by Jo Berry
The first season of sci-fi thriller Altered Carbon, which premiered on Netflix two years ago, was a flashy, slick and ultraviolent futuristic drama that took Richard K Morgan’s cyberpunk novel and turned it into an addictive – if sometimes head-scratchingly complicated – cult series.
Much time was spent setting up the stunningly-depicted dystopian world that orphan/soldier/rebel – and man of few words – Takeshi Kovacs (played by Joel Kinnaman in season one) inhabits.
It’s a Blade Runner-esque future in which humans can store their consciousness onto disks (‘stacks’) embedded into their necks, that can be ‘spun up’ into new bodies when they get older, or their physical bodies (or ‘skins’) are killed, or if they just fancy a change.
While the premiere episode had Kovacs – on ice for 250 years following his role in an uprising by a group named the Envoys – defrosted and popped into a new skin so he can solve a crime involving super-rich businessman Bancroft (James Purefoy), over 10 episodes the show quickly became far more than a whodunnit.
It explored the divisions between rich and poor (the rich living in the skies in shiny new bodies, the poor on the ground down below unable to afford such swanky upgrades), religion (Catholics are forbidden to spin up – when they die, they are dead forever) and identity (is Kovacs still Kovacs in a new body, or does he take on some of his host body’s traits?)
And, when it didn’t feature people smashing other people’s faces in, extreme torture and rather too much gratuitous female nudity, it also had flashbacks exploring Takeshi’s past (in the body of Will Yun Lee) as an Envoy under the leadership of rebel Quellcrist Falconer (Renée Elise Goldsberry) and his relationship with his sister Reileen (Dichen Lachman), stories that led to an impressively brutal finale.
By the end, half the cast were either dead, inhabiting new bodies, or presumably recovering from all the mind-twisting weirdness in a quiet corner somewhere.
At the start of season two, it’s 30 years later and Kovacs has been in numerous new skins on numerous worlds in the intervening years. That gives the series something of a clean slate and a new mystery soon presents himself – transferred into a new body (Anthony Mackie, slightly less brooding than his predecessor), Kovacs is asked to protect the life of another rich man, but the job is surprisingly short term when said businessman is murdered before Kovacs even has a chance to draw breath in his new form. Oops.
There may be a time jump and a ‘new’ Kovacs this time around, but much of the show’s mythology remains – anyone joining the show for season two will be utterly confused as little time is spent recapping or explaining what the hell happened in season one – which means some of the most enjoyable characters return, too.
As well as figuring out another murder mystery, Kovacs is searching for his past love Quell’s stack that he believes is out there somewhere, and he still has the help of a quirky artificial intelligence version of Edgar Allen Poe (Chris Conner), who was one of the joys of the first season.
However, two of the most interesting characters have been left behind and are sorely missed – Purefoy’s deliciously arrogant (and scene stealing) Bancroft, and Kovacs’ tough police partner Ortega (Martha Higareda), who was truly the heart and soul of the first season.
There are new characters to fill the gap, including the suspicious governor of the planet, Danica Harlan (Lela Loren) and wise businessman Hideki (James Salto), but neither make as much of an impression – that’s left to the most appealing new addition, bounty hunter Trepp (the terrific Simone Missick – best known as Marvel’s Misty Knight).
Her scenes are the most fun, but there is still as much gloss, cool tech, action and plot twists to keep you interested when she isn’t on screen. And Mackie is an enjoyable new recruit, too, as he slickly delivers some of the clunkier bits of sci-fi dialogue without making them sound dumb, and effortlessly slides into the role of tough, brutal (yet mushy on the inside) Takeshi Kovacs in such a way that fans won’t miss Kinnaman’s grittier interpretation too much.
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There’s one big improvement on season one, too. While the 2018 series featured some really strong roles for its female cast – as does season two with Harlan, Quell and Trepp – it was also rightly criticised for the violence (often sexual) against women and the aforementioned seemingly endless female nudity.
Thankfully, it seems creator Laeta Kalogridis and the series producers have taken this on board, and this time around there’s not a ridiculously see-through gown or inexplicable nude scene in sight.
So if you enjoyed navigating Kovacs’ complex sci-fi story through season one, you’ll find the new series is a slick follow-up that delivers just as much big-budget action and tension – just with fewer nipples on display.
Altered Carbon season 2 launches Thursday, February 27 on Netflix