Altered Carbon

Laeta Kalogridis (director and writer), Martin Ahlgren and Neville Kidd (cinematographers), Byron Smith (editor)
Joel Kinnaman, Martha Higareda, James Purefoy, Kristin Lehman, Will Yun Lee, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Chris Conner, Ato Essandoh, Dichen Lachman (cast)
Based on Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan
February 2, 2018

“The first thing you learn is nothing is as it seems.” This is the first line spoken in Netflix’s Altered Carbon, and it’s a fitting opener for a sci-fi show concerned with the disconnect between mind and body.

The story takes place in the Bay Area in the 25th century, in a time when humanity has figured out how to make death obsolete. Human consciousness is now stored on a digital chip called a “stack,” and as long as the stack remains undamaged a person can theoretically be continuously inserted, or “sleeved,” into new bodies, thus living forever. Depending on how much money they have, humans can choose (or be forced, more often) to wear different sleeves, resulting in many instances where the person we’re seeing isn’t actually who they appear to be. This is how we meet Takeshi Kovacs, a Japanese super soldier who’s abruptly awoken and sleeved against his will into the body of white detective Elias Ryker in order to solve a murder. Takeshi’s original, adult body is played by Will Yun Lee, while the Ryker sleeve, the one we see most often, is played by Joel Kinnaman.

Ato Essandoh as Vernon Elliot and Joel Kinnaman as Takeshi Kovacs

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about this property. In 2016, after Joel Kinnaman’s casting was announced, I wrote a piece for Nerds of Color calling out the show for what I then dubbed whitewashing. My argument was that even though Takeshi canonically wears a white body for most of the story, we’re with, and hear, the real Takeshi at all times; Ryker, meanwhile, is an outfit we’re only peripherally aware of. When we move from a text medium to a visual-based medium, I said there needed to be care taken to reflect the mind versus body dynamic, or else it really would look like Kinnaman just took a role meant for an Asian actor.

I stand by the spirit of what I said then, and I do think it’s important to point out that the book Altered Carbon is told in first person point-of-view, while the show is obviously in third person, thus immediately distancing us from Takeshi to a degree. (We’re further distanced from Takeshi by the fact that even the voiceovers are done in Kinnaman’s voice, something I sorely wish had been given to Lee.) By the same token, I think “whitewashing” has lost some of its usefulness as a blanket term, especially when discussing something like Altered Carbon, where the particulars are more complex than a simple question of “did this show make an Asian character white or not?” I’ve learned since 2016 that the term “whitewashing” now causes such a negative, knee-jerk reaction that it makes it almost impossible to hold a nuanced conversation about the property in question. Which is a great shame, because it seems like we’re missing out on having real, productive discussions about the finer points of what proper representation really means.

Does Kinnaman play an Asian character? Yes, technically. Is this an egregious example of Hollywood whitewashing? No, I don’t think that’s quite accurate anymore, and after watching the series I can definitively say there are worse examples in media. (Ghost in the Shell, which actually did whitewash its protagonist Motoko Kusanagi after Altered Carbon’s own director Laeta Kalogridis stepped away from the project, springs immediately to mind.) There is certainly something to be said about that fact that Kinnaman overall gets more screen time than Lee does. But Kalogridis handles the dichotomy between Takeshi and Ryker with more sensitivity than I expected, and within the context of the story it feels appropriate that she kept that plot line in place.

“I did not want to violate that paradigm [from the book], because that is what the book is and it does actually matter,” Kalogridis said in an interview with io9. Kalogridis, who said it “broke my heart” that they cast Scarlett Johansson as Kusanagi after she left, seems to be aware of the potential pitfalls of telling this story in a time when Asian representation has reached mainstream relevance. While Kalogridis doesn’t change the basic plot—Takeshi is still revived and sleeved against his will, and Ryker is still very much a white man—she shifts the particulars around, in ways that work to the show’s benefit.

Renée Elise Goldsberry as Quellcrist

One of the important changes is that Kalogridis shows us windows into Takeshi’s life before he becomes an Envoy (in the books a military force, but here a band of revolutionaries). We meet Takeshi several times as a child from an abusive household, and then later as an adult, as he absorbs the teachings of revolutionary leader Quellcrist Falconer (played adeptly by Renée Elise Goldsberry from “Hamilton”). This focusing on “pre-Ryker” Takeshi is most notable in episode seven, when Will Yun Lee and Dichen Lachman—who plays Takeshi’s sister Reileen—take the wheel, while Kinnaman takes a backseat for most of the episode. It’s both a blessing and a curse: it’s interesting to see Lee and Lachman play main protagonists for once, but this brief glimpse into their shared past makes you long for an entirely separate show set long before Ryker was even born.

