This spoiler-free review is based on the first three episodes of Altered Carbon season 2 but contains spoilers for season 1.
Altered Carbon pulled out all the stops in season one, introducing viewers to a cyberpunk world ruled by wealthy nigh-immortals and others who, for a price, can digitally transfer their consciousness into new bodies. But with the audience’s cynical proxy embodied by Joel Kinnaman as Takeshi Kovacs, a soldier from a previous era who is awakened to defend the powerful, viewers might be wondering what will happen now that the characters in season one are either dead or have been forced to take on different “sleeves” with new actors embodying them?
The good news is, Altered Carbon is in good hands with Anthony Mackie taking the role of Kovacs in season 2, and first few episodes outline a strong story that honors both the original character and the introductory adventure in all its dark and violent glory. In fact, not only does the search for Quellcrist Falconer, famed resistance fighter and Kovacs’ long lost love, continue in earnest as indicated in the season one finale; it actually becomes more focused and perhaps more accessible to new viewers binging the series to catch up before the February 27th season 2 arrival.
Mackie’s sleeve is a military upgrade to the already muscular Kinnaman model, and some of the bells and whistles will be particularly impressive both for the Altered Carbon audience and for fans of Mackie’s Marvel work. The use of creative (and morally questionable) gene splicing and a personalized weapons augment with which Kovacs can call his guns to him a la Iron Man are especially badass. Although other antagonists, such as Colonel Ivan Carrera (Torben Liebrecht) of the Protectorate Special Forces, also possess such mods, the control-the-construct skills of the last Envoy make Kovacs much more dangerous than perhaps Carrera and others expect, a detail that will thrill fans of the show.
In fact, these skills are in particular demand since Kovacs has been forced into this upgraded sleeve by an elite class “Meth” named Horace Axley who is seeking Kovacs’ protection from an unknown enemy. Altered Carbon viewers will be familiar with this formula from season one, in which Kovacs was hired to find the murderer of a Meth named Laurens Bancroft, but this thread of consistency actually helps ground the story, especially in a season where so much of the cast has been reimagined.
Chris Conner as the hotel AI Poe also provides a bit of continuity as the sidekick and investigative assistant for Kovacs, both in his tracking of Axley’s enemies and in his search for Quell, the latter of which has been going on for thirty years in countless sleeves when the season begins. Poe has provided much needed levity in a very dark series filled with brutality, self-loathing, and disillusionment, but viewers will also be treated to a troubling new conflict and sympathetic side story for the artificial intelligence as well this year.
That being said, the tone of Altered Carbon is much more hopeful in season 2, owing mostly to Kovacs’ conviction that Quell is alive and possibly in need of his aid. Renee Elise Goldsberry reprises her role as the infamous freedom fighter, but her story is much more complex than simply that of a damsel in distress. In fact, viewers will quickly spot the connections between her plight and the mystery surrounding Axley’s attackers, which provides a sense of unity across the narrative.
Since Altered Carbon is known for its specialized jargon with references to “spinning up” someone’s “stack” and people utilizing “synth” bodies or “needlecasting” their minds across vast distances, the streamlined story makes this sophomore season of the hard sci-fi series more accessible than its predecessor and easier on those who have grown accustomed to virtual torture chambers and force grown clones. Has it lost a little bit of its edge in the process? Perhaps, but only in the manner in which the pain of a hangover is lessened by the consumption of more alcohol. Still dark, less rough.
Don’t worry, though. With great new characters like Trepp the bounty hunter (Simone Missick) and Danica Harlan the ruler of Harlan’s World (Lena Loren), plenty of action is anticipated for the remainder of the season. Plus you may just spot some familiar faces from season one before the third episode is up, though perhaps not in the way you’d expect. That’s the fun of Altered Carbon: death is not always final.
Listen to our interview with the Altered Carbon showrunner on the Sci Fi Fidelity podcast: