Deep within Altered Carbon lies the true heir to the neo-noir cyberpunk genre American television’s spent the last generation of science fiction desperately searching for. However, to find it, one must look beyond nearly every foregrounded aspect of the series, past the forgettable tale of Meths and Envoys, the incoherent mythology of stacks and sleeves and DHF backups, and the underwhelming presence of protagonist Takeshi Kovacs – which, unfortunately, Altered Carbon‘s second season becomes more and more infatuated with, even as its central narrative undercuts its dramatic stakes time and time again. To find the true genius and beauty of Altered Carbon, one has to look in between all of that nonsense, abandoning every unlovable meat sack at the heart of the series to revel in the heartbreaking story of technology left behind, in the form of the beleaguered, terminally ill AI known as Edgar Poe.
I found myself desperately wishing for Altered Carbon to leave its world of endless lives, satellite back ups, and shapeless political revolutions behind, to focus more on the most interesting element of its world: the AIs who thought themselves the force of the future, only to be discarded by humanity as yet another resource to be wasted and forgotten.
The plight of Edgar Poe, from the pilot to “Broken Angels,” the second season finale, is undeniably the most emotionally rewarding, ambitious arc of the series – and with Chris Conner, also the show’s most affecting, moving performance. When we first meet Poe, he is a forgotten relic of old times, a time before stacks meant the end of death for the ultra-rich, rendering the fantastical nature of AI capabilities utterly pointless. After all, all coding deteriorates over time – with fresh body sleeves awaiting them and their workers for centuries on end, who has a need to dream of electric sheep anymore?
Mixed metaphors aside, Poe’s journey through season one – becoming a digital therapist to a traumatized young woman, and finding meaning in the value of friendship, even with objectively shitty people – was more rewarding than Kovac’s nonsensical trip through his 300-year old past. Though Altered Carbon certainly put Kovacs story forward as the primary narrative, Poe’s realization that sentient AI and humans both seek similar ends (meaningful connections) gave him a deep humanity most of its flesh-and-blood characters sorely lacked, in their never-ending quest to thrust and stab their way through centuries of endless, superficially explored conflict.
In Altered Carbon‘s second season, Poe’s arc becomes even more poignant as it is pushed to the background: suffering from a terminal disease passed to him at the end of season one, Poe finds himself contending with his own mortality, in a way that neatly parallels the use/discard/forget relationship society currently has with its technology. After spending a brief period as Kovacs’ loyal sidekick, Poe is discarded when he disobeys Kovacs’ demand for him to reboot his system, erasing his memory (and the terminal glitch) in the process.
For most of the season, Poe contends with his choice to not follow Kovacs’ orders: after all, what is anyone without the full spectrum of their memories? What life is worth living, if every connection we have to our lives and our identity is effortlessly ripped away from us, simply on a whim? The precarious nature of Poe’s continued existence, and his reluctance to let go of everything he’s become, offers Altered Carbon an opportunity it so desperately seeks (and fails to find) in every other facet of the series: it has real, human stakes to its story, a deeply personal tale of an AI trying to find meaning in his life(or hers, as we see with Dig 301, the former mining AI introduced in season two), after the gods of his world abandoned him to the sands of time.
Clinging onto identity is a powerful idea, in a world where the rich reboot themselves every fifty years, into enhanced, organic meat sleeves that can secrete phermones instead of sweat, and can magnetize any weapon around them to their hands on a moment’s notice. The problem with the human stories of Altered Carbon is their unhinged ambition: the bigger and bigger the war between the Protectorate, the endlessly recycled, uber-rich Meth class, and the amorphous “common” man (who assumedly, still only get to live one lifetime), the less nuance these stories are given.
That problem is only magnified in season two, even though the episode count (and length) is much shorter than the bloated, overwrought first season (and additions like Simone Missick’s Trepp, that do offer a bit of fresh texture): as season two falls down a hole of alien technology, ominous speeches, and a very convenient memory loss from an important central character, there’s a sense Altered Carbon may have lost the thread a long time ago – which explains why the show’s big reveals in the back half land with a series of dull thuds.
There’s a sanitation to both story and tone that makes this entire season feel different than season one: focusing more on the Elders mystery and the burgeoning Envoy rebellion, Altered Carbon‘s second season completely loses sight of its present day world, utterly divorced from some of the grimy, effective world building done in the series’ first few episodes (before its freshman offering fell into sibling rivalries and empty platitudes about billionaire brutalism). It makes everything that happens with Kovacs (now played rather monotonously by Anthony Mackie, who brings none of the brooding, depressive rage Joel Kinnaman embodied the role with) feel weightless; and without the extreme aesthetics for blood and tits season one had, even lacks some of the guttural sexual deviation that at least gave season one a bit of texture.
Everything around Kovacs feels flattened this time around (even the action choreography, noticeably toned-down from its ambitious, brutally violent first season); the more the show leans into stuff like Kovacs vs. Kovacs, Quell’s memory loss, or her mysterious killing spree, the more two-dimensional and opaque Altered Carbon feels. After an ambitious, if misguided and poorly paced, first season, Altered Carbon‘s second season picks a half-dozen elements, doubles down on them, and utterly abandons everything else; combine that with the lack of personality offered by Mackie’s interpretation of Kovacs, and Altered Carbon season two feels like all of its rough, uncultured edges are sanded away, in favor of a more traditionally paced, audience-friendly narrative construction.
Ultimately, this means the best part of the series – Poe – is rendered to third billing, entire episodes going by without Altered Carbon examining the existential conflict forming within its most interesting character. I could care less about VR torture and cloning techniques this show’s already explored; even the whole Kovacs vs. Kovacs element feels wholly underdeveloped, a cool idea never pushed to anything more than “wow, look at how personal tragedy changed Kovacs!”… which, let’s be honest, season one spends a lot more time on, and doesn’t need to do a lazy rehash of The Flash plot mechanics to show the growth of our protagonist.
Instead, I found myself desperately wishing for Altered Carbon to leave its world of endless lives, satellite back ups, and shapeless political revolutions behind, to focus more on the most interesting element of its world: the AIs who thought themselves the force of the future, only to be discarded by humanity as yet another resource to be wasted and forgotten. There’s so much humanity in Poe’s character – especially in episodes like “Bury Me Dead,” the sixth – that one could easily see a much more satisfying, driven version of Altered Carbon with much more longevity and emotional poignancy, than its current premise (where everyone can die and return an infinite amount of times, except for the rare “actor left the show so we ‘real-deathed’ them”).
Poe’s arc reaches towards something powerful, this idea of how our attachments define us as beings of conscience; how do we form relationships or maintain memories… and how does that define the arc of a lifetime, or the existence of fundamental truths like love and honor? Season two just has no interest in being that show; what it decides to be instead, is a much less intriguing version of cyberpunk, content to operate on some vague voice overs about “specters” of trauma, ideas that never bleed into the actual text of Altered Carbon‘s world of biochemistry, space travel, and wealth consolidation. It’s disappointing, because with a few tweaks, there could be so much more to this weird, super-futuristic world of existential hard drives and genetic rebellions, rather than its continued existence as just another mediocre fallacy of thoughtful science fiction.