Kalogridis also gives expanded roles to the women in the story, and this is most obvious with the women of color. From what I recall, Takeshi doesn’t have a sister, at least not one who’s mentioned in the first book, but here she’s a central character who takes up the second half of the season. (If you’re a book reader and you recognize the name “Reileen Kawahara,” you know why that plot is bound to get more complicated.) Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda) the fiery cop who trails Takeshi, is given an entire life apart from Takeshi, where in the books we only see her through his eyes. We meet Kristin’s mother, whose Christian beliefs prevent her from supporting the concept of re-sleeving; the side story between Kristin, her mother, and Kristin’s Muslim coworker Abboud is particularly touching.

The fact that Reileen is even played by Lachman is remarkable, as author Richard K. Morgan said in a 2016 blog post that he pictured Sandra Bullock in the role. Lizzie Elliot (Hayley Law) is another important character who is described as white in the books but here is played by a Black actress. Lizzie is also given a larger role in the show, allowed to have her own plot whereas she was just a talking point in the book. And Goldsberry’s Quellcrist is a uniquely compelling character, both Takeshi’s first love and the person he emulates and respects the most. Altered Carbon shows us that all of the most significant people in Takeshi’s life–his mother, sister, Quellcrist, and Kristen–are all women of color, and those relationships help to inform us of the kind of man he is. That he’s deeply protective of women, especially disadvantaged, low income, and/or abused women, should come as no surprise to the viewer.

Martha Higareda as Kristen Ortega

Not only are all the women given expanded roles, Kalogridis also refused to adapt one of the most distasteful scenes in the book: at one point, Takeshi is captured, sleeved in a woman’s body, then assaulted and tortured in graphic and gender-specific ways. “It’s going to turn into some torture porn thing, and I wasn’t comfortable with that,” Kalogridis says in an interview with io9, citing once again how change is required when translating from text to television.

With that said, the show still features plenty of violence against women; it’s very much an urban noir tale in a sci-fi setting, and Takeshi having to investigate the deaths of several sex workers is in keeping with Morgan’s story. If physical bodies are no longer required to keep the human consciousness alive, what does that mean for the body? In what ways will it be disrespected and devalued? With a woman director at the helm I didn’t find the violence as distasteful as it could have been, but be aware that it is still there.

In the end though I found myself enjoying Altered Carbon more than I expected I would. The visual effects look sleek and seamlessly blend in, and the show features some truly impressive choreography and sound editing. I was intrigued by the backstory given to Poe, the human-loving AI who controls Takeshi’s hotel. And for once I found myself enjoying Kinnaman’s performance as leading man; Takeshi-as-Ryker is not an incredibly nuanced role, but Kinnaman is able to convey Takeshi’s sorrow, anger, and protectiveness in subtly effective ways.

That’s also not to say that Altered Carbon is a perfect title. I’m still struck by the fact that Lee was not the one to do the voiceover narration, as it’s hard to be “aware” of Takeshi in the scenes where we’re both looking at Kinnaman’s face and also hearing his voice; there’s literally zero disconnect between the mind and body in these moments. Kinnaman’s narration is particularly jarring in episode seven, as Ryker’s voice narrates events in Takeshi’s life that happened 250 years before Ryker was even born. I still wonder if there could have been more creative ways to weave Lee’s presence in; could we not have been shown Lee in the moments when Takeshi was alone and was able to drop his guard? What about when he looks into the mirror, walks past a reflective surface, or when he’s feeling particularly lost or bereft?

Morgan mentions on his blog that “the long term aim is to produce at least five seasons of the show,” and we know the Ryker sleeve isn’t around for the next books. It will be interesting to see if and how they incorporate Lee in future seasons, and how they’ll further deal with the mind versus body; within the show it’s heavily hinted that Takeshi prefers AAPI sleeves, and in the sequel novel he’s sleeved in a Maori body for much of the time. We can only wait and see how this will all play out across seasons, if the show gets renewed. It’s hard to say much on that front for now, but it feels like the groundwork has been laid for a truly diverse universe, and I’m interested to see where Kalogridis takes this series.