For the past few weeks, the hype around Netflix’s latest and most ambitious series, Altered Carbon, has only grown. But with excitement also came hesitation. After all, there’s been many occasions where a trailer has been more thrilling than the film/show itself. But judging from the premiere, that doesn’t seem to be the case with Netflix’s new sci-fi endeavor. From the array of characters and many mysteries to be solved, Altered Carbon may be able to escape the all-too-common sci-fi mistake: getting lost in big effects and futuristic technology.
The series premiere opens as you might expect: in an array of confusing and alluring flashes. The first of which features a man, completely naked, submerged in water. In the next flash, we see a man showering with a woman, both of them covered in blood. These two men look nothing alike – but they are one and the same. Welcome to the confusing (but awesome) Altered Carbon.
Our main character is Takeshi Kovacs, played by two men so far. I know. It’s a little confusing, but it’ll make sense in a minute, I promise.
In this futuristic world, technology has greatly evolved. As it is explained in this episode, after the first year of birth, every citizen receives an implant at the base of their skull. This implant is often referred to as a “stack” and what it contains is Digital Human Freight, or DHF for short. DHF, basically, is a person’s consciousness. It is the essence of who they are. Many might call this a soul or a spirit. It contains their memories, their abilities, everything that makes them who they are. The purpose of this stack is simple: to cheat death. Cause of death doesn’t matter, as long as your stack remains intact, it can be transferred into another body, referred to as a “sleeve”. Sleeves are often compared to a snake’s skin. The body doesn’t make you who you are, it’s simply a vessel. You can shed it as easily as a snake.
All of this being said, if you suffer a blunt force trauma to the base of your skull/get your head destroyed, that’s it. There’s no coming back from that. With one rare exception, of course, which we’ll get to later.
This is how the series begins, with Takeshi Kovacs waking up in his new sleeve. He remembers everything from his old sleeve as if it happened yesterday, but in reality, he’s been under for 250 years. Why so long? This is where it gets interesting.
Takeshi Kovacs was a criminal in the eyes of the law. He was an envoy, which is similar to a soldier. Capable of great violence and strength, envoys are also masters of espionage, able to adapt to culture and language quickly and slip unnoticed into almost any environment. Takeshi was part of an uprising, and details of that are sure to come in the following episodes. What we do know is that he was labelled a terrorist, but the truth seems to be a little different. Again, we don’t have all the details quite yet.
In his old sleeve, Takeshi was caught but killed before he could be taken prisoner. However, his stack remained intact. So, they kept him under for 250 years as part of his sentence. The series begins when he’s brought up on offer of parole, which he’s advised to take considering that his sentence is unending. After all, he is guilty of “more murders than [they] can count”.
The fact that Takeshi was labelled a terrorist (in addition to the fact that he’s been sentenced for eternity) makes his release different from others. For example, in this episode we also see an old woman released. At least, the sleeve is that of an old woman. The girl inside the sleeve, however, is only 7 years old. She was murdered, and this is the new sleeve that was given to her. Her parents greet her with a mixture of love and grief, outraged that this is the sleeve their daughter received. But as we learn, this is what the majority of people go through. Everyone is given a free sleeve by the government, and if they are unhappy, they can get a new one – but it must be paid for. And the price doesn’t seem to be that affordable. Takeshi was given an excellent sleeve because of his abilities, and since he was a prisoner, he isn’t released, but bought.
This is where we start to see the issues of this futuristic, cheating-death society. You could, in theory, live for hundreds of years. But your life is now something that can be bought. Humans can be owned. And now, Takeshi is one of them. He is bought by Laurens Bancroft of Bancroft Industries, one of the oldest, wealthiest, and most powerful citizens. He lives in the Aerium, a small city above the clouds away from the clutter and pollution below. Takeshi is taken there by Kristin Ortega, a police officer who, it seems, came across Takeshi in their previous sleeves. There is definitely more to her than meets the eye, and this episode unquestionably set her up to be one of the series leads.
When Takeshi arrives at Bancroft’s home, he discovers that he has been hired for one specific purpose: to solve a murder. Bancroft’s murder.
Not only was Bancroft’s sleeve killed, but his stack was also destroyed. However, there is something called a full-spectrum DHF remote storage backup. So expensive that Bancroft is one of the few that could ever afford it, think of the backup like an external hard drive. As long as you have all your information backed up, it doesn’t matter what happens to your computer. This works the same way. Unfortunately for Bancroft, the backup doesn’t kick in right away, which means that he has no memory of his murder. What he does know is that he was killed by a particle blaster. One that was kept in a biometric safe that only he or his wife can open. This offers two obvious conclusions: either he was killed by his wife, Miriam, or he committed suicide. Bancroft insists that he is not the type to kill himself, and that if he ever did he wouldn’t botch the job. And as for Miriam? She’s been investigated on her own insistence and also seems to be innocent. Someone murdered Bancroft, and no one knows how.
At first, Takeshi declines the job, despite the full pardon that Bancroft offers in exchange for his help. Because while Takeshi’s new sleeve seems well fit for this world, this is not the world he knew. He, as we discover, isn’t even from Earth, but an entirely different planet with, we can assume, lesser technology. From our understanding, the uprising he was involved in was to prevent the world from what it has become. To prevent men like Bancroft having unlimited power and influence. At first, he’s tempted to break his parole and serve out his everlasting sentence. But then he’s tempted to end it all himself. The only thing that stops him are his hallucinations.
Adjusting to a new sleeve can be difficult, and Takeshi is warned that hallucinations, both visual and oral, are normal. He sees his sister briefly in the episode, who we are led to believe also died in the uprising. And we see the leader of the uprising herself, Quellcrist Falconer. Takeshi sees flashes of her throughout the episode, but it isn’t until he is on the edge of ending his life permanently that she appears most vividly. She tells him that he can finish the mission and change how this world works, that there’s more to Bancroft’s death than he can see. It’s this hallucination that changes his mind, and also gives us a glimpse into how close he was to Falconer. Not only did she train him, but it seems they were in love. Or at the very least, he loved her. During his hallucination, she tells him to move on.
“Two hundred and fifty years is long enough.”
“Never,” he replies. This is the first glimpse of real emotion that we see in Takeshi’s new sleeve. Up until this point he has been completely detached, and now we’re starting to understand why. Not only is he an envoy trained to kill, but he’s lost everyone he’s ever cared about. He’s detached out of necessity.
Episode 1 ends with Takeshi looking out into the unfamiliar city, walking its streets until he finds a tattoo parlor. He gets one of the tattoos that his former sleeve had, no doubt a symbol related to the uprising. This series premiere leaves us with many unanswered questions, along with many promising arcs and characters. Not only in the present timeline, but in the flashbacks! Will Yun Lee (The Wolverine, True Blood) portrays Takeshi in his original sleeve, and promises an exciting and moving performance from what we’ve seen so far. And as for Takeshi’s current sleeve, played by Joel Kinnaman (The Killing, Suicide Squad)? Bad-ass and tough, it’ll be interesting to see if and when that detached exterior cracks, and how Kinnaman will bring that to life.
Altered Carbon is ambitious, unquestionably. But it holds a lot of promise with a strong premise, cast, and fantastic special effects. If it can avoid getting caught up in the glamour, it may add to the list of Netflix’s greatest successes. And from the premiere, you can consider me optimistic.
Stay tuned for more episode recaps!
Altered Carbon Is Currently Streaming On Netflix.