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Altered Carbon Season 2 | Why Was It A Let Down?

Our Drew dives into what lessons can be learned from Season 2 of Altered Carbon.


It’s been 2 months since Season 2 of Altered Carbon released, which seems like the right time to take a proper look into it. Altered Carbon S2 was one of those pieces of work where the aftermath and initial response was just as interesting as the thing itself. Just like how Bird Box and Bright sparked debates about online marketing and reviewing as an industry, Altered Carbon produced a fascinating reaction among people that I feel is worth going into.

A lot of people hated S2. Really hated it. Rotten Tomatoes scores can be misleading, but I’ll just point out that the critic score is sitting pretty at 85% positive, and the audience score is down at 37%. I’m not going to get into review bombing, internet psychology, and the elitism of critics; that’s a whole other thing that we don’t have time for. But it’s fair to say that with the data provided, overall the audience didn’t like it, and critics loved it.

Personally, I thought it was fine. Definitely worse than S1, but fine. I saw where they were coming from with the changes they made, and they made sense in-universe as well. It was all round well-done in every sense, reflecting a more introspective show to match its more mature protagonist, but lapsed into boredom every now and again. With that being said, its flaws are pretty apparent, and I think there’s two main reasons why it didn’t connect with a lot of people.

Everything’s New

S2 was a risky endeavour from the get-go. They set it 30 years after the first season, in a different location, with a mostly new cast. People connect more with what they find familiar – we can’t help it – so unmooring the audience from things established over a whole season can lead to them denying the new, like rejecting an organ transplant. It’s why a Ghostbusters sequel after a 30 year gap with the same actors is fine, but the concept of an all-female reboot is unacceptable, immoral, and downright unconstitutional (sarcasm there).

As a result, for some S2 felt almost like a do-over, as if the first season hadn’t mattered at all – and for the most part it didn’t. The main characters of S1 turn up here and there in cameo roles, but besides the continued story of young Kovacs, there’s nothing too meaningful. The only continuing plotlines are the effects of Poe’s deletion, and the search for Quell. This makes sense in the story, as everyone else was either dead or had no reason to follow Kovacs on his quest – and Kovacs himself had to give up his sleeve to complete his arc with Kristin. But just because it makes sense in the story, doesn’t necessarily make it compelling to a viewer.

I suppose this is one reason Poe, one of the few returning characters with the same actor, was my favourite part of the season. To give credit, it’s also because he was extremely well-written, and superbly played by Chris Conner, but it still felt totally natural to attach to him from the beginning. I knew who he was, was presented with the new situation he had to deal with, and watched it change his character in real time.

Discovering the world of Altered Carbon the first time around wasn’t the same, I think mostly down to the protagonist. Kovacs as he appeared in S1 was the perfect Harry Potter-type protagonist – he’s a complete fish out of water, needing every aspect of the world he inhabits to be explained to him, and by extension us. You can relate to him because you’re going along the same ride as he is. More than that, Joel Kinnaman played him with an infectiously charming lack of respect for anything around him. His deadpan sarcasm, and visible, barely-restrained instinct to shoot his way out of every situation gave him that bad boy swagger we all love. I’ll get into Anthony Mackie’s version later.

How Do You Top That?

So we essentially start fresh, and what does S2 have to entice you into this new world and new characters? Not much, to be honest. 

S1 was outrageous. I don’t think there was a single line they didn’t cross in their pursuit of depicting the ultimate morally-bankrupt dystopia. Sex, murder, torture, rape, drugs, suicide – and let’s not forget the pure existential horror of it all. Subtlety was rarely found throughout.

And it was fantastic. I’ve got my own personal conviction that the implication of something horrifying is much worse than seeing it actually happen, but that still wasn’t enough to stop me having a hell of a time. The sheer guts of deciding to do it was impressive enough, but the execution took everything to the absolute max: classic neon-noir visuals with regular drug trips where it feels like the editor was just sliding a dial through various filters and levels of saturation. James Purefoy as Bancroft goes full-Shakespearean, showing off how you can steal the scene and chew it too. Sex scenes go on for minutes at a time, just enjoying the salaciousness of it all. The concept of stacks and sleeves is stretched into seemingly endless possibilities – religious coding and how it could be exploited, being re-sleeved as a different gender or age, and the effects of immortality, to name a few. Even the plot juggled high sci-fi, pure melodrama and a noir detective story like it was nothing.

The problem is, how do you top something you’ve designed to be a superlative? You can’t – eventually you’re going to hit a wall. It’s highly likely, for example, the MCU will never be as epic as the ‘Assemble’ scene of Endgame. The team on S2 didn’t seem to actually try to top themselves, instead taking a step inwards rather than outwards. The visuals are a lot more muted; characters for the most part keep a respectful arms-length from one another; the same creative uses of stack technology are presented but it’s fair to say the awe has worn off. Rather than a murder mystery linked with secret necro-prostitution, the central plots were political coverups and one man’s search for his lost love.

On said man, consciously it makes sense that Kovacs, played this time by Anthony Mackie, would come back as a more reserved man. He’s made peace with the new world and had time to process the loss of his sister and the Envoys. The rash, funny, younger man has been replaced by a careful, quiet, older one. And it’s boring. I don’t think you can blame Mackie for this, after all he was on point playing the character outlined above. But that kind of main character needs a foil or two, or they become a massive drag. Again, one might look to Poe to fill that role, but he spends much of his time separate from Kovacs, and his own problems cause him to adopt the same sombre, contemplative attitude.

The other characters are a far cry from the larger-than-life personalities in S1. Trepp is only looking to protect her family throughout, so she usually projects a guarded reserve not prone to emotional displays. Quell has her grand ambitions and the same lethal energy as S1, but I think she was most effective when we witnessed the hellish society that she was trying to prevent, one that’s a bit more toned-down this time. The villain of the season, Danica Harlan, played by Lela Loren, is a great scumbag Machiavellian politician, but more akin to the ones you might find in House in Cards than the limitless future of Altered Carbon. So while S2 was all-round acted well, shot well, and structured well, it’s hard not to be disappointed by the result when you compare it to S1. Which brings me to the big questions.

Was Sex and Violence All There Was To Like, and Can the Show Work Without It?

There was still a lot to find appealing about Altered Carbon. Ultimately the story has been about grief; specifically, the grief of sacrificing either your loved ones or your convictions for the other, and learning to live with your choice. In the final episode of S1, Reileen says, “Go on, do it. I’ll never stop”, forcing Kovacs to kill his sister, or allow her to continue her evil endeavours. Season 2 carried on this emotional throughline – in the final episode of S2, Kovacs pleads with Quell not to sacrifice herself because of her guilt, saying, “I wish you loved me enough to live.” When you reduce both seasons down to Kovacs’ journey, they’ve got a lot more in common than seems initially apparent, and it’s extremely sympathetic in both cases. It’s just the scenery that changed so dramatically.

As for whether it can work, I don’t believe the mistake was in cutting out all of the excess. The future depicted in Season 1 served as a contrast to the harmony and simplicity of Quell’s group in flashbacks, to make you side with her and Kovacs. Once that point is made, there’s not much use in remaking it; the only purpose left after you’ve introduced the world is to get on with the story. The mistake, I think, is in skipping a few chapters of the story – 30 years’ worth of chapters in this case. Perhaps people would have enjoyed S2 a lot more if there’d been more of a tapering down to the tone we ended up with.Season 8 notwithstanding, we can look to Game of Thrones for an example of this being done right – let’s be honest, a lot of people only came to the show for the boobs, swords, or dragons, or all of the above. Slowly phasing that out and getting people to stay for political intrigue and emotional revelations is something really impressive to pull off, and I think Altered Carbon is proof of how it can go when you botch it.


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<strong>Drew Friday</strong>
Drew Friday

I literally can’t define myself without pop-culture.

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12 COMMENTS

  1. Personally, I didn’t like Mackie in the role. It seemed like he was almost too nice of a guy. I felt like the character should have been more brooding. They didn’t have to use the same actor to pull that off. They could have used a man or woman, but the established brooding and bitterness of the past should still remain in my opinion. Even 30 years later. For instance, a series like Dr Who that goes through similar changes. Usually they let a story run its course completely and start a brand new one which takes a few seasons before the current iteration of the Dr moves on and they start new. This was one season with Kovaks and we didn’t get the full closure on the story. But that’s because that’s not how this show works. It’s like you said, it feels like a reboot and the characters aren’t enough of what’s familiar.

