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.
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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