The quick review of Altered Carbon Season 2 boils down to this: If you liked Season 1, you'll probably like Season 2. The new season of the noir detective sci-fi series slathered in cyberpunk is almost a carbon (sorry) copy of the first, retaining what made it a buzzy visual delight but never learning from the glaring mistakes of hokey dialogue and sloppy plotting. And even though a few aspects of the series took steps in Season 2, it's disappointing that the issues addressed by the mixed reviews of Season 1 weren't fixed.
If you haven't seen the series, then settle in while I try to explain the world of Altered Carbon, because it's a doozy. 300 years into the future, alien tech has helped humanity digitize the human consciousness so that people — well, their personalities, memories, and experiences — can be uploaded to "stacks," which can then be put into other bodies (called "sleeves" in Altered Carbon's parlance). For the rich who can afford that process of transference, that means they can essentially live forever, their stacks put into new sleeves for eternity. For these privileged few, the flesh decays (or is often murdered in this show), but the mind lives on in new, young, hot bodies, while the poor live boring normal lifespans stuck in the meat suit they can afford or were born in. This idea of immortality and classism was the central theme of Season 1 as the grumpy anti-hero Takeshi Kovacs was assigned to solve the murder of a man who was still alive (the victim just re-uploaded his consciousness to a new body; yeah, it gets complicated).
Season 2, overseen by new showrunner Alison Schapker, is set 30 years after the finale of Season 1 — if it feels like it's been 30 years since it came out, you're not crazy; Season 1 was released in February of 2018, and the two-year break between seasons is an eternity in Netflix years. Kovacs is woken up in a new high-tech sleeve (Anthony Mackie) on his home planet of Harlan's World, where someone needs Kovacs to help solve another round of brutal murders. It's an eerily similar set-up to Season 1, allowing the show to stick to its pulpy, noir detective roots adapted from Richard K. Morgan's books.
What immediately sets Season 2 apart from Season 1 — aside from moving from original star Joel Kinnaman to Mackie, and cutting fat by shortening the season to eight episodes from 10 — is the basis of Kovacs' investigation. Almost immediately, the clues dropped in Kovacs' lap lead him to also look for his wackily-named eternal love Quellcrist Falconer (Renée Elise Goldsberry). Even though it took a while to develop on-screen, their centuries-spanning relationship formed the emotional core of Season 1, which peaked in a flashback episode that was by far the highlight of Season 1 and gave the season's second half a jolt of energy before its ridiculous finale. Adding Quell so early in Season 2 anchors the show in a character relationship to care about, something Season 1 could have used a lot more of, and it's a big improvement in that respect.
The problem for Kovacs is that Quell is on a murderous rampage of the planet's Founders, and no one, not even Quell herself, seems to know why. It's a question that immediately springs up for the viewer but isn't answered, and not exactly satisfyingly, until late in the season when the show makes a sharp turn similar to Season 1's late reveal. But at least Quell is a character familiar not just to us, but also to Kovacs, adding some emotional resonance to the labyrinthine plotting that can get bogged down with details.
With three decades and a new planet separating the seasons, Kovacs runs into several new characters, most notably Danica Harlan (Lela Loren), the governor of the planet and daughter of the previous governor, Konrad Harlan (Neal McDonough). Initially cooperative with Kovacs, Danica soon finds Kovacs to be a pest as he learns more about her. Kovacs also crosses paths with a bounty hunter named Trepp (Simone Missick) who's searching for her missing brother. Initially wary of Kovacs, she comes to trust him. And then doesn't trust him and then maybe trusts him again. Kovacs seems to have that effect on people; Altered Carbon is loaded with shifting allegiances throughout the second season right up to the finale, which is frustrating to the point of numbing, but if you didn't have a problem with it in Season 1, you won't have one in Season 2.
But it's symptomatic of Altered Carbon's biggest issue: The writing isn't that great. Like many pulp noirs, many characters are relegated to plot points to push the protagonist towards the next destination, dialogue is hammier than Easter brunch ("I've been running ops since before your grandfather's balls dropped"), important relationships are explained instead of shown, and incredibly major characters aren't introduced until very late in the story. Throw in Altered Carbon's relentlessly dour attitude and difficulty making interesting characters, and the hooks just don't sink in. Add the universe's complicated terminology, and you'll be rewinding plenty just to figure out what's going on. That wasn't a problem with The Witcher, which also lived in a foreign world with characters spouting gobbledygook, but it is here because there isn't enough character or plot development to suck most viewers in to bother with making sense of it all. (Yennefer's intense desire for power in The Witcher is much more interesting than Trepp looking for her brother, for example.)
It's a godsend for the show then that the world is so spectacularly realized. The dingy sci-fi of Altered Carbon still looks fantastic (when you can see it; don't watch this on a sunny day), combining the futurology of Blade Runner with splashes of Victorian design in Poe's hotel (Poe [Chris Conner] is back in Season 2, and he's still one of the better characters). The slums of Harlan's World are grimy while the wealthy live in opulence, the streets are illuminated by neon signage while the back alleys are clouded in steam from who knows where. The visuals may feel familiar because of their popular influences, but Altered Carbon manages to make them its own. The special effects that made Season 1 one of Netflix's priciest series ever remain impressive in Season 2, though maybe slightly toned down — there are no memorable wide shots of a space city or flights into the clouds like there were in Season 1. Still, Altered Carbon is entirely watchable for its world alone.
I also just have to say it: Takeshi Kovacs, despite being a fun name to say, is pretty boring to watch. As a man who's been through a lot, he's not affable in any way. Crack a smile, dude! But I don't think that's a series problem or an actors' problem; that's just how the character is written. He's a throwback to hard-boiled detectives whose taciturn demeanors made them cool, but we ask more of our characters now. Kinnaman had a hard time selling him in Season 1, and Mackie has a similar issue in Season 2, despite both being capable actors in other projects like The Killing and Black Mirror. (And there doesn't appear to be a clear favorite between the two; I think Kinnaman made a better Kovacs, but my coworker prefers Mackie.) It's only when Will Yun Lee, who plays Kovacs' original body and returns for Season 2, appears that Kovacs has a breath of life inside of him. I won't say how Lee is used in the show, but it's great that he is. The second half of the season gets a real jolt when he shows up, and uses the show's mythology to great effect to bring him in.
But that also brings up another of Altered Carbon's shortcomings. Altered Carbon has an amazing sandbox to work with, but the story doesn't always know how to play in it. Lee's appearance in Season 2 is a great use of the show's mythology, potential, and baked-in questions of humanity and technology, but hunkering down in virtual reality constructs that are glorified dream sequences (I hate dream sequences), as Season 2 does quite often, is not. Though the notions of immortality and the separation of mind and body are at the heart of Altered Carbon, it's barely touched upon in Season 2, passed over in favor of more generic themes of struggling with one's past and making your voice matter. Westworld isn't perfect, but it really knows how to take advantage of its premise (maybe too much), for example.
Altered Carbon will keep fans of hard science-fiction happy, but it doesn't have the chops to be a crossover hit. The good news is that Season 2 ends on a note that could make Season 3 its best yet, as an essential question of the show's universe regarding human copies is put on a tee to potentially play with. Whether the franchise is willing to go in that direction is another question.
TV Guide Rating: 2.5/5
Season 2 of Altered Carbon is now on Netflix.