After two years, Altered Carbon is back with a new star and a new showrunner. Alison Schapker, whose previous work includes writing and producing for Charmed, Alias, Fringe, and Lost, joined the series in the latter position, and Nerdist got a chance to sit down with her to talk about the new season ( which we loved). Schapker discussed why she wanted to delve into a world of stacks and Meths, what makes season two different, what she hopes viewers take away from the story, and what we can expect in season three.
What was it about Altered Carbon that drew you to the show?
Alison Schapker: I’ve done a lot of sci-fi in my career, but watching season one, I was bowled over by how ambitious the show was. What a big a swing it was taking. It was completely gorgeous. It was so grown-up. I loved that it was intellectually fearless, asking such big provocative questions. The world-building was phenomenal. The idea of a show that, in a semi-anthology way, every season would be a new sleeve. It’s not something we get to do on TV very often, and it was a special opportunity. In every way it felt like a super fun sandbox to come play in.
What elements from the first season did you most want to incorporate into season two?
AS: I wanted to take the stellar world-building and continue it. I wanted to keep the provocative questions about technology and the future and society. The show was really asking some rich questions about class. The concept of Meths and the one percent of one percent distribution of immortality was super interesting. So, I wanted to keep that tone, keep that lens, going forward.
But I also felt ready to turn the mystery for Kovacs more inward. It’s funny, it sort of goes along with the Quellist idea to make it personal. I loved that season one started that way. It was a noir mystery and Kovacs was called off ice under duress. And here’s this world that he most feared had come to pass. He has nothing left to lose and he hates the guy who’s employing him. There’s a hardness. And, like every noir pulp detective, you know he has a heart underneath, but he’s not leading with it.
And I think when we got to episode seven of season one, and we saw William Lee embody Kovacs at Stronghold and fall in love with Quell, we got more of a glimpse of Kovacs heart and soul. I thought that was really a rich moment for the show. And I thought it would be really interesting for Kovacs to pick up on the promise season one made—Quellcrist Falconer’s stack is out there. And then tie a mystery to that, so this time around everything was at stake for him, and that this would be a mystery he really cared about.
It wasn’t something he was going to be able to sit back and be hardened about. We were going to see him be emotionally invested. I thought it would be an interesting juxtaposition to season one.
What did you do to help Takeshi Kovacs feel like the same character we know, despite having an entirely new actor in the role?
AS: One of the exciting things to having a main character who lives hundreds of years is we get to see him at different moments in time. Season one, we saw this colder, cynical, noir P.I. Kovacs. And we saw the Kovacs who was at Stronghold with William Lee in flashbacks. I wanted to give Anthony [Mackie] a Kovacs who was really invested in the mystery, because I think that would give him the justification to both be inspired by Joel Kinnaman’s performance—and I know that Anthony was, we all were, and we all thought Joel was explosive and simmering and incredible to watch on screen—but also to give him the room to make Kovacs his own.
And not just in this abstract way, but to actually give him narrative justification. We could say this Kovacs is at a different point and he has different things on the line. So you can find a way to play this character that is all you. Because we’ve never seen him like this before. He’s never been this close to Quell before, so you can take this character in the direction as you interpret it.
You did eight episodes instead of ten like in season one. Was there anything, from the story or a locale or even a character, you wish you got to explore more this season?
AS: It’s funny, because I know there were times when we felt we had to really make tough choices, especially around world-building characters. I hesitate to say some of them because I’m back-pocketing them for season three. Stuff that we were like, “That would be a fun detour to take, but we only have eight episodes.” I think it would have been interesting to do a flashback episode with the Founders, really exploring them in more detail. But I think ultimately we were able to tell the story in a way we’re all satisfied with.
What was your favorite thing you did get to do with season two?
AS: I have so many favorite things. Some were having Quell and Kovacs in the same frame at the same time period. Because I really thought it was interesting he had carried her around in season one as this ghost, this conscience, and this idealization. And I thought it was really provocative to have them come face to face, and to let Renée (Elise Goldsberry) come out of someone’s image of her and take on a three-dimensional role in the present.
