Anthony Mackie Enters the Absorbing Futuristic Labyrinth of ‘Altered Carbon’ Season 2

The second season of Netflix’s visually glossy sci-fi noir “Altered Carbon” is both continuation and reboot. It continues the overall premise of the first season while introducing a new lead, a new case and fresh cosmic terrains for interstellar action scenes. And it’s still a lot of fun to follow. You could say it’s tailored primarily for a devoted sci-fi crowd, for those fans who manage to memorize every intricate name and catch phrase. Yet it speeds ahead with the tone of a classic action thriller, pulling you in with the hope of finding out who’s causing all the mayhem.

Replacing Joel Kinnaman is Anthony Mackie, who takes on the “sleeve” of former soldier turned investigator Takeshi Kovacs. You may recall we are a few centuries into the future where people can store their consciousness in devices called “stacks” while taking on new bodies called “sleeves.” Basically you can live on and on until someone destroys your stack. This new season picks up 30 years after the events of season one and Kovac is now a fugitive going from world to world with hologram sidekick Poe (Chris Conner). Kovac is haunted by the fate of Quell (Renée Elise Goldsberry), his former lover. To get answers he returns to his home planet, Harlan’s World, a mining colony lorded over by Danica Harlan (Lela Loren). He’s also hired by the planet’s elite, who are worried about an assassin apparently bent on killing them off. To find the killer Kovac decides to team up with bounty hunter Trepp (Simone Missick), who has already knocked out one of Kovac’s own sleeves before. But the detective also needs to face other foes, including Danica herself and Ivan Carrera (Torben Liebrecht), Colonel of the ruling intergalactic regime known as the Protectorate. 

Based on a series of novels by Richard Morgan, “Altered Carbon” is very entertaining in how it combines nearly every sci-fi gimmick you can imagine but polished to a gloss. Its neon look and detective story recalls “Blade Runner” while the intergalactic politics and intricate phrasing are out of “Star Trek” or “Stargate.” When a character gets a new sleeve they emerge out of a liquid vat with plug-ins out of “The Matrix.” The opening of the new season places us inside a futuristic club where Kovac, in the sleeve of an Asian ballroom singer, croons Jihae’s “Illusion of You.” Then Trepp puts chases Kovac, puts a few bullets in his back and he has to transfer into the body of Anthony Mackie. From the beginning the show gets going, wasting no time in initiating its new case. It’s the sort of crime we’re seeing in sci-fi romps, set within a familiar dystopian vision.  

“Altered Carbon” is primarily a show of images. Part of what makes it absorbing is that it’s so great to look at because of its imaginative spirit. Kovac and Poe will gaze up at a wall of alien technology that encases Harlan’s World. Danica Harlan herself gives eerie speeches in a red business suit via hologram to the planet’s downtrodden mining inhabitants, and nightclubs look like fever dreams. Kovac and Poe stay at their old hotel, now abandoned, enjoying the very aged liquor. Even when the dialogue gets too cheesy or on the nose, the very texture of the series makes it worth watching. 

However this season still has much richer character development than its first round. While searching for who is killing the elite of Harlan’s World Kovac is confronted by what appears to be a sleeve of Quell carrying out deadly raids. Is it his love or is someone taking on her persona? Another point of tension is Poe, the Edgar Allen-look alike who speaks with 19th century manners. He is beginning to lose his memory and forgets key details which could put Kovac in danger. Kovac demands Poe reboot, but this could mean the loss of all his memories. There’s a moment pulled off well where Kovac demands Poe either reboot or find someone else to latch on to. It takes skill to make you feel empathy for a hologram but the show indeed pulls it off. 

The rest of the season proceeds with twists in nearly every episode and great action sequences, some of the best involving Kovac trying out the new features of his sleeve, such as the ability to extend your hands and have any nearby weapons simply glide over to your palms. A subplot involving tensions between Harlan and the Colonel also develops into some great sci-fi political intrigue, and beneath it all is the question of revolution present in all great dystopia as the people of Harlan’s World get ready to explode.

“Altered Carbon” waited two years to return and wisely reboots itself into a fresh storyline while not losing any of the threads begun in its inaugural season. Anthony Mackie is also a fantastic casting choice, bringing a hard-edged noir feel with the focused, serious tone he already displayed in “The Avengers.” It’s a great package that assures this detective will keep a loyal following even when he puts on a new sleeve.

Altered Carbon” season two begins streaming Feb. 27 on Netflix.