealing to his own experience, giving us the clue that perhaps he murdered his own father.
Ortega is back on the saddle. After learning that his superior Tanaka is on some payroll she demands him to know the identity of his blackmailer. Tanaka only has a virtual location, which he provides.
Kovacs, posing as Tanaka, enters the virtual address where he finally meets Hemingway. But something is wrong. A surprised Hemingway somehow recognizes Kovacs. Unfortunately, the conversation is interrupted by Dimi 2 (in Kovacs' previous sleeve), who knocks em both out with an energy bomb. They're now prisoners/fighters of the Fight Drome.
Carnage will make big money with this fight. A policeman hated by a ton of lowlifes (remember, almost everyone thinks that Ryker still lives) about to be killed, Circus Maximus style. But Ortega's bionic arm and her physical communication with Kovacs end up being the surprise survival card. Both manage to defeat all adversities, including Dimi 2. Ortega even destroys his stack, giving him real death.
Carnage opens the gates so the crowd, enraged by the survival of who they believe is Ryker, takes care of business. But a mysterious figure dressed as a future ninja ends up controlling the situation in a wonderful action sequence full of swords, kicks, and laser shots.
The figure reveals her face. Rei greets Kovacs, her beloved big brother.
Season 1 Episode 7: “Nora Inu”
"Nora Inu" is a full-blown flashback to Kovacs' story. One that, of course, it's full of violence and leaps of faith.
As we already assumed, Kovacs did assassinate his father. He did it out of revenge for his mother's death and to save his sister, whom his father was savagely beating. Of course, he ended up arrested.
And that's when Kovacs, still a child, meets an adult Jaeger. Jaeger wants to recruit him to the Colonial Tactical Assault Corps. It's a decent way out. He will have a fair, adventurous life fighting "bad people". His sister will be reassigned to a good family, guaranteeing her a stable, good life. The only downside is that, for her own safety, Kovacs won't be able to have any contact with her. Kovacs falls for it. Jaeger is kinda a stable father figure. Rei will be fine. He accepts.
Several years later, Kovacs, already a full adult member of CTAC, is sent on a mission to exterminate an illegal business run by the Yakuza. There, he gets himself face to face with his sister, who's working for the enemy. Without thinking, both protects each other. Kovacs neutralizes all CTAC agents, Rei murders all Yakuza.
The explanations come later. Rei was sold to the Yakuza as a child. Kovacs cannot hide his guilt and shame for having believed Jaeger and abandoned her.
But the past is past and both must now flee from both factions. With very few options, they decide to escape to their home planet Harlan's World, and hide in the forest.
There, they are found and recruited by the Envoys, led by Quell.
The Envoys are perfect for Rei and Kovacs. Strong, organized, hidden, with the same enemies and with hundreds of people ready to be their life allies. Quell's agenda is simple: Destroy immortality, which according to her, has only encouraged slavery and oppression. She wants to hack the system and put a 100-year deadline in every stack. She has a point. And although Rei has some reservations, Kovacs is fully invested, largely because of the strong chemistry he has with Quell.
And here is another revelation. Both already in love, Quell confesses to Kovacs her biggest secret: her true identity is Nadia Makita, the legendary creator of the Stacks and basically the whole concept of immortality who, for years, has been considered missing. It's an interesting display of one of the great motifs that in one way or another have been present in the cyberpunk genre. Technology extrapolated to the future, with the big power always taking advantage of it to continue oppressing. "Eternal life for those who can afford it means eternal control over those who cannot," she says, reaffirming her guilt and her anti-stacks stance.
The story of the Envoys ends horribly. CTAC locates their base and attacks them with the Rawling virus, causing them to attack each other wildly. The extermination is almost absolute. Kovacs stays behind to mislead the enemy forces, allowing Quell and Rei to escape and keep the plan alive. But the ship explodes mid-air, leaving Kovacs inconsolable, at the mercy of his enemies.
Back in the present, Kovacs wakes up in his sister's luxurious apartment. His current sleeve has been saved. Rei assures him that Ortega is unconscious but fine.
After a moment of necessary bonding, Kovacs discovers sleeves of different people who have been close to him in various ways, including Hemingway and Clarissa Severin. Rei has been monitoring him closely since his return and was the one that persuaded Laurens to purchase him. Rei is a Meth with a lot of economic resources.
And then, the episode's biggest plot twist: Rei confesses to having detonated the ship where Quell died. There was a hidden benefactor that allowed her to transfer her stack information, preventing her from dying. And of course, to torture Kovacs further, Rei claims that everything she has done, it was for him.
