Open on Altered Carbon’s only sunny day. A rowboat drifts lazily across the surface of a pond. In it, a father and son cast their reels and chat amiably about…fish, I guess. Behind them, Bay City looms across the horizon like a pewter storm. Suddenly a half-naked woman plummets from the sky (like an angel) and splashes into the pond (like a herring?). The father and son paddle over to help, but it’s too late – she’s gone. Dead before she even hit the water.
“Peace is an illusion,” Kovacs croaks in voiceover, “and no matter how tranquil the world seems, peace doesn’t last long.” Oof. Here we go…
Look, I get it: Altered Carbon is a neo-noir, which means gloomy, cynical voiceover is par for the course. And while VO is valuable for setting up the narrative stakes and smoothing out the corners of the world we’re inhabiting, the real task it should attempt to accomplish is to grant us insight into the speaker. That’s what good VO does – it lets us see how the speaker sees the world, and develop an intimacy with their viewpoint. Unfortunately for us, Kovacs has all the depth and delicacy of an Evanescence lyric.
“Peace is a struggle against our very nature. A skin we stretch over the bone, muscle, and sinew of our own innate savagery.”
As far as Kovacs is concerned, human beings are the pits. We’re born rotten, we live rotten, and we die that way too. We’re beasts – crude and violent – and our only true expression is found on a battlefield. As a philosophy it’s both too much, and not nearly enough. Personally, I think it’s a load of horseshit – the kind of petulant fauxlosophy I espoused in my late teens, when I mistook pessimism for depth.
As for whether Altered Carbon agrees with him, however, remains unclear. While Kovacs kvetches, we see the boy splash and paddle toward the fallen woman. It’s literally his first thought – to help her. To be kind. To care for someone in need. But in the end, he’s stopped by his father. “She’s not our problem,” he insists, and the boy lets her go to sink into the dark.
I don’t want to give Altered Carbon too much credit here, but it still bears mentioning: the boy wanted to help. Coldness was his father’s lesson. I don’t care what Kovacs says – we learn to be monsters.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Fight Club
Meanwhile, Ortega, spicy and unpleasant as ever, weaves through a sparring gym, beating and berating her partner Abboud. Sweaty and ornery as all getout, Ortega jabs and hooks at her partner, insisting that she’s happy and normal and EVERYTHING’S JUST FINE, THANK YOU. Abboud leans into the flurry, countering every jab with the avuncular suggestion that maybe she might want to, y’know…go on a date or something? Ortega sweeps his legs and works the ribs.
Can we talk about Abboud for a sec? Okay, so he’s not much of a character. But Waleed Zuaiter’s performance is a wooly wonder. He plays such a lovely foil to Ortega’s spikey pugnacity – doting and fretting from afar, covering for her at work, lecturing her when she needs it…he’s even on a first-name basis with her mother! At this point in his characterization, two things are painfully clear: 1, Abboud is a stand-in for Ortega’s dearly departed dad (himself a police officer). And 2, he’s toast. I’m not sure when, but be assured this poor, avuncular goof is going to die. It’ll be a bummer, for sure – he’s pretty much the only character I actually like at this point.
Ortega, meanwhile, remains a troubled character – at least as she relates to the overall story. She’s an emotional one-note (see: surly) whose petulant obsession with Kovacs hasn’t yet been sufficiently explained. When not following (stalking) him this episode, she spends the rest of her time tracking down the missing remains of the woman who died in the introduction, and wrestling with the religious schism separating her from her mother. It’s the kind B-story plotting that should deepen our understanding of who she is as a character, but it’s too telegraphed or shallowly written to really resonate.
Catholicism is an interesting part of the Altered Carbon universe, however. Turns out, future Catholics view the digital persistence of the mind as sinful, and are a rather strident voice of opposition to its dominance in their culture. They even go so far as to opt out of having their consciousness copied, or stacked, or whatever the term is. All of this scans – were our culture to create a digital immortality, I’ll bet the Catholic church would take a similar stance. Especially considering the significance/sacredness the idea of the physical body plays in Catholic mythology.
I’m not a religious guy, but between this B-story and last year’s Young Pope (my favorite series of last year – tied with Season 3 of The Leftovers), Catholicism is turning out to be a pretty standard fascination, at least as far as my TV dramas are concerned.
Looks like I’m getting philosophical in my early-middle-age.
Random Accessed Miseries
Kovacs, meanwhile, has begun his investigation in earnest.
After waking from an ashen, expository nightmare, Kovacs is promptly carted off to a shiny cloning facility where Bancroft keeps his meat copies. For reasons not even remotely explained, Bancroft is there waiting for him…and he’s naked. It’s unclear if he’d just been recloned (for no discernable reason, since he’s already died once), or if he in fact arrived at the facility prior to Kovacs’ arrival, stripped off his clothes, and hid in a supply closet – as I said, no clarification is provided. What I do know for certain is exactly what James Purefoy’s penis looks like.
Kovacs sifts through Bancroft’s hate mail and uncovers a promising lead. Following some carefully plotted breadcrumbs, he arrives at the ramshackle lean-to of Vernon Elliot (Ato Essandoh), a former marine medic and present frizzy junkman whose recently deceased daughter Lizzie (Hayley Law) had once been Bancroft’s…inamorata, let’s say. They found her body outside of an oily masturbation hut. It’s all very gross and sad.
Vernon can’t afford to have her reskinned, so he does what any doting father would do: he keeps her mind trapped in a persistent VR purgatory – a ceaselessly recycling neon nightmare of the moment she died. It’s an interesting and hellacious concept barely considered by the episode that may well have been explored more deeply by another show. Paging Black Mirror. But before we can even register her screams, we’re off to the tawdry jerk hut where she was found.
There Kovacs gleans info from yet another in a long line of tired female tropes – the hooker with a heart of gold. Poor Anemone Alice. I wish we’d spent more time with either of these characters – Lizzie or Alice…delved deeper into who they are besides a mere victim or a sex worker. Bodies, both.
For a series whose main thematic preoccupation seems to be how the powerful and the privileged use technology to devalue the human body, Altered Carbon seems a bit careless about how it depicts its women. Lest we forget how this episode comes to a close: Kovacs, tangled up in the genetic playground of Miriam Bancroft’s limbs, her every slope, angle, and pheromone designed to entice and bewilder. A woman whose body ultimately is a testament to the male appetite.