  2. I strongly disagree. I live altered carbon. Both season’s and I hope hope hope there will be a 3rd season. If not that will be what is truly disappointing. I’m a true, huge fan and will always be. That show is one of the best that I have found and seen in forever it’s my jam. I tell everyone about it. I don’t care what others have to say. For me, one of my top all time favorites. Always will be.

  3. I tried to comment before. If it didn’t go thru. Here are my thoughts. I love love altered carbon. Both season’s. One of the best shows I’ve found and seen forever. I can only hope hope hope that there will be a 3rd season. I don’t care what others have to say. This show is my jam. I could go on and on but it would end up being a book. So, love both season’s, all the characters everything about it. Want more!!!!!

  4. It took me some time to realise they were telling book 3 rather than book 2. And badly. The book keeps all of the swashbuckling glamour of the first series as well as the ideas. The series junks most of it to keep Poe. That limits the scope because he is by definition fixed. We miss the mech, the islands, the backstory. It was a poor imitation of a good book.

  5. I thought season 2 was written and acted better than season 1. They knew where they were going story-wise, and Mackie is a better actor than Kinnaman
    I liked him (Mackie/Kovacs)being more somber and introspective rather than a shoot 1st guy. Shows that he mature as a person.

  6. I love both Kovacs and season 2 is perfect, it makes the wait payoff if only I could get altered carbon and then queer eye in the same month 🥰

  7. Since the writer of this article is too scared to say it then I will. The hate and vitriol towards Season 2 can be accredited to one underlying fact that no one wants to point out – the cast diversity. The fact that there is such a wide disparity between the critics score and audience score should point out that there is something underlying beyond criticism of the writing, cinematography, or its divergence from the comics. What TV series hasn’t taken liberties from its written origins.
    The writers were essentially the same as season 1 with only a couple of writers not involved with S2. Additionally each episode is written by a different writer or team so when people say the writing was worse then point out which episodes and what was worse about it.
    This season attacks directly those sensibilities that had been by not just Hollywood movies and TV, but also Sci-fi writers, comics. The subconscious was confronted by something they are not used to seeing but something I have been waiting to see my entire life. I applaud this series and season because it went against the typical norms and perceptions as to what is too commonly portrayed as heroes and heroines.

  8. Unfortunately I haven’t read the books, so I cannot really comment on whether they stayed true to the story, however I was greatly disappointed in season 2.

    I understand that the body changes required an actor change, but Mackie just didn’t feel like Kovacs from the first season. A major premise in the series is that the body changes, not the person, but “personal growth” is not enough to explain away the personality change. Again, I haven’t read the books but others have mentioned that s2 was based on the 3rd book; perhaps the story told in book 2 would have made the personality change feel more natural instead of feeling like a a different actor’s take on the same character.

    But one of the things that frustrated me to no end was the failure to live up to the season 1 hype of the envoys. Season 1 made the training and experience of the envoys to be beyond elite. This was mostly bore out in season 1 and Kovacs reaped havoc on all he encountered. How then does a “younger” Kovacs with less experience and without the “beyond elite” training of the envoys best a more experienced Kovacs? Both were in “military grade” enhanced bodies, so how does this make sense? Any arguments that they are “fighting themselves” and so are able to anticipate the others moves only makes sense for the older Kovacs. He has been taught the envoys’ ways and by extension, the weaknesses of the tactics his younger self would know. But he still knows both. He has experienced everything the younger Kovacs has experienced, however the reverse is not true. The younger Kovacs should have been at a huge disadvantage, as the older Kovacs knew everything he did and more. This totally undermined the heights to which season 1 elevated envoys”.

    I will say that part of what made season 1 great was that it felt very much like a noir detective story and that is simply not what season 2 was meant to be. That in itself put season 2 at a disadvantage for those basing their expectations of season 2 on season 1. However, even for what it was it failed to really be… Interesting, exciting, surprising….

  9. My biggest complaints are that Quell & Virginia Vidara were rolled into one character, the envoys were rebels, S2 sliced & diced books 2 and 3 and threw away the good parts. Also, they ruined Trepp. I think Simone Missick would have done great playing the character from the book, even Trepp’s scenes from book 1.

  10. Still x100 better than Daredevil Season 3. Huge fan of Season 1, I liked Season 2 and Mackie did great, but they have this whole universe they could have explored and Kovacs’ character didn’t feel the same, didn’t feel Mackie channeled him enough. That’s on the writers, both points, just wish they could have shown us more of this wondrous universe and give us more interaction with our favorite character… Poe!

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