The twists are certainly already reaching a soapy space opera level, but at this point, it doesn't matter. We're fully invested.
Season 1 Episode 8: “Clash by Night”
Kovacs is in his own personal hell. His sister Rei is a Meth. She has confessed to being the one betraying the Envoys. She's directly responsible for the death of everyone, including Quell. Rei's logic is that she was "saving Kovacs from himself". She was sure the uprising was doomed to failure and that was the only way to survive. The little detail was that Kovacs "let himself be captured by the CTAC" and the process to found him took 250 years. Oh well.
Kovacs is torn between hating his sister or hating her and killing her. On top of the genocide, Rei also reveals that Leung is her faithful follower (he considers the Meths as gods for "having control of everything and being immortal") and that one of her main sources of income is the Wei Clinic, that horrendous center of torture and interrogation where Kovacs expended some time and virtual lives.
Rei needs Kovacs to close Laurens' case, even if that means framing an innocent. Convinced that in the future Kovacs will understand her, she enters full blackmail mode. If Kovacs doesn't close the case, Rei will kill Ortega and Vernon.
Kovacs agrees to close the case grudgingly. He asks for a "dipper", someone who modifies and manipulates security digital files, among others. He asks Rei to release Ava, Vernon's wife, a great dipper who was arrested years ago. Rei does it but with a twist: she put Ava in a man's sleeve.
However, that doesn't stop the huge positive influence of Ava's presence in Elliots' household. Lizzie, who has virtual weeks learning self-defense techniques (Poe's strategy to empower her) immediately recognizes her mother and smiling, she finally seems to leaving the trauma behind. For the first time since we met them, the Elliots seems happy.
After an elaborate plan that includes the collaboration of Poe, forgery of security cameras and even some Rawling virus, Kovacs gathers several guests to Lauren's house to unveil the killer, Columbo-style. Kovacs ends up framing the cruel Oumou Prescott. For the viewer, this is deeply satisfying and yes, somewhat contradictory.
Everyone believes the lie. Prescott is neither arrested nor murdered. Worse: she will live the rest of her days as a common civilian, literally grounded for life, with no chance of returning to her wannabe Meth life.
It's done. Kovacs has won his pardon, at a bittersweet cost.
Displaying a wonderful police work, Ortega manages to track Rei's deluxe sleeves cloning facilities. But there, she is ambushed. Again, Ortega surprises her victimizer. Rei has to practically use all her stored sleeves to do some damage to Ortega. Is not enough. Ortega has a weapon and a bionic arm. She manages to beat all the sleeves.
Except one. That of a little girl, that we had previously seen in Rei's possession. Asking for help, Ortega can't resist the urge to assist her.
Season 1 Episode 9: “Rage in Heaven”
This penultimate episode is full of elaborated twists but also has plenty of answers.
Ortega arrives at the Raven Hotel badly wounded, and is quickly taken care of. However, Kovacs quickly realizes that it's his sister Rei who is wearing Ortega's sleeve.
Again, in an absolute display of clumsiness and cruelty, Rei explains that Ortega has made her lose millions by destroying several sleeves of clones. Her revenge will be total: Leung will kill her entire family and then he will be dedicated to torture Ortega virtually.
Kovacs desperately goes out to help Ortega's family, but he arrives too late. The massacre, which includes children, is horrendous. But it's also a defining moment for Kovacs, who immediately puts to work an elaborate plan to bring down his sister bloody Meth empire.
The plan includes the support of the entire clan: The Elliots, Poe and even Mickey, Ortega's trusted tech guy, which comes with good news. He has managed to track down Leung, giving them the exact location where Rei lives: Head in the Clouds, a kind of ship/club/brothel where Meth can explore their darkest violent fetishes.
Kovacs makes a double sleeve, with the purpose of confusing Rei. After making sure that he is being followed by Leung, Kovacs 2 decides to accept the proposal of Miriam Bancroft to make a sexcapade with her (and her multiple clones) to a secret island. It's perhaps the only case in cyberpunk story in which being a clone it's an amazing thing.
The plan commences. Vernon will pose as an old general/new customer and Kovacs will be locked in the trunk, ready to infiltrate when Vernon manages to neutralize some security systems from the inside.
Moment of truth. Vernon and Kovacs manage to infiltrate the site and get to Rei at the exact moment she's needlecasting. They succeed in inserting the Rawling virus into her transmission, destroying her backups. Now the manipulation can take place: An absolute confession of her crimes/a season in the freezer or real death.
