This review will be relatively spoiler-free: events of the first episode will be revealed, and theme discussions will be kept vague.
In the future, death has become a tragedy belonging only to the past, the religious, and the poor. There is a new tragedy: the decreasing humanity of the wealthy ruling class, who have achieved immortality.
Takeshi Korvacs is the last Envoy, a group that fought to prevent the attainment of immortality—and lost 250 years ago. Takeshi wakes in a body not his own, against his will. He has been chosen by one of the wealthy immortals to solve a private mystery. Takeshi has no interest in what the world has become, but he has no choice in the matter when he realizes that he’s a wanted man. How can he be a wanted man when he’s been dead for 250 years?
The Perils of Immortality
We humans are fascinated with immortality, or the impermanence of death. Literature has been fascinated by the concept for centuries. Historically, these were often portrayed as monsters—whether it was Dracula or Frankenstein’s monster. In recent decades, these tellings have taken on a more wistful tone. Be it Tuck Everlasting or the genre of supernatural romances in general, the trend seemed to be moving towards a gentler, less monstrous look at this tragedy, lingering more on the sorrow and the angst of the immortals, and their resulting detachment from the world.
Altered Carbon slams way back into the trend where immortals are monsters. It poses the question: “What if the most powerful, corrupt, self-indulgent people among us no longer had to answer to death, as long as they had enough money? What would happen to things like love and morality, as the years go by and these people get bored?” The answers it offers are chilling.
I like this concept of immortality: obviously, as we realize with the awakening of Takeshi in a new body at the very start of the show, death no longer has the same permanence for anyone, rich or poor. Everyone has a chip embedded in them that holds their consciousness. Thus anyone can slip into anyone else’s body, provided the opportunity. Bodies are fittingly referred to as “sleeves” that can be slipped on and off, upgraded or downgraded, bought and swapped.
Love in the Age of Immortality
One of the central themes of Altered Carbon was love. The standard budding romantic and sexual love, yes, but also many other kinds. Love between a couple that has been married for a century. Love among family. Love between couples when a body is swapped out—whether the entity present is the body with a new person inside, or the person inside a new body.
Much of the conundrum of immortality is the humanity of the immortals, which slips away over the centuries. This is closely tied to love, which loses its wide-eyed innocence and grows ugly and distorted.
I was drawn to the way that this cynical outlook was portrayed somehow with an unyielding streak of optimism, interspersing the ugliness with many genuinely sincere, touching relationships.
This was a brilliant show. Not only was it fast-paced and thrilling, it was also thought-provoking.
I have to say, my favorite part of the show was the AI hotel, which was funny and moving and just an utter delight. I appreciated the way that the show treated things, which to the audience seem futuristic, as archaic and abandoned. I loved that the reasons characters would cite for these things.
I appreciated the way that nudity and death are treated as nearly mundane in this world, especially by the immortal elites.
There are things I would have liked to see more of, but the show was so jam-packed as it was that I’m not too bereft by the lack of more details and side plots.
It’s been a long time since I felt so satisfied with a show. I have no idea if they plan to make a second season, but there is certainly no need. The ending of the season could be construed as a lead-in to a next season, but I saw it as an optimistic final ending, where there is still something on the horizon.
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