Over the course of its first 10-episode season, Altered Carbon was, or attempted to be, a great many things. It was an eye-popping science fiction series and a hard-boiled detective story rolled into one. It was also a series that tried very hard at times (and not nearly hard enough at others) to be about class and power and the middle class-eroding disparity of income that has left the majority of the world’s wealth in the hands of the few. It was also a series with some very passionate, very 12-year-old-boy-like feelings about the awesomeness of swords and throwing stars, hackers and cops with cybernetic limbs.
Altered Carbon was filled with limitless potential thanks to a seemingly limitless budget, apparently little oversight. But unfortunately, it also had little interest in elevating the future shock of its over-spun class warfare narrative beyond the visual grandeur of a barely altered carbon copy of Blade Runner. Despite a handful of enthusiastic performances from Joel Kinnaman, Martha Higareda, Kristin Lehman, Chris Conner, and Dichen Lachman, as well as an abundance of thought-provoking questions seeded in almost every hour, Altered Carbon struggled to see those performances and inquiries germinate into something as compelling as the story’s scope implied.
The first season was fun and frustrating in equal measure. But that doesn’t help it stand out amidst the throng of genre content floating around out there, much less everything else being offered by the various networks and streaming services at the moment. As mixed bags go, that’s not awful; it’s pretty much par for the course in this age of so much good-but-not-great TV we’re currently in. But it’s also worth exploring why season 1 was such a mixed bag, what worked and what didn’t, and to try and understand where, in the end, that leaves the series.
Immortality Belongs to the One Percent
The most interesting idea presented in Altered Carbon is also the one that is most germane to the present: that the majority of the world’s wealth is in the hands of the few. Immortality is essentially an option for everyone, but only the ultra rich can afford to truly live forever. The best everyone else can hope for is to be re-sleeved into an unfamiliar body, sometimes after a great deal of time has passed since their first (or latest) death.
But it’s not just the idea that the ultra-rich are moving from cloned sleeve to cloned sleeve in their towers high above the filth of the city. The more compelling angle is what an immortal one percent means for everyone else. It means social stasis, a culture that won’t grow, can’t evolve, and potentially will never change for the better of the working class. We see a decadent society in decline that’s also stuck in its free fall.
It’s a fascinating concept that’s the logical byproduct of the series’ key science fiction element. And while Altered Carbon isn’t as driven to explore that idea as perhaps it should be, choosing instead to primarily illustrate the cultural division from a razor-thin theological angle, ostensibly turning religious objection to re-sleeving into a plot point on which the season’s murder mystery turns, the idea of an immortal one percent is still present enough to be of interest.