Altered Carbon: Season 2 REVIEW — Examining The Impact Of Greed

In season two, Takeshi Kovacs is not the only one who gets a welcome new sleeve - the show does as well.

Altered Carbon
Altered Carbon

When it first premiered in 2018, Altered Carbon, a cyberpunk show based on a book of the same name by Richard K. Morgan, invited us to experience a near-future world where people can be immortal due to a discovery of technology known as a cortical stack. This technology allows people to store their minds in a disc installed in their spines and use them to re-sleeve into a new body if the original one dies. Though it’s originally intended for space exploration, a group of one-percenters sees this discovery as an opportunity to prolong their life, power, and wealth — practically to turn themselves into gods. And not long after, they begin commodifying the stacks, making them into the new currency.

Disagreeing with that idea, the person who engineered the very first stack, Quellcrist Falconer (Renée Elise Goldsberry), forms an underground organization known as Envoys to rebel against the ultra-wealthy people who now identify themselves as the Meths. Throughout the first season, the power struggle between the Envoys and the Meths was looming underneath the main story through a series of flashbacks. But mainly it was to make protagonist Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman), the last living Envoy hired to investigate the murder of one of the persons his organization is against, more compelling.

Where season one truly excelled was in its depiction of how immortality can bring the worst out of people, as well as its exploration of the mental and emotional strains that re-sleeving can inflict upon people. Cross-sleeving from one gender or race to another one is a pretty normal thing in the universe of Altered Carbon. Sadly, it only happens to the lower class who don’t have enough money to choose which body they’ll be occupying. Those who are rich like Bancroft, the Meth whose death Kovacs was investigating in season 1, not only can choose any type of bodies they’d like to occupy but can also clone their sleeves.

So the main narrative of Altered Carbon was always clearly built upon the disparity of wealth that only benefits those already at the top of the totem pole. But instead of delving into that compelling subject, season one, unfortunately, complicated things with its many subplots, flashbacks, and unnecessary violence that only really served base, voyeuristic purposes. The alarming gap between the haves and the have-nots has been palpable since season one. And as represented by the Meths, the one-percenters often exploit the poor for entertainment, pitting them against each other in a battle ring until one of them is skin-dead.

This disparity is made even more noticeable from the living conditions differences between the upper class and the lower one. The Meths tend to live above the clouds, leaving the less fortunate in dirtier places. But all of these depictions in season one were just sort of there in the background of Kovacs’ investigation as if they weren’t integral to the main narrative of the story. We never know if the class division is the implication of the stack technology or not. Instead of addressing the actual themes and its connection to the original story of the stack, the first season was too busy untangling the mystery and piling the narrative with Kovac’s past through plenty of unnecessary flashbacks and grotesque violence. And as a result, it undercuts the show’s compelling exploration of class division.

Cultured Vultures spoilers

Though the first two episodes of season two do not exactly course-correct the flaws of season one, it quickly evolves into a more focused and compelling show. There is no inessential violence or flashbacks, and the story is told more straightforwardly, while still capturing the excitement of the first season. Now with Alison Schapker at the helm after Laeta Kalogridis stepped down as showrunner, the second season of Altered Carbon also finally addresses the theme of  human greed that season one didn’t touch.

Picking up three decades after the season one finale, Kovacs, now in the body of Anthony Mackie, is still on his quest of finding the love of his life Quell. And he’s now closer than ever when he returns to his home planet Harlan’s World to protect a Meth named Mr. Axley (Michael Axley) who hires him. But when he learns that a mysterious killer has been targeting the planet’s founders, Kovacs is once again thrown into an investigation that will unfold a bigger conspiracy involving Quell, the new Governor Danica Harlan (Lela Loren), the intergalactic military Colonel Ivan Carrera (Torben Liebrecht), and even the founders. Kovacs is still assisted by his A.I. partner Poe (Chris Conner). But when he starts glitching and malfunctioning, Kovacs finds a new ally in the form of a fearless bounty-hunter Trepp (Simone Missick), who’s on a personal journey of finding her brother Anil Imani.

