Netflix's #AlteredCarbon: What It's About And Why It Needs To Be In Your Must-Watch List

A spoiler-free guide to help you understand Netflix's new R-rated series.

  • Cover image via SAYS
  • Imagine a future where humans have found a way to store their minds into a drive of sorts. When the body dies, you'd be able to "download" your consciousness - personality, skills, and memories included - into a new body.

    • Essentially, anyone can live forever. Who wouldn't want that, right?

  • It's a distant prospect for those of us living in 2018, but the scenario is coming to life on screen in the R-rated sci-fi series 'Altered Carbon', one of Netflix's most ambitious shows yet

    • Based on the cyberpunk sci-fi novel of the same name by Richard K. Morgan, 'Altered Carbon' is set in a dystopian future where immortality is practically a way of life, and death a thing of the past.

      In the far future, a person's essence - personality, intelligence, memories, whatever that makes you "you" - can be stored digitally into a metal disc called a "cortical stack", which is stored in their spinal column. The stack can be stored indefinitely, so when their body eventually dies, their consciousness can be "spun up" and "resleeved" into a new body ("sleeve").

      The only way to die permanently ("real death") is to destroy the stack and not have a back-up.

    • But immortality does not come free. While anyone can live indefinitely in theory, the reality is that only the one-percenters get to live out an unchanging prime of life. 

      The wealthy, called "Meths", have the means and money to repeatedly clone themselves and even keep regularly-updated copies of their minds in remote storage, ensuring that they can still be resleeved even if their stack is destroyed.

      • 7a24 Image via Netflix
        The wealthy and elite Meths Miriam (Kristin Lehman) and Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy).
    • Meanwhile, the poor ("Grounders") have to make do with any body they can get their hands on, which may not even be the same age, race, and gender they were born with.

      • 4a4b Image via Netflix
        Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman) surrounded by the disenfranchised in a quarantine camp.
  • At the centre of it all is Takeshi Kovacs (played by Joel Kinnaman), a Japanese-Slavic elite soldier who is resleeved into the body of a detective after spending 250 years in a cryogenic prison

      • 72c8 Image via Netflix
        Kovacs is resleeved into the body of a detective.
    • At the heart of the cyberpunk narrative is the murder of one of the wealthiest men in the universe a.k.a. the only reason why the long-dead Kovacs is brought back to life.

      A Meth named Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy) was found dead with his stack destroyed, apparently by his own hand. When he is resleeved and had his stack restored, its 48-hour back-up schedule means he has no memory of what happened in the past two days. Convinced he was murdered, Bancroft hired Kovacs to investigate his mysterious death.

      • Fd68 Image via Netflix
        Kovacs (left) receiving his orders from Laurens Bancroft (right).
  • Here's where it gets interesting - Takeshi Kovacs is played by not just one, but THREE actors. Let me explain.

      • 3cb8 Image via Netflix
        This is Takeshi Kovacs.
    • To flesh out Kovacs backstory, the show toggles back and forth between present-day Kovacs (played by Joel Kinnaman) and Kovacs of the past (played by Will Yun Lee and Byron Mann). In fact, there's an entire episode centered on Kovacs' days as an Envoy, a military unit formed to oppose the future he was eventually placed into. 

      • 4e8a Image via Netflix
        This is also Takeshi Kovacs (Will Yun Lee).
    • So, why was Kovacs resleeved into a body of a white man instead of an Asian, considering the limitless wealth of his employer? You'll find out midway through the season. 

  • As Kovacs reluctantly navigates his present, we are introduced to the two women who played prominent roles in his past - his long-lost sister Reileen Kawahara and Envoy leader Quellcrist Falconer

      • 4282 Image via Netflix
        Kovacs (left) and Reileen (right).
    • Separated at the tail-end of their turbulent childhood together, Kovacs eventually reunites with his sister Reileen Kawahara (Dichen Lachman). The sibling duo eventually joined the Envoys, led by "master strategist" Quellcrist Falconer (Renee Elise Goldsberry)

      • C9d0 Image via Netflix
        Renee Elise Goldsberry as Quellcrist Falconer.
    • In the present, we are also introduced to Detective Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda), a bullheaded cop who's convinced that Kovacs is a dangerous "terrorist" and is relentlessly keeping track of his investigation into Bancroft's murder. However, it would soon become clear that her interest in Kovacs is of a more personal in nature. 

      • A860 Image via Netflix
        Martha Higareda as Detective Kristin Ortega.
  • While 'Altered Carbon' is a cyberpunk story at its core, the show actually deals with a lot more human themes than the surface lets on

    • Angled as a cautionary tale, 'Altered Carbon' brings forward some pretty uncomfortable imagery stemming from its main subject matter - the idea that the body is now something that can be traded and disposed of on a whim.

      Class issues are brought to the forefront, particularly in pointing out the significant gap of wealth and privilege between Meths and Grounders, as well as gender issues such as domestic abuse and widespread prostitution (fair warning: there are more than a few instances of nudity in the show). 

  • Not only that, the show also addresses the conflict between technology and religion in the form of "Neo-Catholics", who believe that being resleeved destroys the soul. Now that's not a theme you often see in sci-fi lit.

      • 0926 Image via Netflix
        Ortega and Kovacs walks by a Neo-Catholic protesters.
    • A subplot in 'Altered Carbon' revolves around a bill that would allow murder victims to be revived to testify against their murderers, despite a religious coding that prevents them from being spun up after their original bodies die. It goes without saying that the Neo-Catholics are very much against this bill, as exhibited in the pilot episode (above).

  • Having seen the show in its entirety, I'll admit that there's definitely a lot going on in just 10 episodes, especially since I'm not much of a sci-fi fan to begin with

      • 84b7 Image via Netflix
        Chris Conner as Edgar Allan Poe-esque AI hotel.
    • To its credit, I found myself pulled into the story once all the technical stuff is somewhat out of the way and the pace started to pick up (tbh I raced through episodes 4 to 10 because I needed to know what happened next dammit!). It probably helped that the framed visuals and action scenes are of a higher quality than you'd expect from a first-year TV show. 

      I recommend savouring the show instead of binge-watching it in one sitting though. Give yourself some room to breathe and digest the information overload, especially in the first few episodes where the show is unpacking the 'Altered Carbon' universe and jumping between timelines.

      Now I'm gonna watch it for the second time to catch all the things I missed the first time around.

  • 'Altered Carbon' is currently streaming on Netflix. Watch the trailer here:

  • Watch this space for our interview with the 'Altered Carbon' cast next week! Meanwhile, check out these exclusive celebrity interviews on SAYS:

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