Life is cheap when it becomes a less finite resource.
That’s one of the central tenets driving Altered Carbon, Netflix’s new prestige series that’s looking to occupy a similar niche in the cultural ecosystem as Game of Thrones, Westworld, The Expanse, and American Gods. Like those shows, it’s a big, beautifully designed expensive genre effort that’s steeped in sex, violence and mature themes. Like Westworld and American Gods in particular, it’s also digging into some heavy themes and intriguing ideas that are sometimes overwhelmed by the ubiquitous blood ‘n’ boobs, and sometimes foregrounded in jarringly obvious ways when the show worries we’re not paying enough attention. When it’s more concerned with telling its story rather than justifying its existence, though, it’s hell on wheels.
In the far future (’bout five centuries hence) first imagined by author Richard Morgan in his 2002 novel of the same title, humanity has colonised the stars, and technology allows human consciousness to be recorded, downloaded, and transmitted. This makes immortality an attainable, if prohibitively expensive, goal. It also makes people less attached to their physical forms – called “sleeves” – since the human form can be upgraded, repaired and replaced. The very rich have become the very old. Called “methuselahs” or “meths”, their hugely expanded lifespans have allowed them to concentrate obscene hoards of wealth and power – and distanced them to a nigh-unimaginable degree from the hoi polloi toiling further down the societal ziggurat.
Joel Kinnaman as Takeshi Kovacs
Our guide into this world is Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman for the most part, but also Will Yun Lee and Byron Mann in flashbacks – a man can wear many faces in this world), street rat turned elite soldier turned revolutionary turned criminal, decanted into a new body some 250 years after he was last killed at the behest of ludicrously rich Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy) for an important job: solve Bancroft’s own murder.
Naturally, a man of Bancroft’s wealth and privilege survived his own shooting thanks to a wireless digital backup of his persona, but he has some hours missing and wants the mystery resolved. Our man Kovacs must negotiate both the rarified and decadent world of the methuselahs and the dirty and dangerous streets of Bay City (future San Francisco) in the course of his mission, crossing paths and swords will all manner of weird characters and situations along the way.
It’s a noir/hard boiled pastiche, of course, and Kinnaman makes for a pretty great Chandler-esque hero, doggedly pursuing the truth while wrestling with his own bloody past of violence and loss. Showrunner Laeta Kalogridis smartly expands the book’s first person point of view, adding new characters for Kovacs to interact with, such as Vernon Elliott (Ato Essandoh), a former soldier who Watsons along with Kovacs’ hard-punching Holmes, and expanding others, such as Poe (Chris Conner), an artificial intelligence who runs the hotel Kovacs uses as his headquarters and who presents in the form of writer Edgar Allen Poe.
Atoh Essandoh and Chris Conner as Victor and Poe
Also in the mix is cop Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda), who has her own reasons for tagging along with Kovacs; criminal thug Dimitri (a nigh-unrecognisable Tahmo Penikett), who deploys sadistic violence in the service of unknown masters; Miriam (Kristin Lehman), Bancroft’s duplicitous and possibly guilty wife, and a whole host of corrupt cops, shifty lawyers, black market entrepreneurs, sex workers, and cannon fodder for our guy to interrogate, intimidate, and frequently obliterate.
Yes, there’s a lot of furious action in this one – one of the key elements that sets author Morgan apart from a lot of other heirs to the cyberpunk mantle is his unwavering appreciation of a savage smackdown. Altered Carbon has plenty of imaginatively-framed fight scenes and delights in exploring the possibilities inherent in a world where artificially enhanced fighters know that death is (probably) temporary. The ethical implications thereof get a good run-through, too; flesh is very much treated as a commodity in this world, with married gladiators murdering each other for the promise of an upgraded sleeve at one point, and at others, indentured prostitutes letting methuselah johns live out their sickest fantasies. Humans are resources to be exploited in the most horrible and debased ways, and while the immediate visceral effects might shock, its the inherent structural power imbalance the series depicts that continues to trouble after viewing, especially when you contemplate how well it mirrors our own lives, mired as we are in late stage capitalism.
Which is to say that Altered Carbon is at times a challenging work, but the violence and the sex is generally in service to the themes the show is exploring – even if it’s simultaneously indulging our more atavistic impulses at the same time. Indeed, the show works better when it’s grappling with its more philosophical themes through the action of the narrative; it’s actually when characters, such as revolutionary Quellcrist Falconer (Renée Elise Goldsberry), a figure from Kovacs’ past, are giving voice to their philosophical musings that it feels like it’s trying a bit too hard to justify its excesses by laying on a too-thick veneer of respectability.
These thematic concerns are pretty common to cyberpunk media, though, and Altered Carbon is definitely and defiantly a cyberpunk work, drenched in neon and smoke, steam and rain, the high tech and the low life codified by William Gibson back in the day and now arguably more popular than ever. It’s an absolutely gorgeous series and totally looks the business, helped in large part by Netflix’s willingness to throw shedloads of money at the project. The obvious visual template is, of course, Blade Runner, but let’s face facts – complaining that a cyberpunk series looks like Blade Runner is like grousing that there are too many people wearing hats in a Western. The show never feels small or set-constrained; this is a big universe we’ve been introduced to, and it feels like it.
Hopefully it’s one we’ll return to in the future. There are two further Takeshi Kovacs novels to be mined, but Kalogridis has also left space for further expansion, altering the source material in surprising and interesting ways that bode well for the future. It’s a dark, violent and exploitative future, of course, but we wouldn’t want it any other way.