While Poe’s on a mission to repair himself, the show extends its philosophical concerns on identity and what it’s like to be human, a mortal being. Ever since season one, the show has portrayed Poe as a character who is more human than the other characters. Not just because he’s incredibly selfless, but also because he and the A.I., unlike most people in the show, are mortal — they can be shut down at any moment. Altered Carbon makes an interesting case that immortality can distort people’s humanity as shown from how the Meths act throughout the show. Meanwhile, through Poe, the show reminds us that what makes our life precious is mortality. To be human means that we know we can’t last forever, that we know we have to make every living moment as meaningful as possible cause our time here is limited.

Poe’s subplot in season two is heartbreaking, and Chris Conner shows a lot of emotions in portraying him. He’s able to conjure vulnerability using subtle facial expression, displaying Poe’s fear of death whenever other characters suggest he reboots himself. But where the second season excels is its examination of economic disparity and the dire impact of greed. As mentioned above, the uber-wealthy who inhabit the universe of Altered Carbon are mostly power-hungry and greedy — except for a small number of people like Tanaseda Hideki, who disagree with Konrad’s decision to massacre the Elders, but find themselves outnumbered. They only care about themselves and how to sustain being rich, willing to do almost anything to maintain their power because they feel that the wealth gap is not theirs to solve.

Danica Harlan is a great example of this. She governs Harlan’s World and tries to keep the peace between the resistance and the Meths not out of a noble intention to bring prosperity for the people, but rather because she wants to keep exploiting the lower class as pawns in a non-existent war which she fabricated in the first place. All of these are exposed when the show puts the highlight on Quell, whose role in season one was entirely told from Tak’s memory.

As Quell tries to make sense of why she goes on a killing spree against the founders, we learn that it is because she’s been used as a house by an Elder, an alien species and the original inhabitants of the planet who are murdered by Harlan before he colonizes their homeland. Not only does it transform Quell into an assassin, but she also inhabits the Elder’s technology of controlling a cosmic weapon located above Harlan’s World.

When Danica finally finds out about this, she leaks footage of Quell killing the founders to stir chaos in Harlan’s world. She intends to declare martial law, which would allow her to take full control of the protectorate and eliminate those against her. Danica’s final goal, however, is to master the Elder technology. And it will only happen if she can do anything with Quell once she’s caught without any interruptions from the protectorate who’s assigned to kill her. Immortality allows Danica to stay wealthy and in power. But it’s her greed and hunger for power that eventually corrupt her morality. She doesn’t care how many people die or if the world she rules is in chaos, so long as she can achieve her goal and feed her ego.

Through its exploration of Danica as she’s demonstrating how greed corrupts her humanity and leads her to abuse her power, Altered Carbon finally addresses the wealth gap that season one never touched. Season one is mostly about the mystery, but in the second season, we know that wealth disparity and how it prompts those already at the top to do anything to maintain their power are all part and parcel of stack technology.

What first began as a show about cheating death and immortality,  has now morphed into an astonishing display of the extreme length that people are willing to go to keep themselves in a position of power. Yes, greed and money can turn human beings into the most inhuman version of themselves. But when combined with immortality, as Altered Carbon deftly illustrates, it can be a really dangerous thing. In the real world, mortality is what checks the rich. Death becomes the consequence of their actions. But when it’s pulled out of the equation, then nothing will keep their feet on the ground. They become immune from nearly everything.

In the end, Altered Carbon may be set in the future, in a world that seems so far away from our civilization right now. But when we take a closer inspection of the issues that the show is exploring, from greed to wealth disparity and unchecked power, the show speaks volumes about the stratified society that we live in today where the rich keep being rich, and the poor keep struggling every day.

Some of the coverage you find on Cultured Vultures contains affiliate links, which provide us with small commissions based on purchases made from visiting our site. We cover gaming news, movie reviews, wrestling and much more.

Altered Carbon
With strong performances from Anthony Mackie and Chris Conner, as well as some top-notch visual effects, Altered Carbon season two remains as one of the most highly stylish shows on TV right now while also morphing into a compelling exploration of greed and wealth gap.