Altered Carbon appeared on Netflix back in 2018 and is based on the Rickard K. Morgan novels. In the first season, viewers followed Takeshi Kovacs, who was primarily portrayed by Joel Kinnaman. This time, however, the protagonist is portrayed by Anthony Mackie, who is best known for his role as Falcon in the MCU.
If you have yet to see the first season, the premise of the series can be summarised pretty swiftly. We will say though, that you won't be able to make much sense of the narrative if you don't watch the original season first, which is easier to digest in many ways. Altered Carbon takes place in a world in which humans are implanted with a "stack" at birth, which essentially makes them virtually immortal. The body can perish, but as long as the stack survives, memories and one's personality are transferrable from one body to another. This has, however, created an imbalance in the world, as only the rich have the option to clone themselves and thus are able to avoid the many consequences of constantly transferring their beings into new bodies. In both seasons, we follow Takeshi Kovacs, a former soldier from "The Protectorate" who, after meeting with rebel leader Quellcrist Falconer, switches sides to fight for restoring humanity in every sense of the world by restoring mortality. The argument of the rebellion is that mortality is an essential component of what it means to be human.
As should already be clear, it's a series that dwells on both major philosophical and metaphysical issues and it's packed to the brim with sci-fi elements. The style of the series resembles that of sci-fi classic Blade Runner and stylistically, it's an incredibly satisfying series to watch - especially if you have the brightness turned up on your TV since much of it takes place in the dark. Otherwise, you at least have the music to accompany the darkness, which is remarkable and suits the series well.
The second season is set thirty years after the first season's conclusion and although Takeshi has been given a new face, his mission is, as always, to find Quell. In the first episode of the first season, he is hired to solve a murder, giving the series a fixed framework as well as a premise that needs to be resolved at the end of the season. This helped to give the series some structure and assigned it a clear and concrete goal. This is not the case in the second season, as Takeshi's purpose, as mentioned, is simply to continue his hunt for Quell. Season two, therefore, lacks structure at times and doesn't feel as sharply written as the first. Countless plot elements and scenes seem random and wasteful at this point where nothing seems to be clarified. There is no big twist at the end and no mystery one can get lost in while following Takeshi's journey. Season two is far more chronological and doesn't really depend on details but is instead more action-driven than anything. It helps that Mackie has a much wider range as an actor than Kinnaman. It's also nice to see women portrayed as characters other than prostitutes, victims or damsels for the hero to save. All-in-all, it's a good season - it's just not as well-executed as the first.
The first season was extremely self-contained featuring amazing supporting roles, each with their own personal motivations and development arcs, which were well-integrated into Takeshi's story without drawing too much attention away from the main narrative. As previously mentioned, each scene and the information that's provided helped to make the many plot twists feel organic. Season two, however, tries to achieve the same things but has difficulty making the supporting cast seem equally relevant. Mackie does well as the new Kovacs, and he, fortunately, doesn't try to emulate Kinnaman's mannerisms. He makes the role his own and pulls the tough and stoic protagonist off quite well even though he switches some of the dry and stiff aspects out for charm and warmth.
We have to give a round of applause to the creator of the series too, Laeta Kalogridis, who has managed to make the character Takeshi relevant, rather than putting all emphasis on the actor who portrays him. It's quite impressive that the series manages to have its viewers so connected to the characters that you meet in the second season without missing a recurring character at any point; there are surprisingly few faces one can recognise from the first, which is impressive to see in the year 2020 when supporting characters seem to live forever and remain in series long after their motivations vanish.
We do, however, wish that more work had been put into making the second season seem unique and self-contained. As we stated previously, the various new roles are less interesting and less relevant to the story. Furthermore, the season suffers greatly from "Star Wars syndrome". The series takes place in a huge universe where everyone has intergalactic access but despite this, we're following life on the same planet as in the last season. Although there are countless planets one could visit, it's always Tatooine or even more specifically Mos Eisley we go back to time and time again. This is a shame, as a change of scenery could have helped the second season have more of a distinct identity, making it more than just a sequel.
Since season two is not as streamlined as the first, it also has some problem with its villains. This results in the pacing being somewhat lethargic at times when the heroes are placed in a situation where only a deus ex machina can save them. The way they try to tie everything up seems a bit forced at times. Again, it would have been better if season two had started anew on a new planet and not focused in on Quell (who is a deeply unattractive individual, especially in the second season). Essentially, the second season brings more of the first season's detective thriller identity to light: a murder needs to be solved. At least there was some tension in each episode and the creators didn't solely rely on cliffhangers to keep the audience intrigued.
As we mentioned, season two has a lot of upsides, including its consistent style and a stellar soundtrack. In addition, Mackie is one of the main draws. That said, it lacks depth in terms of its supporting roles, and the world appears to be less contoured this time around, and not as raw since there's less brutality on the streets. It's difficult to be equally invested the second time around and it feels as though the ending was written in advance; it just feels predictable. The series kills all sense of risk and sacrifice in many ways by constantly reminding the audience that even if someone dies, there's a copy waiting around the corner. This was one of the more problematic aspects of the first season and it has been repeated again in season two. It's also impressive that we were able to get invested in the narrative even though almost every character has been replaced. It also helps make AI Poe more relevant and interesting, as its one of the few recognisable faces.
At least we're excited to learn what season three is all about as well as find out who will portray Takeshi next time around. Still, we hope that Quell is out of the picture by then and a third season is closer to the first in terms of overall quality.