The violence on Altered Carbon is brutal and relentless. The Netflix series, based on Richard K. Morgan’s 2002 novel of the same name, imagines a world 500 years in the future, where death is no longer certain. The invention of “stacks”—essentially portable hard drives for the human mind, stored in spinal cords—has rendered the human body a disposable asset. The dead are quickly and easily brought back (“spun up”) in new “sleeves,” the quality of which is dependent on one’s wealth. The series carefully outlines the myriad ways that the commodification of human flesh could alter the fabric of reality, with none more damaging or dehumanizing than the body itself becoming raw material to be bought, sold, destroyed, and recycled by the wealthy.
Stack technology allows Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman), an infamous 22nd-century soldier, to be resurrected nearly 300 years later by Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy), an ageless tycoon in need of a detective to solve his own murder. As Kovacs explores dystopian San Francisco, renamed Bay City, the series knowingly evokes the cyberpunk noir of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. While the rain-swept alleys and ethereal neon of Bay City emulate Blade Runner’s dreamy melancholy, though, Altered Carbon retains little of the gritty texture of Scott’s film. Gloss covers even the city’s slums, where the lowest caste of citizens, called “Grounders,” inhabit a jumble of run-down buildings.
The series confronts the excesses of capitalism with an obvious but imaginatively visualized commentary on technology’s ability to exacerbate the wealth gap. Grounders live in the shadows of “Meths,” the wealthy who dwell in skyscraper cities high above the Earth’s surface. Meths are also able to back their stacks up in an information cloud on servers held, not so subtly, on a satellite named Head in the Clouds. Grounders suffer “real death” when their stacks are destroyed, while Meths can be restored from the cloud onto new stacks in tidy new sleeves, making them eternal. Altered Carbon doesn’t flinch when illustrating how Meths, bored after centuries of mostly idle experience, pursue excitement by paying to destroy the bodies of destitute Grounders. Sometimes they do it themselves, but just as often they pay a pair of Grounders to battle each other to “sleeve death.”
The lifeblood of the series is blood itself—specifically, the bludgeoning, cutting, and dismembering of human bodies. Little of that blood is shed without purpose here, as violence is used on Altered Carbon to emphasize a dim appraisal of human nature and heighten the stakes of Kovacs’s investigation. Despite its considerable body count, the series is uninterested in violence as titillation. It proposes brutality as the inevitable result of limitless power intersecting with human appetites, and presents broken bones, bullet wounds, amputations, vivisection, and burning with minimal stylization. The violence here is meant to appall and disturb, and as Kovacs moves closer to discovering the truth, the show’s barbarism escalates to especially ensure such a reaction from viewers.
Stacks, Meths, Grounders, and sleeves represent just the tip of the iceberg of Altered Carbon’s novel mythmaking, and rather than using exposition-heavy scenes to convey information, the series relies on our close attention to understand how its world came to be. Explicatory monologues are reserved for the byzantine resolution of Kovacs’s mission, and as he investigates Bancroft’s murder, the series introduces a cavalcade of concepts—from virtual reality torture chambers to artificial intelligence hotels—while establishing a set of comprehensible logical parameters for how each works.
Altered Carbon can still occasionally confuse, which is a natural consequence of the sheer volume of information packed into each episode. In these moments, familiar noir tropes act as signposts in the maze of convoluted plotting and complex technological ideas—none more so than the stubborn and sardonic Kovacs, who, with his rigid personal code, behaves like a 20th-century hard-boiled detective re-sleeved five centuries later. He’s a comforting audience surrogate, and appraises Bay City with incredulity that matches our own when science in the series threatens to overwhelm fiction.
In addition to technological theorizing and broad commentaries on human depravity, Altered Carbon undertakes a heady investigation of faith with a subplot regarding Catholics who spurn stacks and opt for only one life. Remarkably, none of the show’s sprawling ideas feel forced or digressive, as each scientific innovation relates organically to Kovacs’s sleuthing. The series conceives of a universe reshaped by stacks while also using them as an opportunity for shocking twists and comedic gags: Unsurprisingly, characters aren’t always who they appear to be. While the season does intermittently sag beneath the weight of its extensive world-building and philosophical inquiries, Altered Carbon still manages to enthrall audiences with a winding detective mystery told in timeless noir fashion.