Netflix’s new series Altered Carbon stuns


Esteban Alarcon

Netflix’s new series Altered Carbon brought a new twist to the company’s previous television endeavors.

Joshua Dawson, PR manager, ad manager

The new Netflix original series Altered Carbon aimed high and reached heights unknown by most of Netflix’s new series, but poorly written dialogue and stagnated pacing litter the episodes. Altered Carbon tells a cyberpunk whodunit set in the distant future, when death no longer threatens humanity. Upon birth, everyone living in The Protectorate —all of the galaxies’ inhabited planets—receives a “stack” which stores the human consciousness, allowing one’s consciousness to slip in and out of different bodies or “sleeves.” The show tackles various aspects of humanity through the strong narrative and gruesome society that the show presents.

The first episode of the season, entitled “Out Of The Past” throws the main character, Takeshi Kovacs into a new sleeve played by Joel Kinnaman, just one of the three actors that plays Kovacs in the series. Kovacs died 250 years before the main storyline after taking part in a failed rebellion brought on by the Envoys— elite warriors capable of transporting into new bodies ready for combat within minutes. The leader of this failed rebellion, the late Quellcrist Falconer (Renee Elise Goldsberry) narrates the episodes in a pretty unique manner.

Falconer’s voice over first acts in the exposinary sense, revealing crucial information and clues for the audience. Falconer’s voice over also helps guide Kovacs through his troubles, in the sense that he reflects on his past training to work through what he currently faces. Falconer’s first bit of narration, “The first thing that you will learn is that nothing is as it seems,” provides key information in understanding the series and its inevitable twists. Falconer’s character also offers interesting commentary on the standard hero archetype. Instead of focusing on the revolution against the grand evil of the series, Altered Carbon focuses on the aftermath of the failure of that revolution— an approach on a story never before seen.

As the last of his kind, Kovacs finds himself alone in a world he died to fight against. The series efficiently jumps back and forth between past and present, revealing Kovacs’ character layer by layer. At first, he acts like the stereotypical macho man, both receiving and dealing out cheesy lines meant to invoke this feeling. However, as the story continues, the motives behind Kovacs’ actions become increasingly clear. Kovacs’ tragic childhood and tight knit bond with his sister drive all of his actions, until he meets Falconer. After living a life looking out for all the needs of his younger sister, Falconer seems like the first person who genuinely wants the best for Kovacs, radicalizing his views and motives.

As stated previously, the show centers on Kovacs but features an A plot and B plot, which intercuts across the ten episodes. The A plot follows Kovacs after his sleeve death and subsequent 250 years in prison, where he finds himself at the mercy of the infinitely wealthy Lawrence Bancroft (James Purefoy). Of all the well done performances in the show, Purefoy outshines them all. Bancroft’s characterization slowly paints him as a self-aggrandizing and self-righteous megalomaniac blinded by his own principles. Bancroft resurrected Kovacs for his unique abilities as an Envoy, pattern recognition and detail collection, in hopes that Kovacs could solve the unsolvable: Bancroft’s recent murder.

Kovacs’ investigation leads him down a number of paths, which all feature sound ties leading to Bancroft’s murder, but initially the subplots feel boring and uninspired. The subplot featuring the Elliots drags out far too long, even though it does eventually serve a purpose. The characters have zero personality and barely serve a significant purpose to the plot. Hayley Law gives a lackluster and cringeworthy performance as Lizzie Elliot. Elliot’s arc, following her recovery after the tragic attack and loss of her unborn child, hits the same beats over and over again of self empowerment and the idea of “taking your body back.” Law’s underwhelming performance makes these scenes snail by even slower.

If anything, Elliot’s arc serves as a catalyst for more growth of the best character in the show, Poe. For the first episode, Kovacs must decide if he will indeed take the case or return back “on ice” for eternity. At the end of the episode, after a day full of drugs and partying, Kovacs retires at The Raven owned by the artificial intelligence (A.I.) Poe. Inspired by the famous American writer Edgar Allan Poe, Poe delivers the best lines and most interesting character arc. Poe’s character design, assumably something he can control as an A.I. projected throughout his hotel as a hologram, looks exactly like the real life Edgar Allan Poe, and the aesthetic design of his hotel reflects Edgar Allan Poe’s style and writings.

After recovering Elliot’s damaged stack, Kovacs entrusts Poe with the care and recovery of Elliot. While this only takes up a small percentage of Poe’s overall screen time, his interactions with Elliot offer an insight into Poe’s psyche. Poe’s subplot also introduces the coolest concepts in the show; A.I. poker games, the psyche of an A.I., and how they might interact with each other. Poe exhibits exceptional growth and true human compassion throughout the series, making his eventual and horrifying death even more heart-wrenching.   

Kristen Ortega (Martha Higareda) also brings the show down a notch in quality. Higareda plays her part with grace, but Ortega’s character comes off as dumb and quite possibly the worst cop ever. While her constantly on the edge attitude may reflect the harsh reality of the times, it feels over the top at points. Ortega constantly antagonizes everyone else on the show and handles herself unprofessionally in everything that she does. At first, her romantic interest in Kovacs seems like lazy writing, but this foreshadows the reveal that Kovacs’ sleeve formerly hosted Ortega’s former partner and lover, Elias Ryker.

Great cinematography helps tell the story in a visual capacity, and Altered Carbon’s camerawork frames up amazing shots layered with meaning. Most notably, the show relies heavily on the power of the Kuleshov effect, or the audience’s association and their own interpretation of the shot and subsequent shots. This style of filmmaking establishes itself in the first moments of the show during Kovacs’s rebirth scenes, carrying Altered Carbon over the next nine episodes by keeping the audience engaged.

Thankfully, the good outweighs the bad for Netflix’s Altered Carbon. As a longtime science fiction fan, I have longed for a series which might bring the genre to the forefront of pop-culture. Delivered via Netflix, a growing and ever-present platform, Altered Carbon might do just that.

The Chant’s Grade: B-