Altered Carbon is probably one of my all-time favorite cyberpunk series, both book and television adaptation. I felt the idea of adapting the original novel was impossible given its stunning vision of the future and multiple bodies for a single character yet somehow Netflix managed to prove me wrong. The beautiful and terrifying world of Post-Stack humanity, where everyone can live forever if they can afford it, was amazing to see realized. There was talk that the show was a bit sleazy given its copious nudity, violence, and nihilism but I felt that played into the larger themes of Richard K. Morgan’s seminal work. I was excited about a second season and eager to see how they adapted Broken Angels.
Well, unfortunately, they didn’t adapt Broken Angels for the second season. I’m not going to be one of those fans who complains about deviations from the book but it is important to say this is not the fascinating Vietnam in Space-esque story of the second book but a loose adaptation of Woken Furies, the third book. Accent on the loose. I really enjoyed Broken Angels so seeing it skipped was a disappointment. It doesn’t help that I also feel that Woken Furies was the weakest of the Takeshi Kovacs trilogy. This is also going to be only one of several complaints as not only do I feel the second season didn’t live up to the books, but it didn’t live up to the first season either. There’s some good but I should warn people that they need to manage their expectations.
The premise for the second season of the show is that Takeshi Kovacs (Anthony Mackie) is kidnapped from his latest location and transported back to his home world of Harlan’s World. The corporate elite of the planet are feuding with the terrorist remnants of Quellcrist Falconer’s forces but have managed to make an uneasy truce, Takeshi’s employer is killed early but not before he discovers that Quellcrist is still alive, In the show-universe, Qella and Takeshi had an epic romance so he is doing his best to try to track her down in order to reunite. This is a quest that takes him against the local Protectorate forces as well as revolutionaries. His only friends are his Edgar Poe A.I. (Chris Conners) from Season One and a local Yakuza boss.
The biggest issue of the show is the fact that Takeshi Kovac’s character bears little resemblance to the one from Season One. Joel Kinnamen and Anthony Mackie were always going to have different reads on the character but the one in Season Two is just shallower. Season One’s Takeshi was a mixture of charm, cynicism, and sociopathy that still had his own rule. Season Two’s writing emphasizes Takeshi as a brooding angry badass who is utterly in love with a long dead woman. It’s also unfortunate that he’s lost some of his compassion for the little guy as Season Two’s Takeshi treats Edgar as a disposable tool despite the man’s persistent friendship. Rather than a complex series of resentment and envy, Takeshi bluntly says how much he hates Meths. In simple terms, the protagonist is just not nearly as likable or interesting as the first time around.
Another major issue is the fact that the plot changes of Season One from the books have also made the social satire almost absent. In the books, the Quellists are an anti-capitalist anti-authoritarian freedom fighter group that verges on being terrorists. In the series, they are against the immortality of Stack technology and have no stated opinion on capitalism. Much of the social satire of the books survived in the criticism of the Meths’ disgusting wealth in Season One but now it’s just Takeshi hating them for being old rather than old as well as ungodly rich. I never liked Quellcrist Falconer in Season One and making her the central focus of Takeshi’s quest hurt matters since she never approaches Kristen Ortega for chemistry with Takeshi (either version – even a brief dream sequence has Anthony Mackie show much more with Martha Higareda than other characters);.
The atmosphere of Harlan’s World lacks a lot of the description from the previous season. It was supposedly a mixture of Slavic and Japanese culture but there’s not that many Asian characters in this season. While the Yakuza play a role, they seem to be the only source of Asian characters in the show. Season One managed to constantly underline the divide between the super-rich and the super-poor with the working poor caught in the middle. It was a world of decadent excess and monumental suffering that seems to lack all its previous grit. The showrunners have already stated that they cut dramatically back on the nudity and violence for this season–which is just underlining how tame this feels compared to Season One.
The only character I really think manages to shine in this season is Edgar. Cursed with the A.I. equivalent of Alzheimer’s, he’s devoted himself to the service of Takeshi only to start realizing that he’s taken for granted. Edgar has more humanity than most humans and remains the most likable character from the previous season. I cared about what happened to him even though I kind of wanted him to abandon Takeshi to find better friends. That isn’t really a very good attitude to have for your main character.
In conclusion, Altered Carbon Season Two is more miss than hit. Focusing the story on Takeshi’s epic love for Quellcrist Falconer was a mistake. In simple terms, I didn’t care about their relationship and preferred him with the previous season’s love interest. I also don’t buy the show’s politics since Takeshi is against immortality in-universe to the point of becoming a terrorist but uses Stack technology all the time. The show doesn’t have the same grit, violence, or sexuality that made it a budding grimdark classic. I don’t think Mackie does a bad job, but he’s been given a bad script for the season and kept from showing all of Takeshi’s mammoth range. I’d given this one a skip. Which sucks if you’re a cyberpunk fan in general or Altered Carbon fan in particular.