Early on in the second season of Altered Carbon, an off-world fight scene in a bar, complete with samurai swords and energy guns, gives the appearance of business as usual. But rather quickly, the Netflix show reveals exciting updates to the sleeve technology that allowed hero Takeshi Kovacs to take out his evil little sister in the first season. Now in a new body, this one belonging to Anthony Mackie, the show picks up 30 years later, with Kovacs still on the hunt for his first love, Quellcrist Falconer (Renée Elise Goldsberry). A stack of new allies, a brilliant new villain, and entirely new worlds populate a packed second season.
Now serving as protection for Mr. Axley (Michael Shanks), Takeshi’s new sleeve comes with personalized weapons augmentation that pulls any weapon within range to his hand. Guns and knives just out of reach “wingardium leviosa” across the room, adding a video game action sequence vibe to the show’s already dope fight scenes. Unfortunately, the Protectorate, the intergalactic colonial empire, owns the sleeve. In season one, the Protectorate took in Takeshi after he killed his father, and then took him down when he joined the Envoys. This new body also comes with canine genetics, making Takeshi the omega to the Envoys’ alpha wolf pack. When they say heel, he stops dead in his tracks.
In season one, Falconer attempted to course-correct the corporate corruption of stacks, which she intended to use for space travel but were instead used to extend the life of dusty millionaires. After more than 300 years, the Quellist Rebellion, as the movement Falconer that began is now called, continues on Harlan’s World. Current governor Danica Harlan (Lela Loren), who ran unopposed in the election, succeeded her father on the mining planet, whose metals are used in the production of stacks, making this world wealthy and vital to the Meths. Reileen (Dichen Lachman) once told big brother Takeshi that Quell lived somewhere in the stars; his search for her and his terrorist past put him at direct odds with Danica. Takeshi’s focus remains, building on the archetype of the lost, wounded, and revenge-filled soldier.
The events of Altered Carbon aren’t ever straightforward. Although some of the twists and turns are telegraphed, the journey remains invigorating. Everything from the intricate and stylish costumes to the lush sets and vibrant visual effects work in harmony to create exhilarating worlds.
Mackie kills it as the fifth representation of Takeshi. He not only convincingly carries action sequences, but also embodies the romantic lead, soaring in his scenes with Renée Elise Goldsberry. Both the chemistry of their characters’ long-lost love and the wisdom and wear of a decades-old romance radiates between the two actors. It’s refreshing to see Mackie in a leading romantic role: He gets to be vulnerable in a way that the soldiers he often plays aren’t allowed to be.
Altered Carbon deploys clever ways to keep Will Yun Lee around from season to season, and he returns here with vigor, as Takeshi Prime once again finds himself unleashed and working for the Protectorate. Takeshi’s been cloned again, but it’s his prime form, not the new soldier’s body that descends on Harlan’s World. This is the version of Takeshi that hadn’t yet found Quell, and desperately wants to be the best that the Protectorate offers. Mackie’s iteration of Takeshi is older and wiser than Lee’s, and the two go toe to toe, the former analyzing every decision made between then and now.
As Altered Carbon explores Takeshi’s history, it also delves further into the Meths’ lineage. The show avoids some of the more shopworn tropes so popular in vampire novels and films like Bladerunner that obsess over the question of what it means to be human if one is caught between the living and the dead, or is of artificial intelligence. Poe (Chris Conner), the hotel AI that frequently protects Takeshi from group attacks, loves, fears, and desires just as much as any of the other characters.
One question that Altered Carbon’s second season raises is how power can be distributed among the people when the disparity is impossible to remedy. The undying (read: the wealthy) struggle with a thirst for power—everyone is a monster if given an opportunity in this show. To the undying, the scales seem balanced, as they are presented with endless opportunities to correct their mistakes and change their luck. They forget or stop caring that the people who prop up their lives—by clothing them, feeding them, or stroking their egos—struggle to keep and maintain the one good sleeve they have. Extreme old age in literature is often associated with the supernatural, vampires, and soul-sucking witches. But here, advanced years manifest as the weary, who are unable to connect with the world and remain unsatisfied by all they own.
Altered Carbon does not offer any new answers to these questions. The journey, however, is well worth the time. Sci-fi stalwarts like Michael Shanks (Stargate SG-1), Jihae (Mortal Engines), and Alessandro Juliani (Battlestar Galactica) appear in guest-starring roles. Simone Missick has no right being as captivating as she is in the role of Trepp, but happily married lesbians with tech upgrades and combat skills are always a welcome addition to sci-fi. Dina Shihabi also makes her debut on the show as Dig 103, an AI that’s been forced into retirement by Danica’s new laws, sitting around for decades with the other archaeological help. When Poe stumbles into their clubhouse by accident, the two techs form an instant bond, and their sweet nerd love story becomes one of the best storylines of the season.
All of the body-hopping, impersonations, and lies could easily have grown messy, but the show manages to avoid any pitfalls around race representation. There was some concern during season one about a Japanese man being portrayed most often by a white guy. But the futuristic setting combined with the financial divide creates space for actors of color to play humans not instantly judged by their skin color. The same goes for gender—any person can choose to live as a defined gender or be constructed into any state of gender representation that makes them happy, provided they can afford it. Money remains the great divider between everlasting life and a humiliating, violent, and painful death. Money created a new type of human, one who could live without consequences. And over time, living without consequence made these new creatures immune to the suffering of others, while the poor humans became pawns in the Meths’ quest for power. Altered Carbon takes place in the future, but its message stands firmly in the now.