"Altered Carbon" is one of the last remaining strong sci-fi shows which can hold my attention along with "Black Mirror," "Westworld" and "The Expanse." While all these titles are great, "Altered Carbon" set itself apart in its first season. It is a sci-fi action series but with the the added twist of a cyberpunk hard-boiled detective story, complete with a well-realized world and a character driven story that could stand on its own. Based on the trilogy of books by Richard K. Morgan, "Altered Carbon" takes place in a distant future where humanity has settled onto different planets and uses “stacks,” a small chip/coin implanted in the back of the neck. The stack contains a person’s essence: their mind, memories and soul. Bodies in this universe are "sleeves" to the characters, swappable skins, with the stack essentially granting immortality—assuming one has the money for it.
However, the stack is not without its faults. Several factors, like psychological damage and other constraints, weigh negatively on the device's utilization. That is the best way to gloss over the series' background. The show's principal focus is on Takeshi Kovacs, essentially a super-soldier, able to adapt to any sleeve with relative ease and be an all around terminator. A few actors have portrayed him. The sleeve Kovacs was born in is the ever scene-stealing Will Yun Lee, but for the first season, the lead starring for most of the role was Joel Kinnaman. He was fantastic; as a fan of the first book and series in general, the first season was great. While changing some details to the backstory I didn’t like, it made a faithful adaptation with some added aspects that blew past the source material.
Then comes season 2. In a new sleeve, Kovacs is now portrayed by Anthony Mackie, and with an entirely new cast aside from returners like Quell Falconer (Renée Elise Goldsberry) and self-aware AI, Poe (Chris Conner.) Completely diverging from the second book, it takes place a few decades later. The episodes feature Kovacs searching for his lost love, the aforementioned Quell, with the entire season taking place on a planet called “Harlan’s World” and mainly in the ultra-cyberpunk city "Millsport." But regarding how I actually feel about the season, it is definitely a mixed bag.
The first knock I have against it is the lack of Kinnaman, but also the writing of Kovacs himself. It makes sense that he would be completely different as decades have passed since the events of the first season. However, coupled with Mackie replacing Kinnaman, it comes across as jarring. Kovac might as well be an entirely new character. Whereas with Will Yun Lee and Kinnaman the growth made sense, the switch between Kinnaman and Mackie just doesn’t work. This and the fact that Mackie doesn’t escape the perfect amount of snarkiness and cynicism Kinnaman brought to the role means the new season’s Takeshi doesn’t necessarily stick the landing. While Lee does have increased screen time this season, I really wish he had the main role instead of Mackie.
In addition, it has lost some of the grimy tech-noir feel to it. Though it retains a portion of its prior glory, it misses a good chunk that truly matters. The first season had a clear identity; this one strays closer to generic sci-fi action.
That said, there are some plus sides to it. Besides Kinnaman, the best part of the first season was Conner’s Poe, and in Kinnaman's absence, Poe graduates to the highlight. His writing is excellent, especially knowing it's entirely original to the show. The action is also excellent, ramped up in brutality and frequency as it is, and I enjoyed it immensely.
Despite liking this second season overall, I think something was lost in the time it took to put out the new episodes. The debut was character driven, this is event driven, and it is very clear that was a bad decision. While I see other critics are loving this season compared to the first, it simply doesn’t match how I feel about it. I will take what is offered as I am passionate about the series, but it still doesn’t excuse the step down in quality from the first, however flawed the beginning itself was. I honestly just want Will Yun Lee to be the lead for season 3.
Edited by Adam White, Hannah Alleyne, Diana Martinez-Ponce