The two Kovacs kiddies huddle under a table, co-narrating a rather ghoulish children’s story to one another. In it, an abusive father stitches the parts of murdered children into a Frankensteinian golem, jejunely titled the “Patchwork Man.” Speaking of monsters, Papa Kovacs shambles into frame, drunk as a skunk and just achin’ for trouble. The wee bairns cower into a closet and watch helplessly as their father batters their beleaguered mother around the house (just what this show needed – spousal abuse) to the strains of a child singing in a cold, eerie voice – “theee paaaatchwork maaaan.”
Surely this is meant to be a metaphor, but for what I can’t honestly tell you. Is Takeshi the Patchwork Man? His father? Is it society as a whole, shambling incessantly forward on a hellspawn quest for mindless perpetuation? Dunno. That’s the risk with “dark” stories like this – it can be a bit hard to see the point through all the gloom.
Young Takeshi cradles his sister and lovingly bumps his forehead against hers. “Never face the monsters alone…” he says. Sure, it’s an empurpled line, but it dovetails into the rest of the episode, forming a thematic arc that mostly carries through to the end.
Or, as Kovacs’ old sensei girlfriend puts it in one of her flashback morsels of bromide advice: “Find a pack.”
You are Cordially Invited…
Finding and developing that pack is how roughly the first half of In a Lonely Place plays out, with nearly every white-hat pursuing that very impulse. Three episodes in, and the scattered protagonists are finally starting to team up a bit. After an impromptu invite to a soiree at Bancroft’s lawless pleasure tower arrives via eye-phone, Kovacs decides to assemble a posse – for protection if nothing else.
Poe, ever the dutiful weirdo, served as a pretty solid wingman in the premiere episode, pulping a squad of bad guys in a cloud of buckshot and vocabulary. But he’s an AI manifestation – think the Doctor in Star Trek: Voyager – and is therefore unable to cross the threshold of the hotel. He’s bricked up behind the walls, you could say. This leaves Kovacs with the only other person he hasn’t completely alienated yet – Vernon Elliot.
Kovacs and Elliot broker an uneasy deal, wherein Vernon covers Kovacs’ back, and in payment Kovacs will “heal” his shattered daughter Lizzie. Rather, Poe will heal Lizzie. In a scene that surely devastated thousands of grad students of psychology, Poe downloads a suite of psychotherapeutic skills with a Matrix-like eyelash flutter and arranges a VR hospital room to tend to Lizzie’s ruined mind. In a rather charming (while still unabatingly creepy) note to his character, Poe adorns Lizzie’s resting space with Pepto-bismolian shades of pink. It’s his best effort to make the whole thing feel cozy. As a rapt and creeped-out Vernon puts it, “Looks like the inside of someone’s stomach.” He’s not wrong.
It’s nice to see these characters starting, ever so slowly, to develop a rapport with one another. At this point, we’re 30% through the season, and still the characters have developed very little in way of chemistry, compassion, unity, or even basic conversation skills. Everyone’s been some flavor of pissy with one each other (except for Poe, of course, who’s always beaming bright and distant like a lonely lighthouse).
As a result, Altered Carbon is now in desperate need of a friendship. Some camaraderie. A joke. Anything. This is doubly true for Ortega, whose campaign of short-tempered one-dimensionality persists unabated. She’s on the guest list for Bancroft’s party as well, to oversee a scheduled “organic damage” which is exactly what it sounds like. The stage is set! They’re all well-coiffed and dressed to the nines! Surely, with all of our main and supporting players in one place, something essential will occur to move the plot forward!
Actually, not so much…
When you look past the neon and ninja fights and murmuring, cynical gumshoes, Altered Carbon is really just a show straining to be a social commentary. It’s holding up funhouse exaggerations of our current preoccupations, hoping we might see some grisly reflection of our own sick behavior – namely the devouring, soul-corrupting power of wealth and privilege, and the lengths those in possession will go to maintain it. Whether or not this is successful (it isn’t…) is a different story. But for the moment, let’s applaud AC for its ambition. At least it’s trying.
In this vision of the future, wealth buys more than luxury. It offers the privileged the chance to persist as themselves, ad inifinitum – to live beyond the meat chain of random bodies relegated to the poor and desperate plebs of Bay City, and don instead their old and original flesh, forever young and perfect. In a world where the body has been so thoroughly devalued for so many, the perpetuation of the pristine, original self is the greatest privilege of all – a kind of Ur-immortality, only available to those few wealthy Meths able to afford the cloning bills.
What’s the effect of a life spent in fabulous undeath? Well, it’s about what you’d expect: crushing boredom to the point of sociopathy. One by one – guest by guest – we see the warp such malaise creates in the people in Bancroft’s orbit. His children are a Freudian minefield – from his daughter who slips into one of her mother’s sultry sleeves like a kid borrowing her mother’s Porsche to joyride astride a security guard, to his loutish son, mired in a swamp of drunken impotence, raging at whomever might wander near. His friends don’t fare much better either. They’re a rogues gallery of prime cut, 1% monstrous wealthy douchebaggery, chuckling through mouthfuls of champagne and tiger meat, swapping stories of the laws they flout and the lives they ruin.
As I’ve said, Altered Carbon is attempting to say something here. And while the psychological observations about arrested childhood in the face of immortal parents is interesting…the class commentary loses its way once the party reaches its grandest, sharkjumpiest culmination: a zero-g knife fight between a husband and wife.
The very notion of this event would have been enough to drive the thesis home that these people are monstrous and should be promptly torn from their splendor. Hell, I was sold once I saw someone eating tiger meat. But Altered Carbon goes that much farther. Kovacs winds up in the middle of the fracas and is forced to fight yet again in a long, bloody sequence that exposes nothing about our characters, moves the plot nowhere, and spends too long on the violence it claims to find so repellent.
In a series that claims apprehension over the cruelty done to bodies, I can’t help but notice that the fight sequence lingers on every splintered bone, every gorgeous ribbon of blood. It’s a perfect metaphor for everything that’s wrong with Altered Carbon – needless violence, lovingly depicted, in the utter absence of gravity.
Catch up on our previous Altered Carbon reviews here!