Here’s the deal. You may not want anything to do with Altered Carbon. Maybe you don’t like tons of nudity and violence. Maybe dystopian sci-fi isn’t your bag. Maybe you read the book and didn’t like it. Maybe you read the book and loved it and know that nothing can match it. Obviously then, this recommendation isn’t for you.
With hundreds of scripted series – most of which seem to arrive on Netflix, seemingly out of nowhere – competing for your precious time and attention, it’s often hard to choose which ones to watch. Being picky is understandable. The name of the game now seems to be “If it doesn’t grab me right away, or by the first two episodes, I’m out.” Again, that’s logical.
Of course, that means TV shows that may take a bit of time to find their groove might get left in the dust while shows that strike fast but fizzle quickly afterwards dominate the landscape. Admittedly, Netflix’s Altered Carbon (read IGN’s non-spoiler review here) – based on the 2002 Richard K. Morgan novel – wasn’t exactly tickling my fancy at first. If I was looking for word-of-mouth recommendations too, to push me through the initial hump/slump, I knew some people who liked it and some who didn’t – so that was of no help.
I wasn’t “binging” Altered Carbon, per se. An episode here, two there. It was something I watched between other, more pressing things. Of course, given that the first two or three episodes contain a ton of world-building and exposition, it also made my viewing a bit chewy. There were a ton of rules for this future world, what with all the carbon being altered and a new social hierarchy existing and so on.
It wasn’t like Inception – which is a movie I love but also one where 80% of the dialogue is explaining rules – but there was still a lot to mentally manage if you weren’t absorbing it all at once, in a binge, and were just checking in every so often. Bizarre names, hinky corporations, tech-y terminology, muddled history – it was all either being explained to Joel Kinnaman’s buff, glowering Takeshi Kovacs or being casually spoken about by those in the know (meaning I had to decipher via context).
So what kept me going? Well, I love the Blade Runner aesthetic (and yes, Altered Carbon borrows from it as well as a lot of other sci-fi) and I dig future noir. Also, the series was beautiful, bloody, and had a murder mystery at the heart of it. Everyone we met was kind of a nihilist a-hole, but there was still enough to keep me pushing forward. And I’m glad I did.
The second half of Altered Carbon was great (I say as someone who didn’t read the book and is not aware of what may have been “altered” here). Now, it’s easy enough to figure “Well, of course, a mystery show will get better toward the end because that’s when you’ll start getting the answers.” And that’s definitely true. But here, the bulk of what makes Altered Carbon’s back half so much better is that it contains Kovacs’ backstory.
You caught a glimpse of it in the fourth episode, “Force of Evil,” when he was being tortured over and over again in virtual and had to remember his training from Quellcrist Falconer (Renée Elise Goldsberry), but in the final four episodes of the show, Kovacs’ history – *slight spoilers* – is revealed to be the key to everything. Like, everything. Everything that you’ve been watching so far that seems unconnected.
I won’t go into full spoilers here, but I will write a little about structure. The show could have given us Kovacs’ story right up front. It took a risk by waiting until the seventh episode, “Nora Inu,” and an even bigger risk by having that episode change, essentially, what the entire story had been up until that point. The final three chapters are very different from the rest, but also immensely satisfying.
Side quest: Black Sails is one of my favorite shows of this decade, but it didn’t start getting “great” until Season 2 when it chose to fill in the main character’s backstory. That’s when everything started syncing up as one full, connected saga. I know a lot of you haven’t watched Black Sails (simply because not a lot of people watched Black Sails in general), but what Altered Carbon did was similar – just on a smaller, seasonal scale.
The Noir Fiction genre, in its own right, is born of anxiety and self-destruction. Its anti-hero aspects rose out of the horrors of World War I, from a generation of writers who no longer believed humans could embody an absolute good. In these types of mystery stories, a done-with-the-world “hero” navigates a landscape of morally repugnant characters, often coming to no clear or concise conclusion about the case. At the very least, the “justice” delivered or discovered is murky, the victory is pyrrhic, and the case becomes a zero-sum affair. It’s not unusual for the protagonist to regret ever having gotten involved in the first place. It’s also not uncommon for the lead to inadvertently uncover a conspiracy so big and far-reaching that they have no real hope of ever deconstructing it all.
Altered Carbon functions, almost, as reverse noir. It begins with a confounding future world in a morally bankrupt state (thanks to an elite ruling class who’ve all but conquered death) and an entire society in the throes of a severe existential crisis. Then it spools out a message of hope. Sure, there are dangers, and casualties, but ultimately the show shifts from grumpy sourpuss noir to sort of alleviating action-adventure story. It works because Kovacs’ past, when revealed, provides us with reasons to now care about all the characters and when you’re emotionally invested you can more easily get on board with a tonal shift toward the traditional.
Resolution 653. Riker’s old investigation of that drowned girl. Dimi the Twin. The Bancrofts. Lost Lizzie. All the elements that may have felt a touch “left field” begin to conjoin in the back half of the series. In the most basic terms, the final five episodes give you a reason to care about everything (and mostly everyone) you’ve been watching. Again, the show could have just told us Kovacs’ full history at the outset and not run the risk of having its initial chapters being a trudge, but giving viewers crucial backstory too soon can be a beast of a different nature.
For what it’s worth, Altered Carbon is also shaking things up greatly for its second season. Based on the second book of the series, Broken Angels, there will be a whole new story, set 30 years later, with a largely different cast. So those looking for a close-ended story and not a full multi-year investment may want to continue on through the end because s***’s going to get resolved. Of course, some fans will mourn the loss of these main characters and may not want a total reset. I suppose like a great work of noir, there are no clear winners or losers. Just the grind of existence.