From the opening credits of Altered Carbon, we have a clear view of the themes of Netflix’s much-anticipated series. A dark swathe of snakes and serpents sashay in front of a futuristic skyline, dancing with dimly lit pods containing sleeping human beings. Mortality, murder, mayhem, malevolence.
This is going to be good.
Based on the Richard Morgan’s 2002 novel, the action begins with the line ‘the first thing you’ll learn is that nothing is what it seems.’ Joel Kinnaman finds that out the hard way. 250 years ago he was Takeshi Kovacs, a highly-skilled assassin known as an Envoy, before he was arrested in a raid by police. We first meet him in a lab, unconscious and wrapped unceremoniously in a giant sandwich bag, technicians hovering over him. He wakes and begins to tear the place up in a frenzy of confusion. Where is he, who is he, what is he?
After being told he has a new ‘sleeve’ and he’s currently holed up in Alcatraz Prison, Bay City, Planet Earth, he takes a shower and contemplates his predicament. Spoiler alert: it’s grim.
Kovacs is told that he’s completed his prison term and as a part of his release, he’s been resleeved in another body. And just a heads up ‘disorientation, visual and auditory hallucinations and even low-grade amnesia are normal’.
Image courtesy of Netflix
We learn that in this world, our consciousness is downloaded into a cortical stack, a small device planted into us as an infant. Our bodies, or sleeves, are replaceable but should we break our cortical stack, it’s goodnight. This is known as a ‘real death’. The cortical stack is located on the base of the brain, so only blunt trauma or an explosion of the head can result in real death. Kind of like Highlander. And that’s a good thing.
So it’s clear that Kovacs was a bad-ass in his former life. Which is good as Joel Kinnaman looks like he has been lifting weights and doing cocaine since he left the set of House of Cards. Brought into a small office, he is told that he has been leased by Bancroft Industries, headed by billionaire owner Laurens Bancroft. He has no rights. He was not meant to be freed. He is now the property of Bancroft Industries and he’s required for a meeting, pronto.
Kovacs is sent via hovercar to Bancroft by a suspiciously chatty driver, Kristin Ortega, we get a great look at both the expanse of the world and the budget of Netflix. Both are quite impressive. They fly above the clouds to reveal a world beyond the dank crime and petty theft on the ground. A world of mansions, gardens, parks and endless artisan frogurt bars. The elite choose to literally live in the clouds to get away from the rabble underneath.
We discover that Kristin is not just a driver but a police detective. And she smells something fishy when a former Envoy like Kovacs is resleeved and hired by a billionaire with mysterious motives. Bancroft’s family has a bit of a Sylvania Waters vibe to them, a troubled son, a flirtatious wife, Tak is starting to freak out and needs some answers. Enter the terrific James Purefoy. Purefoy, even at his most understated, has his sleazy-charm dial set to a 7. In a gripping back-and-forth with Kovacs, he goes to an 11. Bancroft wants Kovacs to solve a murder. The murder of...
Himself. Laurens Bancroft.
Image courtesy of Vulture.com
Bancroft is still (kind of) alive because he backs up his stack to a satellite every 48 hours. Before a backup, Laurens was killed. Ortega is sure it was a suicide, the eccentric billionaire finally losing his mind, but the jury’s out. If he wanted to be dead, he would be, right?
Kovacs isn’t so keen to help Bancroft out. In the future, the 1% is more like a 0.1% and giving a helping hand to the elite is kind of a dick move. But hey, money talks. Kovacs takes some time to mull it over. And by mull, I mean go on a bender.
Cue futurist-hyper-reality-ball-tripping fun. He finds his way into the red light district and discovers that he is being followed by Ortega. They head to a venue of his choosing (a strip club) and discuss the merits of the case. It’s clear that Ortega isn’t the biggest fan of Bancroft.
After the nightcap, Kovacs visits a hotel called The Raven and meets an A.I. named Poe (a welcome Edgar Allan reference) who promises a night full of sensual delights with the ladies of the establishment. Finally things are coming up Kovacs. Keen for a good meal and a night of debaucherous decadence, he begins to arrange payment.
Then a gun is pointed at this back of his head.
Poor Kovacs, he was minutes away from ordering a toastie with a side of high class call girl.
