“Altered Carbon takes a difficult task—putting an Asian man’s consciousness into a white protagonist’s body—but largely pulls it off.”
Title: Altered Carbon
Episodes Reviewed: Season 1
Creator: Laeta Kalogridis 👩🏼🇺🇸
Writers: Original novel by Richard Morgan 👨🏼🇬🇧, TV scripts by Laeta Kalogridis 👩🏼🇺🇸 (10 eps), Nevin Densham 👨🏼🇺🇸 (10 eps), and various
Reviewed by Anonymous 👩🏽🇵🇰 and Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
Adapted from Richard K. Morgan’s 2002 bestseller, Altered Carbon was groomed by Netflix to compete with other prestige shows—and backed the project with a chart-topping budget for the privilege. Showrunner Laeta Kalogridis must have let out a sigh of relief, then, as sci-fi fans across the world delighted in the show’s lush aesthetics and cyberpunk sets when it debuted earlier this year.
Its largest draw, the cinematography, comfortingly builds on visuals seen in Blade Runner or The Matrix. Its themes, too, should ring a bell: in Altered Carbon, human consciousness is explored as minds are downloaded onto glowing discs called “stacks”. The stacks plug into “sleeves”—human bodies that can be cloned or discarded, or both. Add in themes of corruptive power, rapacious capitalism, and the dystopian world all our fictional futures seem to wind up in, and that’s Altered Carbon in a nutshell.
Granted, despite the well-worn welcome mat, it does takes a while to grapple precisely what’s at hand. Led by elite mercenary Takeshi Kovacs—played primarily by Swedish actor Joel Kinnaman, but seen in flashbacks as Korean American Will Yun Lee or briefly as Hong Kong-born Byron Mann—Altered Carbon follows the structure of a crime investigation, complete with multiple threads viewers need to keep track of. But once you get the hang of the universe and its unique jargon, it’s smooth sailing.
Events unfold at a quick clip, but perhaps due to Kinnaman’s broody, almost lethargic portrayal of Kovacs, the curiosity kindled throughout the show never builds into true suspense. In addition, it’s hard to reconcile him as the same man that Lee portrays, the latter of whom delivers a stronger and more emotional performance as the original Kovacs. The end result is a show that feels solid, but never more than that.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES, but barely
Altered Carbon tells us that women are equal to men, but it shows us the complete opposite by centering a male lead and tethering all the female characters’ narratives to him. More viscerally, the camera shines a technicolor male gaze on the bruised and mutilated bodies of young women.
To be fair, it’s not all a wasteland of misogyny. Martha Higareda plays Detective Kristin Ortega, a strong-willed Latina with an unshakable set of morals and plenty of screen time. She isn’t hypersexualized, like so many Latinas in media are, and the show tries to give her some backstory (even though it’s just a romance with another man).
Kovacs’ lover Quellcrist Falconer (Renée Elise Goldsberry) comes through in flashbacks as the unflappable leader of a rebel organization. She’s the perfect woman; to the detriment of any complexity, that is. Meanwhile, Kovacs’ younger sister, Reileen Kawahara (played by Dichen Lachman in present-day scenes and Riley Lai Nelet in flashbacks) shows off unparalleled fighting skills, but she is relentlessly obsessed with her brother.
Where things move beyond “flawed” and into “bad” territory is the show’s gratuitous violence that disproportionately targets young, sexualized women. Eliana Dockterman writes for Time, “In typical noir style, [Kovacs] spends much of his investigation questioning women in strip clubs. And while there’s plenty of male nudity in the show...men in this world appear naked while in positions of power.” She adds, “The nude women in this show are bruised prostitutes, naked corpses dumped in the sea, and femme fatales.”
Overall, Beth Elderkin hits the nail on the head as shares with Gizmodo, “There is a lot of violence, graphic sex, and full-frontal nudity in Altered Carbon, with women bearing the brunt of the exploitation and abuse.”
The premise of Altered Carbon was always going to be a tricky one to execute, what with the original book putting a half-Asian man’s consciousness into a white body. But before you get out the picket signs that rightfully accompany whitewashing forerunners like Ghost in the Shell (2017) or Aloha (2015), let’s consider the context and see how Kalogridis takes a difficult task—and largely pulls it off.
The show casts diversely and avoids both major stereotypes, as well as the shallow practice of colorblind characterization (when actors of color play essentially white roles). As mentioned earlier, Takeshi Kovacs’ flashbacks are played by Asian actors, and importantly, they get a decent amount of screen time—even if they do remain secondary to the blond-haired, hazel-eyed Kinnaman. Kovacs’ sister Reileen is Asian too, with Lachman being of Tibetan and German descent, and the younger actress Nelet being Asian American.
Ortega is played by Mexican actress Martha Higareda, and I love that she keeps her authentic accent. Her mother is played by Cuban actress Marlene Forte, who brings an interesting perspective as a Neo-Catholic—a religion in Altered Carbon that believes re-sleeving is wrong. By bringing in these cultural cues of an older generation’s religiosity, or of Ortega’s Spanish interjections, extra depth is afforded its characters.
In smaller roles, Falconer and Kovacs’ helper Vernon Elliot (Ato Essandoh) are Black, while Vernon’s daughter Lizzie (Hayley Law) is mixed-race. I do want to mention, however, how powerful it is to see the episode of “Nora Inu” (Season 1, Episode 7) devoted to a Blasian romance between Lee’s Kovacs and Falconer. It’s easily my favorite subplot of the series and offers a glimpse of what Altered Carbon could have been, had it found a way to break out of Kinnaman’s limitations.
Finally, Ortega’s partner Samir Abboud is played by Palestinian American actor Waleed Zuaiter who bucks the clichés of Middle Easterners on TV by playing a “good guy”, even speaking gentle Arabic in one of his scenes. He shares an almost fatherly relationship with Ortega, but unfortunately, he does die before show’s end—a “real death” too, with no hopes of coming back in another sleeve.
I’d love to raise this category score for the strides it does make in representative casting, but at the end of the day, characters of color generally play support to the white characters who occupy positions of power, like Kinnaman as Kovacs, or the wealthy Bancroft family. In addition, the show centers Kinnaman both narratively and also in the episodic voiceovers which really ought to have been done in Lee’s voice, since he—not Kinnaman—plays the original Kovacs. From the Netflix marketing that plasters Kinnaman everywhere, to the show’s prevalence of white bodies in the richest echelon of people, Altered Carbon never takes full advantage of its characters of color.
In a blink-and-you-miss-it-role, the young Isaac Bancroft (Antonio Marziale) has a male lover, Sergei Brevlov (Chris McNally). The relationship only occupies a minuscule part of the show and overall, Altered Carbon employs gender norms that are already outdated in 2018, much less in the year 2384 when it’s set. For example, the many, many prostitutes who populate Bay City are overwhelmingly women being advertised and sold to men. There is barely any variation in the sexual experiences being marketed from the gritty streets of Bay City, demonstrating a deeply heterosexual and cisgender worldview.
Mediaversity Grade: C- 2.88/5
Altered Carbon is a must-watch for fans of sci-fi thrillers, or for those who loved Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049. To its credit, it casts more with more ethnic diversity than its forerunners in the genre, even though its protagonist remains a white man. However, the disproportionate amounts of violence against young women and the show’s immovable straight male perspective keeps Altered Carbon from a higher score.