NOTE: Here is my review from Soda & Telepaths that was posted back on March 17th, 2020. This is from when S&T gave out percentage scores on a fancy layout and I somehow kept track of that
Altered Carbon first popped up on Netflix on the 2nd of February 2018. Based on the 2002 novel of the same name by Richard K. Morgan, the series made waves before a single episode aired by being one of the most expensive shows to be created by the streaming service. Once the series hit the internet it turned out to be very popular, popular enough to get a second season that dropped on the 27th of February and an upcoming anime film on the 19th of March. The first season of this cyberpunk noir detective series was certainly one that required your full attention but rewarded you for it with some of the best characters on TV and some incredible action scenes that made it stand out. Season two certainly started that way, but it stumbled right near the finish line.
Altered Carbon Season 2 picks up 30 years later and our favourite Envoy, Takeshi Kovacs, has a brand new body that looks an awful lot like the new Captain America (Anthony Mackie). After the events of season one, Kovacs tried to lie low but he was eventually found and killed and his stack (a device people in this universe have in their necks that contains their consciousness) removed. He is taken to a VR construct to take part in a job interview where the obscenely rich Horace Axley offers Kovacs a brand new sleeve (the term for ‘body’) and the location of Quellcrist Falconer, a revolutionary who Kovacs knew. Once the deal is made, Kovacs wakes up in his Anthony Mackie body to discover that something has gone terribly wrong because Axley and a lot of other people have been violently murdered. Now Kovacs has to try and find out just who did all that murder and find Quellcrist on his own… which he does by about episode 5, which is roughly when the season begins changing to a completely different story and the problems begin.
Altered Carbon Season 2 starts strong, very much like the first season did. Taking Kovacs and thrusting him into the middle of a grisly murder he has to solve while simultaneously trying to deal with the demons from his past and the discrepancy between how the rich thrive in this society while the poor just barely survive created a fascinating story with memorable compelling characters. The second season gets this right in the beginning, hitting a high in episode 3, Nightmare Alley, where Kovacs ends up having to fight major characters from the first season whose lives were heavily impacted by his actions. It’s probably the most emotional episode of the series that lets us see how much these people mattered to Kovacs… and then those characters are never mentioned again.
The problem that season two has is that it feels completely unrelated to season one with the exception of Episode 3 (which requires you to know about the events of season one for it to have an adequate emotional resonance) and Poe (Chris Conner). Sure they continue the storyline about Quellcrist Falconer from last season, but it almost feels like it starts from scratch, since the Quellcrist story really should’ve ended with the big revelation of just what happened to the character during season one. Without that connection, and with a brand new face as the lead, we are in effect watching a completely different show and this one just doesn’t have the same emotional connection the original had. It doesn’t have the same solid structure or interesting characters, it barely even does anything with the class structure politics which was literally the main thrust of the last season. That season had a scene in episode nine about how rich people could pay exorbitant amounts of money to rape and murder poor people who would allow it on the promise that they’d get a new body, a promise that might not even be fulfilled. This season doesn’t do anything that shocking or interesting with the world they’ve set up and it’s upsetting.
The journey this season takes feels like they got bored of the murder investigation that opens the series and just moved on to a more apocalyptic story because the scale was bigger which might get a better result. Sure, this apocalyptic tale can give some great visuals, like in episode 6, Bury Me Dead, when the apocalyptic weapon Angelfire wipes out a battlefield which is one of those visuals that you don’t forget in a hurry… or at least, you wouldn’t if it was happening to people you cared about. With one notable exception, I just don’t care about any of these characters and thus their plight means nothing to me.
The one storyline that goes throughout the entire season that works, unambiguously, is Poe’s story. At the end of Season 1, Poe was basically torn apart in one of the more shocking moments of that incredible finale and this season he has been put back together but he keeps glitching. Effectively, Poe’s storyline is him dealing with a version of Alzheimer’s that slowly takes away his short term memory and he’s repeatedly offered a cure that would help him, namely a total system reboot. The catch here is that if he does that reboot, he’ll be perfectly healthy but forget everyone and that would devastate him. It’s wonderfully performed and it’s the one storyline in this season that had me openly sobbing, especially in the final episode. The downside is we’re not spending much time with Poe, we’re too busy running off with Kovacs and his new gang of people we don’t actually care about on a mission with no emotional stakes.
Season 2 is still OK, but it’s a massive drop from season 1 in terms of character, story and visual flair. Even though this season had fewer episodes, it felt like it had more filler and no focus. There’s still clearly life in this concept and I hope a third season will get them back on track because this season just didn’t quite work for me as much as the season before it had.
Awesomeness – 61%
Plot – 53%
Characters – 37%
Tone – 49%
Summary: While there are still some moments that show the potential of this series, Season 2 of Altered Carbon starts high and then quickly descends into a grimy sludge of a story broken up by the occasional shootout with the emotional stack ripped from its neck. Worth watching purely so you can keep track of where everyone might be at the start of Season 3 (should we get one of those) but never feels essential. Definitely rewatch season one before you go through one though, otherwise the few emotional highs won’t mean a damn thing to you.