Spoilers can be found in all Stacks!
The show is based on the first book of the same name in a series, by Richard K. Morgan. Set far in the future, the show informs us that technology exists that allows us to back up our very essence, in theory our soul, into a thing the show simply calls a Stack.
And so long as our Stack still exists, even if the body we wear is killed, we live on. We have to be loaded into a new body, usually called a Sleeve, or adversely can be loaded into VR – Virtual Reality of course – and spun back up to be conversed with once again, and many nasty lines can be crossed in VR, to many characters’ chagrin.
What you have to accept, right off the bat accept as fact, is that this nonsense is considered normal for them. These concepts, of immortality, of the soul, of what it means to be human, while they are all presented and certainly discussed to some degree, are available to us the audience only from afar, whereas these characters, they are actually living in it. Prepare yourself for spinup in VR, I’m about to spoil a great deal of the plot, but then there’s no real way to talk about the delight that is ‘Altered Carbon’ otherwise.
The Protectorate is basically exactly what it sounds like, a collective of staggeringly rich like-minded high society types who rule several planets together, policed by guardians called C-TAC Agents, and occupied by nobles who are generally referred to as Meths. (The word apparently refers to Methuselah, oldest living descendant of Noah and thought to be the longest-lived person ever.) The lesser dregs of Bay City, the criminals and the poor, just trying to get by, have to contend with the likes of a murdered 8-year-old daughter being spun up into an inappropriate Sleeve and humiliations even more severe, causing a clear rift in general society.
On the other side, we have the church freaks and true believers, fanatics who refuse to get a cortical Stack implanted on religious grounds, so when they die out here in the Real, it’s forever. Like for really-reals. The subject is hotly debated and in theory religious freedom still exists out here in the future, but as with today, often causes a lot of headaches for law enforcement trying to crack cases and you know, solve murders. Thus we are introduced to Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda), that bulldog of a cop who can take a beating and still curse you out in loud Spanish, with her large extended family who celebrate Dia De Los Muertos, which is now a more or less official holiday as far as everyone’s concerned, rather like you’d expect, only now the ghosts show up in the Sleeve of a large tattooed and creatively pierced white man. The debate of spirit versus Sleeve is clearly demonstrated in Ortega’s large family, how she loves them all in unique quiet and happy ways. Until the Kovacs case really begins to heat up, that is.
And we come full circle, welcome back to the world Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman), some specially and mystically trained operative known as an Envoy, from more than two hundred and fifty freaking years ago, the last known Envoy in the whole world. One of the richest and oldest Meths of Bay City, well not technically the city, no, he built a white tower into the sky, calls it the Eyrie and everything, meet Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy). It was he who had the temerity, the balls and oh gods yes the money, to raise Takeshi Kovacs himself in this ridiculous new body, to solve a murder. Specifically, Laurens Bancrofts own murder, as he points to a bloody swatch on the stone wall to demonstrate where his mind and Stack where erased in a former body. Kovacs new Sleeve comes with its own set of inherent problems, hailing from prison and formerly somehow of the police force too, as Elias Ryker does.
Finding out what happened to Bancroft was never going to be easy, but then Bancroft didn’t shunt out and re-Sleeve Kovacs for anything other than the truth to the one question – who killed Laurens Bancroft? The search for the answer mows through a very bad idea of a fling with Miriam Bancroft (Kristi Lehman), a pants-wetting confrontation with one of Bancroft’s sons Isaac (Antonio Marziale), and what sure looked like yet another Laurens Bancroft murder, but literally by his own hand this time.
But all of this is little compared to memories Takeshi Konvacs visits whenever he can, dreams of unpleasant life with his tiny sister and abusive father, having to make hard choices and living with the consequences, and his training as an Envoy, specially at the hands of Quell (Renee Elise Goldsberry), their leader. Her charisma is a thing to behold, her training is absolute, and her attraction to Takeshi in particular is undeniable. Even Tak’s sister, older now but still together fighting as one like the dragon with no end, can’t help but notice the formidable team Tak and Quell make. Jealousy is an ugly and, sad to say, long-lasting emotion.
So when Takeshi’s sister Reileen (Dichen Lachman) shows up in a proper Sleeve to attempt to save him from himself, Kovacs is beyond taken aback and understandably reluctant to accept damn near any kind of help. Based on his Envoy training, Takeshi has already managed to surround himself with loyal minions, and he began in the most unlikely place possible, a near-defunct AI hotel that no-one uses anymore, the House of the Raven. Poe (Chris Conner), the AI construct that runs the hotel, is far from the emo goth poetry writer his model is based on, but rather, a fiercely loyal and surprisingly gentle construction that can both lower machine guns from the ceiling to take on all comers, but also tend softly to the damaged psyche of the daughter of Takeshi’s next minion, Vernon (Ato Essandoh). Vern’s daughter Lizzie (Hayley Law) was severely damaged and her father could only spin her Stack back up in VR, where she’s apparently stuck reliving her attack, over and over. No-one would ever think the king of beating hearts under the floorboards would bring a damaged girl back from the brink and teach her to kick so much ass, but there you have it. Even Lizzie’s mom, who shows up in an unusual Sleeve, while she may not entirely approve of the methods Poe uses, cannot argue with the results. Armed with these unique helpers, Takeshi Kovacs will use any and all methods at his disposal to discover the real truth behind the murder of Laurens Bancroft, no matter who it hurts, no matter what else his investigation might uncover, and then finally, finally, he might get to go back on ice and just rest.
Like the future existence of Bladerunner crossed with the culturisms and snark of The Fifth Element, Altered Carbon is a world rife with intrigue, mystery, twisted love and rueful pain, and never-ending possibilities. Altered Carbon season two, based on the second book Broken Angels by Richard K. Morgan, is already slated for production, though rumor has it Kinnaman won’t be returning for the lead role of Takeshi Kovacs. Given the Sleeving abilities of the world, the show can certainly do that and even get away with it, but without Kinnaman’s brooding twinkles it may be slightly less enjoyable.
Download a Sleeve and jack in to Altered Carbon on Netflix now!