The Netflix original, based on the cyberpunk book series by Richard K. Morgan, explores a reality 300 years in the future where humanity has solved its long-running mortality problem. By uploading each person's consciousness to alien-created implants known as "stacks," people are constantly pursuing that classic Star Trek Spock-ism: to live long and prosper.
But Altered Carbon is about as far from Gene Roddenberry's universe as you can get. Its first season, which drew heavy comparisons to Ridley Scott's cyber-noir classic, Blade Runner, went all-in on a sex-heavy, ultra-violent narrative as Joel Kinnaman (RoboCop, Hanna) stepped into the anti-hero role of Takeshi Kovacs.
For Season 2, Netflix tapped a new showrunner, Alison Schapker (Alias, Fringe), to take Altered Carbon in a new direction that’s less Blade Runner and more Chronicles of Riddick.
"We were dealing with a mystery that involved sex workers, the red light district, sexualized violence against women, more sex workers and, just by that nature, you were going to see a lot of flesh," Schapker tells Inverse. "I think that it made sense, and that was the mystery of the first book. I loved that the show was unflinching in that respect, and I think Altered Carbon will always be unflinching in servicing the stories that it's telling."
In the first iteration of Altered Carbon, Kovacs was presented as an anti-establishment, criminal-turned-reluctant detective, hired by Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy), a Meth — a term to describe the uber-rich. Throughout Season 1, Kovacs was determined to find out who had killed him before he re-downloaded his consciousness into a new body. (This practice is called "re-sleeving," and it's the impetus for the overall story's transhuman sci-fi element.)
For Season 2, Altered Carbon has re-sleeved as well. Gone is the over-stylized, neo-noir element that drew side-by-side comparisons to Blade Runner. Anthony Mackie (Falcon in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) has replaced Kinnaman as Takeshi Kovacs, bringing a different sort of intensity to the character. We're no longer seeing this world through the un-caring, burn-it-all-to-the-ground Kovacs from Season 1. This new guy has heart.
“Joel gave a great performance, but Kovacs just didn't have a lot to care about.” — Alison Schapker, showrunner
Season 2 finds Kovacs back on his home planet, Harlan's World. This neon-colored environment helps shed the show’s dystopian noir style, building out the Altered Carbon story universe even further by delving into the lore and history of Kovacs' home. We also learn a lot more about the unfolding class warfare between the Meths and the Grounders (those pesky lower class folks) and the troubled history behind stack technology. In turn, Altered Carbon pivots its stylistic attention from the gritty bleakness of Blade Runner's off-world to give aesthetic nods to other transhumanist sci-fi tales like Total Recall and Minority Report — and maybe even, to a lesser extent, Strange Days and Johnny Mnemonic.
It's Kovacs' goal to find his long-lost love, Quellcrist Falconer (Renée Elise Goldsberry), that drives the new episodes, bringing with it a personal bent that was mostly missing from the show's last go-round. Instead of relying on a procedural narrative that found Joel Kinnaman's towering, brooding Kovacs just out there cold-heartedly hunting bounties, Mackie's anti-hero is suddenly given an emotional stake or two, which is good for the show's mission to lure back the viewers who found it tough to connect with the initial lead and story two years ago.
"Kovacs, in Season 1, was very much a Kovacs who had nothing left to lose and was, you know, bitter and cynical and very much a noir hero," says Schapker. "Joel gave a great performance, but Kovacs just didn't have a lot to care about. In Season 2, when Kovacs starts out, he's suddenly closer than he's ever been to finding Quell. This is a guy who actually cares. And hopefully, the audience feels, maybe, unconsciously, that their hero now has a ton on the line, and that'll be what gets them really invested in the mystery."
The mystery in question revolves around the discovery that Quellcrist Falconer is indeed alive, albeit much different than Kovacs expected. There's also the growing threat of a civil war on Harlan's World, but thanks to his new sleeve, this version of Kovacs comes with some epic features that make him even more of a killing machine. His battle upgrades, which include these awesome Mag Plates — a feature that biometrically calls weapons from across the room to his sleeve — make this Takeshi feel less like Rick Deckard and more like a mashup of The Matrix's Neo and Vin Diesel's goggle-wearing criminal-turned-hero from the Chronicles of Riddick franchise.
In this new sleeve, Takeshi's allegiance evolves from selfish to selfless. Yet much like the first season, he is an unrecognized threat to most, leading Anthony Mackie to deliver some delicious, action-packed beatdowns. But when his true identity is discovered and the threat of his existence is realized, the audience should be more driven to root for Kovacs, even if he is kind of a dick like Richard B. Riddick was.
The book series, as Schapker points out, never just sticks to one genre or narrative. "It turns into a bit more of a military thriller, or, you know, more of a sci-fi heist," she says. "It's just like [Richard K. Morgan] does not stick to just one sub-genre of cyberpunk. So we, too, are allowing ourselves to kind of, each season, let the mystery be its own thing. You know what I mean? It's not going to always be like a P.I. murder thing."
With Altered Carbon's new look and feel, one has to wonder if there's room for the science fiction series to continue beyond these episodes. Schapker tells Inverse things are up in the air for a third season, but she's hopeful.
"We're just all crossing our fingers that people come and watch,” she says, “because I certainly have ideas for stories for Season 3 and would be super, super excited to keep going."
Altered Carbon Season 2 is streaming now on Netflix.