ALTERED CARBON returns after a two year absence with a season that is more ambitious in scope, yet convoluted in execution.
Thirty years after season one, Takeshi Kovacs is still on the hunt for his lost love Quellcrist Falconer. Tagging along is fan favorite A.I. Poe, conveniently resurrected after his supposed death at the end of the previous season. Hired to bodyguard yet another rich Meth (short for Methuselah) from an unseen assassin, Kovacs handles the situation as well as he always does. As the bodies begin to pile, there’s only one lead to go on: The assassin is none other than Quellcrist herself.
Right off it’s clear that season two has loftier goals than its predecessor. Within minutes into the first episode, the show moves to Harlan’s World; Kovac’s home planet where he first met Quellcrist. Built on the foundations of ancient civilizations and resting on the tombs of interstellar settlers, Harlan’s is a powder keg waiting to explode. A beautiful dive into the best parts of cyberpunk, complete with detailed and exquisite worldbuilding, it’s the best kind of intro to the new season.
As in season one, much of the story’s best parts come from the thinly veiled class satire and criticism. Led by a dynasty of self-proclaimed pioneers, Harlan’s World is a business masquerading as the promised land of frontier living. Having taken over from her father, the younger Danica Harlan rules the outer rim with a pretty face and an iron fist. It’s thanks to the stellar performance by Lela Loren that it’s not entirely sure where to stand with her. Is she in over her head, bullied into drastic measures by a board of centuries old plutocrats? Or is there a more sinister plan behind her facade?
It’s during Kovac’s hunt for Quellcrist that everyone’s favorite AI gets to go on his own mission. Irreparably broken from the beating he took at the end of the previous season, Poe is fading fast. His system glitchy, he tries to hang on as best he can to little success. Kovacs, never one for patience or understanding, can’t trust him anymore. His role far expanded from the previous season, Poe remains the highpoint of the show. The returning Chris Connor once again steals every scene he’s in with a pithy and heartfelt performance. Coming to his aid is the archeological AI, DIG 301, played by newcomer Dina Shihabi. A welcome addition to the show, she brings levity and passion to the grimdark surroundings.
If there’s little said about Kovacs, it’s because this season just isn’t as interesting for him as the previous one. Not that Anthony Mackie (taking over from Joel Kinnaman) is bad, but the script doesn’t do him any favors. Where the first season thrived from its murder mystery and noir setting, season two can’t decide where it wants to land. Is it a political thriller? A revenge story? A monster movie? A romantic tragedy? All of the above? We’re given threads all throughout the first half of the season, out of which only few are somewhat resolved. The rest dangle in the air unanswered, yet they don’t feel like potential hooks for future seasons. Kovac’s past is explored once again, but it feels more of a retread than revelation this time around. There’s a terrific plotline involving the suggestion that his greatest enemy will always be himself, but it’s left frustratingly shallow.
Luckily Mackie and Renée Elise Goldsberry are so good in their parts that a lot of this is forgiven. Mackie allows for Kovacs to break out from his hardened exterior and displays glimpses of wonderfully dry humor. There’s even a surprisingly touching moment where Kovacs gets to have the “if I could tell a younger me something” moment many dream about. Rounding up the cast is Simone Missick as a bounty hunter looking to do right by her family. She and Mackie get some of the best banter, and Missick is a magnetic presence whenever she’s on screen.
Problem is that too much of a good thing is, well, not a good thing. The first half lays the story on thick, never allowing for the second to properly breathe as it needs to. This season is two episodes shorter than the previous, yet it still feels like it’s spinning its wheels at times. There’s at least one episode late in the game that furthers nothing and feels like a colossal waste of time. Late game revelations especially suffer from diminishing returns. (The amount of double crosses could make for a dangerous drinking game.) The ending is intriguing, and does promise much for the future, but it feels like a slog to get there.
It doesn’t help that apart from Lela Loren, the villains this time around are as interesting as a deflated balloon. Colonel Ivan Carrera (Torben Liebrecht) is a potentially interesting foil for Kovacs without any follow-through. We’re told that they share the same designer bodies, meaning that Carrera cannot be attacked by Kovacs due their stature. (“I’m the Alpha, you’re the bitch.” Carrera snarls.) It’s a cool idea that’s utterly abandoned the minute it’s explained.
The cast of the first season were such a breakout success that its successor can’t help but parade them around. Many of the previous cast return for quick cameos, each surprisingly brief and meaningless. Leaving a sense of unearned backpatting going around. The same goes for locations. After the brief and intoxicating dip into Harlan’s World, the show reuses season one locales ad nauseum. Liked Poe’s hotel? Good, cause that’s all we’re getting. In a world defined by limitless imagination, much of season two feels stagnant and stuck to the past.
And yet this is still smart, worthwhile sci-fi that even with all its faults is easy to recommend. Well acted, ambitious and mature, ALTERED CARBON still does more things right than it does wrong. There are stumbles, and the series is still trying to figure out its identity. But when it works, it soars, and there’s nothing else quite like it on TV.
That alone is worth all the frustration.