Rei confesses to have even more influence in the whole plot than we thought. She is responsible for Laurens murder. A regular client of Head in the Clouds, she knew he liked to choke girls as a release. After managing to drug him and make him violent, she get what she needs. Laurens kills one of the prostitutes. We also discovered that Mary Lou Henchy committed suicide by seeing this, hoping to be resleeved and be able to point out her assailants.
The reason for all this is political and economical. Rei needed to blackmail Laurens to stop resolution 653, which would allow murder victims to be revived to solve cases, even if they are Neo-C. Resolution 653 would practically kill the murderous and lucrative business that Rei has.
That's why Laurens decides to commit suicide, knowing that by doing so, he can forget his last 48 hours, which includes the murder of a girl. After all, Laurens believes he’s a decent man and not really a murderer.
Rei has made her confession, but apparently, everything will be in vain. Leung has noticed the intrusion and with several guards, he turned the table, putting Kovacs and Vernon at disadvantage.
What's Your Favorite Altered Carbon Season 1 Episode?
Season 1 Episode 10: “The Killers”
Like a villain on the 60's Batman TV show, Rei takes her time talking and psychologically torturing her opponents before actually killing them. Kovacs has surrendered, but Rei wants to group all her enemies in one place.
The first order to Leung is to go to the Raven Hotel and clean house. There, Leung and his henchmen kill Mickey (real death), take Ava Elliot and destroy Poe. While reciting "Annabel Lee", Poe says goodbye to the audience, but not before making sure that Lizzie is well. Lizzie seems to be in total control and asks her to transfer the information from her stack to any sleeve in the Head In The Clouds stock. Poe accepts.
At the crime scene, Tanaka has an encounter with Prescott, who magically wants to do the right thing now. Prescott knows that Ortega is in Head in the Clouds, so the police are on the way.
Yes, help is on the way. But what really helps our protagonists is Rei's need to talk and talk before really start murdering. This gives enough time for Lizzie, now with a sleeve synth that she can modify at will, to balance the odds.
Peter Hoar does a great job extending and distributing the focus well between this all out war. Ortega, Leung, the Elliots, Rei, Kovacs plus a few henchmen, all in different places, in a devilish choreography of kicks, knives and shots.
Ortega finally manages to give Leung a cathartic real death. The Elliots decide to destroy Head In The Clouds, sabotaging its systems and forcing a free fall from the ship/brothel into the ocean.
Rei and Kovacs are locked in the main room. After a long fight, Kovacs manages to have his sister at gunpoint. The police arrive to arrest her, but the lockdown prevents them from entering. Rei begs Kovacs to help her escape. In return, she will disappear from his life and -SHOCKING TWIST- will give him Quell. Kovacs reaffirms what he always felt: Quell also survived the explosion. Rei claims that, in effect, she also transferred her stack before the explosion. But without her, he will never be able to found that stack.
But Kovacs has already made a decision. He kills Rei. For real. Devastated, he decides to stay with his little sister until the end. Head In The Clouds falls engulfed in flames to the ocean.
Of course, the Kovacs stack is recovered. But the official pardon is only for ONE Kovacs, which is why the clone and the original have to resort to a rock, paper, scissors game.
Original Kovacs is the winner.
Of course, there are more extra soappy twists in the form of an epilogue. The Bancroft are going down. Laurens surrenders to the authorities for the death of Lena Rentang.
But Lizzie Elliot has something to confess. She was pregnant with Laurens’ child (dramatic music!) and it was Miriam who, in a desperate attempt to make her abort, ended up murdering her sleeve, her unborn child and also subjected her to virtual torture to incapacitate her psychologically. Miriam is also out of the picture.
The future looks promising. Resolution 653 has been approved, which will dramatically reduce impunity. Kovacs will return Ryker's sleeve to Ortega, who has mixed feelings about it.
Kovacs cannot hide the complexity of that decision either.
But he has another much more important mission to focus on: Finding Quell.
Wrapping Up Altered Carbon Season 1
Altered Carbon is not Blade Runner.
Of course, like any good cyberpunk fiction, there are many deep themes and philosophical musings motivated by the detailed technology of this engaging and creative sci-fi. But Altered Carbon is much more entertainment than high art, focusing more on its pulpy inclinations and the crime neo-noir.
And it's a blast.
The action sequences are not for the faint-hearted. The violence is rich, wonderful and rewarding. It really establishes how ruthless this universe is. There is a real sense of hostility from the environment towards our characters, which is a perfect fit in this cyberpunk universe.
