The Highs And Lows Of ‘Altered Carbon’ Season One (With Spoilers)


On Friday, Netflix released Altered Carbon, its 10-hour adaptation of the Richard K. Morgan novel set in a future where human consciousness has been digitized onto discs (“stacks”) that can be swapped between bodies (“sleeves”). I published my review of the series last week, discussing some of what I liked and some of what I found frustrating, and I have some more specific thoughts — with full spoilers for the whole season — on its highs and lows, coming up just as soon as I give my mother’s sleeve a try…

HIGH: The mystery pretty much makes sense by the end.

The hard-boiled and/or noir detective stories that Morgan and now showrunner Laeta Kalogridis are paying homage to with the series are famous (or infamous) for relying more on atmosphere and character than narrative cohesion. (Legend has it that when the screenwriters adapting Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep reached out to Chandler to help them understand who killed a chauffeur midway through the story, and why, a sheepish Chandler replied, “Damned if I know.”) But in this era of serialized TV, the audience tends to get mad if a longform story introduces lots of questions that aren’t satisfactorily answered. (See Damon Lindelof’s Twitter account, for instance. Or don’t, because he quit Twitter after too many people yelled at him about how Lost resolved its mysteries.)

There were several junctures in this season where I threw up my arms at the thought of keeping track of all the threads stretching out from Kovacs and Ortega’s investigation, and all the factions trying to do one or both of them harm. By the finale, though, most of it tied together pretty neatly, going all the way back to the premiere’s discussion of the law that would allow even Catholic murder victims (who otherwise don’t believe in resleeving) to be spun back up to testify against their killers. It explains most of the actions of both Miriam and Laurens Bancroft, Reileen’s role in all of this, what happened to Lizzie to put her in that catatonic state, and more. There were a few too many narrative contortions along the way, particularly involving the gangster seeking revenge on the man whose sleeve Kovacs was wearing, but I came out of the finale feeling like Kalogridis and company had played fair with us.

LOW: Kovacs isn’t much of a Rip Van Winkle.

This remained weirdly distracting throughout, and is also something that could have been addressed quickly in a line or two: Kovacs has been in cold storage for 250 years, yet other than not knowing about the Meths, seems utterly unfazed by the state of the world he finds himself in. Think about how rapidly technology and popular culture and societal mores evolve for us in the 2010s. Now imagine a society that, at the time Kovacs was captured and unsleeved, had already mastered interstellar travel, artificial intelligence, and everything to do with stacks and sleeves. Would that society stagnate enough over two and a half centuries that Kovacs could just jump right in with no real adjustment period? Or would it be like offering a caveman a ride in a minivan with a built-in DVD player showing The Force Awakens? A couple of jokes here and there, or Kovacs noting what a quick study he is, or even Bancroft suggesting he wants a man out of time looking into his “murder” because he’ll be untainted by contemporary knowledge, and it all goes away easily.

HIGH: The zero-G fight.

The action sequences were pretty terrific throughout — I could also highlight Kovacs and Ortega battling the mutants in Carnage’s arena, or pretty much every beat of the final assault on Reileen’s sex murder ship — but the best one came relatively early, with Kovacs first witnessing, then being forced to join in on the zero-gravity gladiatorial fight between the married couple competing to get an upgraded sleeve. It’s pretty low-stakes compared to the other ones — Kovacs is never in genuine danger, the married couple doesn’t figure into the plot before or after, and there aren’t personal issues involved in the way there are when, say, Ortega is using her bionic arm to get revenge on the man who slaughtered her family — but it’s a remarkable blend of visual effects and fight choreography, and one of the season’s more effective methods of casually demonstrating how much more advanced technology is in this world than in ours.

LOW: The torture episode.

I haven’t read the book, but my understanding is that this sequence is even more gruesome there, with Kovacs’ mind being placed in a woman’s body for the simulation. Kalogridis felt that dramatizing that would feel too much like torture porn, and she was right, but even the version where Kovacs is still in Riker’s body felt too self-indulgent in the way that most film and TV torture scenes ultimately do. That episode gave us one of Joel Kinnaman’s best moments of the series, where Kovacs’ speech manages to intimidate the hell out of his captors even while he’s shackled and completely under their control, but the season could have just as easily done without the whole unpleasant bit.

HIGH: Grandma pees standing up.

The philosophical dispute between Ortega and her more religious family members started out as seeming like an easy way to articulate the debates echoing throughout this society about resleeving, before ultimately figuring into the main plot. Along the way, it provided the opportunity for some blessed levity with the sequence where Kristin spins her grandmother up into the sleeve of the beefy criminal she’d been placed in charge of on the Day of the Dead. Ten hours of relentless darkness is a lot to get through, so anytime the season found room for even a touch of whimsy, like the grandmother’s delight at being able to lift heavy things, or many of the interactions between Poe and his human guests, came as great reliefs.

LOW: The naked broken glass fight.

Our own Dan Seitz talked with Kalogridis about the series, and she had a perfectly reasonable thematic explanation for the series’ “What if the future, but nakeder?” aesthetic. That said, there were plenty of sequences where the frequency and abundance of naked bodies left me feeling like Jerry Seinfeld when he realized his new girlfriend was always nude: sometimes, it’s just too much. In particular, the fight scene where one naked Reileen clone after another burst through glass to fight Ortega — running, jumping, and even doing a full body slide across a floor covered in all those glass shards — was both much funnier and much more cringe-inducing than I think was the intention.

HIGH: The Elliot family saga paid off well, too.

Though the season’s at least a few episodes too long, Kalogridis did take advantage of the extra time to flesh out a lot of the supporting characters, especially the Elliot’s. In a more compact version of the story, Vernona, Ava, and Lizzie would mainly be plot devices — respectively, the extra muscle, the useful hacker, and the damning evidence against the Bancrofts — but here this tragic but loving family unit gets to develop and come back together in an unusual form (though Ava did get her own sleeve back at the end, thanks to Kovacs’ magical plot-solving amounts of cash), and some of the most satisfying moments of the finale involved Lizzie demonstrating all that she had learned in Poe’s care.

Those were some of my highlights and lowlights. What were yours? How’d you feel about the season, and do you want to see the series continue with a new actor playing a resleeved Kovacs, or do you feel like the world has been explored thoroughly enough this time out?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at He discusses television weekly on the TV Avalanche podcast. His new book, Breaking Bad 101, is on sale now.