The gunman has brought a group of merry men and they want Kovacs dead. A gun fight ensues and with the help of a surprisingly blood-thirsty Poe, he survives, albeit without discovering who sent the team of assassins in the first place.
Kovacs’ head is swirling. He’s in deep. Why do so many people want him dead? Why is Ortega still following him? Was Bancroft murdered or was it suicide?
He calls Bancroft. He’ll take the case.
Settle in folks. This is going to be a hell of a ride.
Image courtesy of Vox.com
Episode two opens with – if you’ll forgive me – a splash . The ‘Fallen Angel’ of our ep title, adorned (somewhat) in white – plummeting from the sky into a peaceful lake. Death, mystery, nudity – let’s go!
This episode does everything it needed to – the world gets bigger and more defined, there’s some great tech at play, we learn a lot more about our central cast and – essentially – we end with even more questions than we started with.
Hooking you in with two dead girls for the price of one, this ep begins with Kovacs waking to his Poe-themed crow alarm (ominous sign or cheap gag – why not both?). The falling ash as a visual transition to his haunting-beautiful-horrifying flashbacks is a gorgeous continuation of the expensive aesthetic from our pilot and begs the question: what’s wrong with a good old star wipe?
Kovacs visits Psychasec and we get an inside eye on this whole resleeving business – spoiler alert, it’s really creepy: ‘Best sleeve money can buy. Put your wife in me,’ says a lady-hologram. Ugh. We learn that resleeving into your own clone allows for endless reincarnations without any damage – another reason to be rich in this world – and Bancroft bares all (I can’t help myself), hinting at a trade deal in Japan that happened mysteriously quickly. The secure facility tour also divulges more info about the ‘dippers’ – hackers who steal snippets of salacious memories to on-sell – so many new ideas to build on.
Ep two also establishes that we’re going to have plenty of non-protag scenes going ahead; with lots of Ortega at home, at work, at secret-possibly-illegal-activities; and everyone’s favourite Romantic-poet AI at an all-AI poker night. There’s hints of discord between humanity and the AI community, but our Poe seems to be quite fond of the real world and its inhabitants (maybe he’s dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before … am I right, ladies?), and it looks like he’s going to become Kovacs’ sidekick whether Kovacs wants it or not.
This undercurrent of class-based discord leads neatly into Kovacs’ investigation of our second fallen angel; after sorting through the thousands of death threats sent to Bancroft, he seeks out a marine medic who blames Bancroft for the death of his daughter, Lizzie (cue a pretty good hand-to-hand fight scene). We learn this grieving father is keeping his daughter’s consciousness in a ‘trauma loop’, reliving the moment she was brutally beaten outside her workplace, the creatively named ‘Jack It Off’. So we’re off to the red light district, but first a short trip down memory lane via a visit to the museum exhibiting the glory of the Protectorate victory over the terrorist Envoys. History as written by the victors, a pretty grim moment (good news, though, looks like crimped hair is coming back into style).
Inside the club Kovacs learns that a Meth (read: super rich dude) has been habitually beating young women and we get to the thematic crux of the episode: the total disregard for ‘organic matter’, particularly by the 1%. A young prostitute tells us:
‘He’s one of the good ones. If he breaks it, he buys it. You know, if he accidentally kills a girl, he buys her an upgraded sleeve. I knew a girl once, he resleeved her ten years younger.’ This show has a lot to say about class and body politics, but not having yet read the book (blaspheme, I know!) I would be loathe to make any big calls only two eps in.
Intercutting Kovacs investigation is a mother, frustrated with the lacklustre performance of the police regarding her daughter’s death, crying in Ortega’s arms. What a good, caring cop Ortega is… no, wait. She’s been hiding the body. And then she gets out her knife… What is going on?
We end with a seduction and a confession – Bancroft’s wife takes her turn baring all to Kovacs; and Ortega’s religious tendencies lead her to confess to abuse of authority, unforgivable violence and having lustful thoughts – well, with that seduction scene, haven’t we all? I know I’ve been thoroughly seduced into watching the rest of this series – although, maybe not on a packed commuter train – that was a lesson learned the hard way.
Brand Manager and Head of the Realm at Hachette Australia Books. Mutant power: Aggressive humour. Lifelong Trekkie (I don’t find that offensive) comic book reader and former proud bookseller. Likes: Literary, contemporary and speculative fiction. Dislikes: Haters. Ideal date: My birthday.