Altered Carbon is also a pretty sexy show. And although there is evidently a favorable inclination to masculine fantasies, the treatment is generally very well constructed, at the perfect border between good taste and raw sexuality.
One of the best-achieved elements of Altered Carbon, is its details. This world is so rich, and its parts so well established, that you could easily develop whole episodes based on them. At one point in the season, there is a married couple with children whose everyday lifestyle consists of fighting each other for the Meth. The winner receives a sleeve upgraded and the loser a downgraded one. Right there, is an incredible story that is only suggested. It's just a small detail, but it gives a unique depth to the plot and gives us more clues as to how people live in this universe.
And Altered Carbon is full of moments like that, constantly challenging our conception of reality. Another great example is the exploration of a Dia de Muertos in which Ortega literally takes her dead grandmother to the family dinner wearing the sleeve of an imposing, tattoed, pierced thug. Besides being highly hilarious, is a great way to extrapolate the technology of this fiction and its impact on the cultural traditions and religions we know.
Altered Carbon never loses control of its frenzy world, but sometimes the plot twists and the obsessive amount of resleeving can completely lose the casual viewer.
The subject of immortality is very well studied. Altered Carbon shows how only the most privileged have access to that opportunity and their influence in the weak-minded, that are even able to perceive them as gods.
It also shows the mental-social deterioration of a long life. Altered Carbon is quite cynical in its approach, and could have a point. In the end, what drives our long-lived characters is not the wisdom acquired by experience, but the power and ability to express their most basic impulses with total impunity.
It's wonderful how Altered Carbon uses the Bancroft as an example of what could happen to a nuclear family that is not afraid of death. Eternal children with 60 years old literally trying to put themselves in the skins of their parents. Couples who ferment jealousy and deficiencies with strange and toxic habits. When the Bancroft fall, Laurens observes Miriam and completely resigned, throws a blunt question: "We have ruined each other, haven't we?". It's one of the best moments of the series because it manages to credibly conclude a personal story arc based on a completely hardcore sci-fi premise.
Although the backbone of the work of Richard K. Morgan is intact, this adaptation took great liberties. Thankfully, almost all the changes work perfectly. For example, there is no Jimmi Hendrix A.I., but a more empathic and engaging Edgar Allan Poe one.
One of those biggest changes is the character of Reileen Kawahara. In the original novel, Kovacs and Rei aren't even related. In the show, she's his beloved little sister. The change is based on the premise of the show to make all this journey a much more personal experience for the protagonist. The stakes are higher when your surprise enemy is a person you love and miss.
In addition, having Rei being Kovac's sister manages to better tie some plots ends, without having to resort to fortuitous coincidences. Her methodic manipulation is the one that bridges the relationship between Lauren's murder and Ortega's personal drama with Ryker, with Kovacs as the direct link.
That decision also ended up generating some problems. There is a huge disconnection between the manipulative, intelligent Rei who managed to turn for lowlife yakuza to Meth on her own, and the Rei that we really see on screen, much less smart, unable to convince and seduce. The Rei that we see is incredibly clumsy, erratic and at times too one-dimensional in its condition as a villain.
A good villain is one who earns our hatred for his/her actions. A legendary villain is one who makes us doubt. In Altered Carbon, Leung belongs to the first category. Rei doesn't really belong to either of them because her presence is more annoying than threatening. The Rei character fulfills perfectly her mission to tie the plot perfectly, but as a villain, the only emotional power she has it’s her filial relationship with Kovacs. Not her personality.
However, this doesn't destroy the show. The season concludes quite satisfactorily, closing all its plots and leaving open the possibility to explore further.
Altered Carbon is renewed for a second season and that's no real surprise. There is still a lot of original material to adapt, with the novels Broken Angels and Woken Furies waiting their turn to be on the screen.
Both novels greatly expand this universe, with Kovacs using another sleeve and taking his adventures to new planets.
And although that could indicate a structure more similar to the anthology (self-contained seasons in plot or theme), there are ways for the adaptation to show the new without completely abandon the sub-plots and characters that we already know.
After all, the soapy aspect really was engaging. That love triangle between Ortega, Riker (back to his usual sleeve) and Kovacs (with new sleeve) promises to explore new elements that only this sci-fi universe can offer.
Habemus hardcore cyberpunk show. Hence my 4-star rating, because I want more in this cyberpunk series universe, I really wanted to rate it 5 stars, but sometimes the soapy love story pulled it down for me.
If you are craving for more then have a look at my cyberpunk movies list.
© 2019 Sam Shepards