Altered Carbon is the Netflix Original science fiction series based on the groundbreaking cyberpunk novel by Richard K. Morgan. The first season of the show is one of the best examples of science fiction television because of its world-building, fight choreography, dynamic characters, and, on a more personal note, the way the season showcased Mexican identity. There are hardly any Latinx in science fiction and Altered Carbon smashed hegemonic future worlds and instead offered up a look 300 years in the future with a multitude of languages and cultures contributing to the story. Now, Altered Carbon Season 2 continues the story, but in a completely different fashion.
In Altered Carbon, society has been transformed by new technology which allows consciousness to be digitized. With their minds, memories and all, housed in stacks at the base of their necks, human bodies have become interchangeable. Called sleeves, physical death is no longer permanent, and new faces are continuous. This fact of Altered Carbon’s world allows for the same character to be played by multiple people, something we see in our main character Takashi Kovacs in the first season. Because of this, the door was wide open to bring an entirely new cast to come in and continue our protagonist’s story. Now played by Anthony Mackie, in Altered Carbon Season 2, Kovacs continues his centuries-old quest to find his lost love Quellcrist Falconer (Renée Elise Goldsberry).
Season 1 ended with Kovacs leaving the cast of characters we came to know and connect to in order to embark on a quest to find Quell. Now 10 years after the events of the last season, he ultimately finds himself recruited back to his home planet of Harlan’s World. Haunted by his past and responsible for investigating a series of brutal murders, Kovacs is stunned to discover his new mission to solve the crime and his pursuit to find Quell are one and the same. Because we’re tied to Kovac’s story, Altered Carbon Season 2 does still have some familiar sleeves like the A.I. Poe (Chris Conner), Quell, and Will Yun Lee reprising his role as the original Kovacs.
That said, this season, Kovacs must partner with new allies to outwit his enemies and find the truth about his love and, in doing so, the series embraces what feels like an entirely new series. This is due in large part to the fact that Mackie’s Kovacs is entirely different than the one played by Joel Kinnaman in Season 1. He’s less physically imposing, even more reserved, and blends into the crowd, allowing for more buyable stealth than what we saw last season. Mackie is good, but it’s hard to fall in love with a character again played by a new actor. In fact, we’re being asked to reimagine everything that we know about the character now. Mackie’s Kovacs doesn’t have the presence that holds your attention on-screen and his physicality in action sequences isn’t nearly the same as last season.
That said, Mackie’s strength is his chemistry and ability to connect to existing and new characters. Mackie excels at building both platonic and romantic chemistry between each character he shares the screen with. But, in his solo scenes, especially the ones that replicate those from season 1, I couldn’t help but compare him to the Kovacs of the past. Despite this, it has to be said that Mackie’s acting scenes are stellar and builds more emotion than the Kovacs of the past. He is able to show more depth, and that adds to the series. Mackie says a lot with his eyes. He’s a calm Kovacs, he’s stable, and in every situation, he is in control. If Kinnaman’s Kovacs was a berserker, Mackie’s is a rogue.
Additionally, Mackie gets the chance to be a character at the center of a romance. While last season was filled with sex and nudity, this season is extremely toned down in that regard, leaning more towards building a romance and fulfilling one. While Mackie gets to be the object of affection, he isn’t given the same treatment as Kinnaman was. While Kinnaman was shirtless or naked for a lot of the season, Mackie isn’t given the same sexual gaze, which brings up questions about why the showrunners made that choice. That said, where last season was just about sex, this season is about romance, it’s about real love, the kind connected across time. Mackie and Goldsberry are phenomenal, I buy every minute of their connection.
Ultimately, the stars of this season are the women. While Colonel Carrera (Torben Liebrecht) and the Harlens are extremely fun to watch the series’ women carry the season. Not only do we have Quell becoming more dynamic and getting her own story instead of being left to just the love interest, we also get to understand her on an emotional level as well as a narrative one. As she begins to learn about herself, we learn about her and the journey is one that I’m happy I went on. Additionally, Simone Missick joins the cast as Trepp as an intelligent bounty hunter. While I can’t reveal my favorite moments (spoilers!), both Quell and Trepp hold their own against the men they fight, the situations they’re in, and each actress commands the scene the moment she steps into the frame. But with Trepp and Quell, Danica Harlen (Lela Loren) also stands a quiet power, imposing in her crisp fashion. She’s unassuming but her words cut, making her infinitely interesting.
