Altered Carbon: Season 1 created by Laeta Kalogridis (Netflix, Mythology Entertainment, Skydance Television)
Starring Joel Kinnaman, James Purefoy, Martha Higareda, Chris Conner, Dichen Lachman, Ato Essandoh, Kristin Lehman, Trieu Tran, Hiro Kanagawa, and Waleed Zuaiter.
Let’s Begin Some Thought Experiments
Every thought experiment in philosophy begins with a hypothetical. What if we all exist as brains in a vat? What if orange doesn’t exist? What if we never die?
If we were brains in a vat, might life feel exactly the same, if images still project scene by scene on our consciousness? How can we know for sure? Better yet, would it even matter? Some philosophers suggest if we have no epistemological foundation for denying it, how could it matter?
Or, we perceive color within the context of community. Orange is orange because we all point to that particular shade and label it orange. We have no way of knowing if the experience of color is consistent from one person to the next.
Or, does life require death to create meaning? Some say joy and happiness can only be experienced if sadness and pain exist as a polar opposite. There’s no reference point without it. So, does death follow the same principle? Do we only truly feel alive because we know someday we will shuffle of this mortal coil?
The Meaning of Life
Netflix’s massive blockbuster of a new series, Altered Carbon, asks this question. With equal parts Blade Runner and The Matrix, Altered Carbon operates on a sci-fi premise where death is no longer permanent.
Humanity, you see, has discovered a technique where consciousness downloads into a “stack,” located at the base of the neck. Provided this hardware is undamaged, bodily death no longer matters. People can shuffle from one “sleeve” to another, as long as they have the necessary funds to buy another body. “Real death” only happens if a malicious actor damages the stack itself.
Behind this premise, a hard-boiled detective noir operates. Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman) gets rebooted after 250 years on ice. Part of the Envoys, a fabled terrorist organization, Kovacs’ second chance at life only exists because a rich socialite, Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy) wants a new toy to solve a personal mystery.
The wealthy in this society have found a way around real death—the destruction of a stack. All they need is enough money to own a sever where a daily backup downloads. But Bancroft wants to solve his own murder. Someone blew his stack right before the backup, the memories of those 24 hours lost to history.
So, he puts Kovacs on the case in exchange for a pardon and freedom. With nothing better to do, Kovacs jumps into the case, staying at the seediest AI hotel and taking heat from a local detective, Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda).
Seeing Potential Underneath Average Execution
While Altered Carbon shows promise, Season 1 has its flaws. Clearly, Netflix wants a Game of Thrones competitor and they gave this show the budget to do it. Even more, Altered Carbon gives its supporting characters volition, allowing for seasons to come to expand this world beyond the narrow focus of Kovacs. These tertiary characters are the most interesting and I hope the showrunners explore their stories in the years to come, much like Game of Thrones found value in telling the stories of lesser known characters.
But this season packs too much on its frame. Needing to play double duty, the series works tirelessly to establish the rules of its environment. The sci-fi twists offer intriguing thematic elements upon which to build a powerful series. But, the show also wraps a complicated plot around this pulsating dystopian future. Too often, I found leaps of logic confusing as the story blitzed through plot to a fiery conclusion.
Shaky writing aside, Altered Carbon ponders the weight of immortality, especially when immortality exists only for those wealthy enough to pay for it. How do we act when death gets removed from the table? How do we engage in empathy if the suffering of another will never be permanent? These questions need to get embedded into the series if it ever wants to make it to a Game of Thrones level of cultural cache. It has all the building blocks to get there.
Verdict: 3.5 out of 5