3 out of 5 stars

Season 2 of Netflix’s Altered Carbon expands on the character development and world-building the inaugural season began. Only this time our hero, Takeshi Kovacs, is played by Anthony Mackie (Avengers: Endgame) with mixed results. Thankfully his trusted companion Poe (Chris Connor) returns and is given more space to explore the complexities of his character. And, of course, there’s also plenty of new characters to meet, intrigue to follow, and blood-splattering action spread across eight episodes.

Although Altered Carbon doesn’t match its own high standard for its sophomore year, the series remains one of the best of original offerings on a streaming service. But it’s not easy for a newcomer to get into the story, as Altered Carbon presents a multilayered universe of strange worlds and even stranger characters. Motives and backstories are deep and often convoluted. And it’s not helped by the ever-changing appearances of leading characters, which means it can be a struggle to keep everything straight in your head.

Set in our distant future, Altered Carbon presents a vision for tomorrow where mankind’s greatest conquest is not over the stars but over death. The technology exists to preserve a human being’s consciousness (“stacks”) and transfer them into different bodies (“sleeves”). So when someone dies, as long as their stacks are intact (imagine a hard drive for humans stored in the back of the neck) the deceased can be transferred into a new physical form. And the process can be repeated numerous time, leading to characters who look young and vibrant but are actually centuries old. Indeed, the series begs the question of whether mankind has finally evolved into a God-like form.

The possibility of immortality exists for nearly everyone. However, not all sleeves are created equal. Some are manufactured/synthetic (complete with blue blood) while others are “organic” (more akin to what we know). A fair amount of time was spent last season explaining how the technology works an what many of the rules and regulations surrounding its use are. Season 2 expands on this a little more, but one theme from last season continues more strongly… that the super-wealthy (“Meths”) can afford countless sleeves and even back up their consciousness in the cloud. Therefore, Meths truly possess the means to live forever.

That is, of course, unless someone were to both destroy their stack and their backups. Such an act would leave the nobility of Altered Carbon vulnerable to the only thing anyone’s afraid to face: true death.

This is the focus of season 2 as we find our hero, Tokeshi Kovacs (Mackie), being re-sleeved into an enhanced soldier body (think Van Damme’s Universal Soldier). As was the case before, a Meth compels Kovacs to his employment, but whereas he was called on to play detective last time, now he’s tasked with being a bodyguard.

Although he never gets the chance to explain his rationale, a rich Meth called Horace Axley (Michael Shanks) proves he’s in danger when Kovacs wakes up in his new sleeve, in a room of murdered strangers. The only familiar face is Axley who’s now very much dead for good.

From there, Kovacs goes on the run looking to clear his name after being framed for Axley’s murder, and that of the only woman he’s ever loved, the legendary Quellcrist Falconer (Renee Elise Goldsberry), a one-time revolutionary presumed dead. Falconer’s reappearance disrupts the delicate balance of society and has Kovacs questioning how this can be true.

At its best, Altered Carbon is an expansive, mind-blowing visual experience for the small screen. At its worst, it’s a garbled mess of half-baked ideas and thinly connected plot points.

The first year, which starred Joel Kinnaman (Suicide Squad) as Kovacs, had a cyberpunk detective story feel to it. Season 2 jettisons that. This is partly due to the lack of creativity in the new locations, with much of the show now taking place in the dimly lit over industrialised streets of a colonised planet called Harlan’s World.

But some of the disappointment over season 2 rests on Mackie’s shoulders. The actor, best known for playing Sam Wilson/The Falcon in numerous Marvel Studios movies, shows a limited dramatic range in the role. Kovacs is a tortured soul with centuries of regrets pressing down on him. Kinnaman captured this human side of Kovacs far better than Mackie, who feels more like a repurposed Terminator than a man who’s become the last of his kind.

To throw all this criticism on Mackie might seem a touch unfair. The story and scripts are clearly a step down from the award-winning first season, which was like Blade Runner (1982) given a healthy dose of Kung fu action. This time the writers seem less confident about the tone they’re after, or where the story is headed. It’s not incoherent, but it’s unduly confusing and near impossible for newcomers to settle into.

Chris Connor has spent 25 years trying to catch a break in Hollywood after countless television appearances. With Altered Carbon, he’s finally found his breakout role as Kovacs’ A.I companion Poe. Projecting himself as the curator of a nostalgic hotel called Evermore, Poe (who’s made to look like famed author Edgar Allen Poe) is the faithful companion and sidekick to our hero. While he was a reluctant partner in the first season, Poe spends much of the second trying desperately to prove his worth. Flawed by a glitch (sort of a digital scar really) inflicted previously, Poe’s memory proves to be unreliable and his mistakes create more than one problem for Kovacs.

With Mackie coming up short with the dramatic punches, Connor hits home nearly every time. Both characters are forced to take a hard look inward and face some deep truths. Poe’s journey in search of Harlan’s World’s original founder, into a digital abyss he’s retreated to, provides some of the season’s most heartfelt moments. It would be a crime if Connor, a veteran TV star, didn’t finally start getting recognition for his excellent work here.

Losing two episodes for a total of eight, Altered Carbon is given less time to explore its bizarre universe and unpack more about its future civilisation. Big ideas are mostly hinted at with throwaway lines of dialogue as if everyone can’t wait for the next bruising action sequence to get underway. And that’s the biggest letdown of this latest season, really—the writers don’t seem to respect how smart the show could be.

Audiences aren’t even given a proper mystery to solve this time, either, just a thinly constructed series of plot devices that serve to provide a little coherence between the doses of violence. And there’s a lot of violence! Maybe too much. Sure, the world of Altered Carbon is one where the value of human life has been greatly diminished, but audiences deserve something smarter than what the show is now delivering. Too often situations that might’ve required a bit of thinking are resolved with villains being impaled on sharp objects and bullets sprayed everywhere.

For those who enjoyed the first season, the second is likely going to feel like a big letdown. Nevertheless, Altered Carbon delivers something more daring and original than 95% of what’s streaming today.

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Cast & Crew

writers: Laeta Kalogridis, Sarah Nicole Jones, Michael R. Perry, San Kyu Kim, Cortney Norris, Adam Lash, Cori Uchida, Nevin Densham, Alison Shapker & Elizabeth Padden.
directors: Ciaran Donnelly, M.J Bassett, Jeremy Webb & Salli Richardson-Whitfield.
starring: Anthony Mackie, Chris Conner, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Lela Loren, Simone Missick, Dina Shihabi, Torben Liebrecht, Hayley Law, Will Yun Lee, Michael Shanks, Sen Mitsuji, James Saito & Neal McDonough.