Altered Carbon Season 2 also gives more time for its side characters, including the returning Poe, who didn’t get much time with last season. While a lot of the secondaries don’t feel whole, they do feel multifaceted. Additionally, their placement in the story is important and each one of them is used to something larger. This is also what makes the return of Yun’s Kovacs in memories great to see, but his role in other events make for great storytelling.
With his new sleeve, Kovacs’ fighting style also changes. Last season, Kovacs was in a disgraced detective’s body, now, he’s in a soldier’s sleeve. With this new body, comes a new identity that is tied to an upgraded body that can do more than just martial arts. In Altered Carbon Season 2, this upgraded sleeve turns him into a superhero of sorts. With the ability to call guns to his hands from under tables and from far away, it makes his fight scenes less dynamic, even when others have the same skill. Additionally, compared to the people that Kovacs is fighting and the other characters, he doesn’t move as quickly and doesn’t have as robust a selection of fight choreography and it stands out.
Season 1 was defined by fast-paced action sequences that blended weapons and different styles of martial arts for each of the characters. While characters like Quell, Carrera, and Trepp all have stellar action scenes, our lead seems to almost sleepwalk through his. The impacts aren’t as hard, the takedowns not nearly as fast, and the power not palpable even with a technically enhanced body. But, for fans of the series who love its action, there are still many fights to love and replay multiple times, specifically where Quell and Trepp are involved.
While the action feels like a completely different show, with Kovacs relying on an upgraded sleeve that reduces a lot of the struggle and visual deterioration we saw of the sleeve last season, the visuals of Altered Carbon Season 2 are instantly recognizable. Neon lighting, dirty and futuristic cities, hyper colored green space, and of course, night clubs, Season 2 is obviously connected to the same world of the first season. That said, there is a lot of rehashing of plot points and world-building moments that Season 1 covered, which makes the first two episodes of Season 2 feel like too much exposition. It feels almost like a rewrite of the previous season.
That said, there is something about the way information is presented that makes Altered Carbon Season 2 accessible to both new audiences that are fans of high science fiction, but also those just looking for a new show but may not be all-in to learning all the jargon that comes with it – one of the few flaws with the first season. The strength of this season is that it can reach a wide audience and doesn’t require you to watch season one. Additionally, this season feels like an entirely new series. It’s less violent, slower-paced, and not as sexual. While this may be an issue for some viewers who loved those elements of the first season, this does open the world of Altered Carbon up to a new audience.
Overall, Altered Carbon Season 2 was made to bring in new viewers, and not necessarily to appease old ones. This isn’t bad, but with so few returning characters and a Kovacs who doesn’t have the same personality of Kinneman’s or Yun’s, it’s going to be hit or miss to existing fans. Especially when Yun makes me wish the entire season had focused on his version of the character over Mackie’s. I think it’s easier to call Altered Carbon Season 2 good, which is only frustrating because Season 1 was extraordinary. Additionally, knowing a Season 3 will more than like recast everyone yet again, it was hard to form a connection with anyone other than Quell and the world itself.
Altered Carbon Season 2 is streaming exclusively on Netflix now.
Altered Carbon, Season 2
Altered Carbon Season 2 was made to bring in new viewers, and not necessarily to appease old one. This isn’t bad, but with so few returning characters and a Kovacs who doesn’t have the same personality of Kinneman’s or Yun’s, it’s going to be hit or miss to existing fans. I think it’s easier to call Altered Carbon Season 2 average, which is only frustrating because Season 1 was extraordinary.
Kate is co-founder, EIC, and CCO of BWT. She’s also a Certified Rotten Tomatoes Critic, host, and creator of our flagship podcast, But Why Tho? and Did You Have To?. She also manages all PR relationships for comics, manga, film, TV, and anime. She has an MA in Cultural Anthropology and Religious Studies focusing on how pop culture impacts society.