Also, finding Poe and Kovacs at a different place in their relationship. They’ve been traveling around for 30 years, so we started to think of them as a married couple, a bit of an odd couple. They knew each other, and they do have their flaws, and they kind of tolerated each other, and it was all okay until the stakes got raised. Then the idea Kovacs couldn’t rely on Poe, and that would send Poe off on his own journey, only to have them come back together. That was really exciting for me.
Then the scene they do in the finale. Poe’s been yearning for two seasons to understand humanity. When they have that talk about what it means to be human, and it means to be broken, that was one of those scenes that we all thought we captured a little magic in a bottle there. I know they enjoyed acting in it, and it was a high point for me.
We just had this tremendous cast too. I loved Dina [Shihabi] coming in as Dig 301. Simone Missick as Trepp, Lela Loren as Danica, and Torben Liebrecht as Carrera. You map out these characters, and then to watch people with such incredible talent put them on their feet and bring them to life in ways beyond what you imagined was really thrilling. I didn’t feel like there was a weak link in the cast, and that doesn’t always happen.
Since we got to see two different era Kovacs on screen at the same time interacting, have you discussed the possibility of ever having Joel Kinnaman, Anthony Mackie, and Will Yun Lee on screen all together?
AS: Definitely. I feel like all of that is up for grabs. And I think that’s the beauty and fun of Altered Carbon, this idea bodies can be cloned. Sleeves can be generated. Stacks can be copied. Stacks can be merged. Who’s in what body? It leaves open the possibilities.
Even in season two when you saw Ortega, Elliot, and Reileen, they were synths embodying those characters. That was so Altered Carbon. People can come back in so many ways, and then yes, the idea they would come back as Takeshi Kovacs is also on the table. I love that in sci-fi shows. And Altered Carbon specifically, there are these narrative things you can actually do and consider doing that you couldn’t do on other shows.
What’s something you think viewers might miss on their first viewing of the season?
AS: Hopefully the layers of Renée’s performance, because she is a mystery. But she’s being very specific and making very specific choices about what’s happening based on the fact she has this alien consciousness in her stack. I think if you watch the season a second time that will become even richer, watching her toggle back and forth between the Elder being in charge and when she comes to the fore. It takes so much mental energy to suppress that other consciousness, she loses access to her biographic self. That would become richer on a second viewing.
I think knowing Danica killed her dad, and it was a coup, might be interesting to watch her all the way through. All of those things, her Machiavellian way she’s trying to consolidate power, might be more interesting on a second view.
Thematically, understanding the secret of the planet. We tried to design all these ways these people and the planet were haunted. Kovacs being hunted by Yaeger. And here’s Yaeger back with the one who got away and the uprising he could never put down. Now suddenly here’s his second chance. And also colonization, the idea history comes back to haunt us. I would hope on a second viewing, [with] some of those themes, you’d have more time to enjoy the details.
Speaking of themes, one of season two’s biggest is facing the ghosts of our pasts, which on Altered Carbon means literal, tangible ghosts. What do you hope viewers to take away from that idea?
AS: We all do it more metaphorically in our lives. And culturally as a planet and a nation. We can see ways we all have to reckon with the past, and the future depends on how we do that and how much we can do that work. What we do metaphorically, even the two Kovacs talking about Reileen. That’s what Kovacs is really dragging around from season one. He killed his sister. And here comes his younger self, and yes, his younger self is loyal to the Protectorate, but really what his younger self doesn’t understand at all is: how could you murder this person you loved?
That idea we all have to make peace in our lives with things we’ve done, or how our younger self couldn’t even imagine us doing certain things. How do you integrate these big regrets or big actions you never saw coming? On a personal level, I hope that is very relatable to people.
And yes, you’re right, on Altered Carbon you’re literally facing your younger self, whereas in real life maybe we’re all just in therapy. [Laughs]
Then on a planet, just the idea we’re still reckoning with trauma in our cultural histories. But on Altered Carbon some of the Founders are still alive. Literally the people who committed the original sin of Harlan’s World are still walking around with that and dealing with that baggage in different ways. It’s the literalization of the metaphors, which are fun to write.
The Elder had the ability to really kill someone, even Meths, because it could destroy all their backups too. The Elder was destroyed, but Quell’s ultimate goal is to bring back real death. How much of that idea will be explored in season three?
AS: One of the things I think we will pick up in season three is, “To have reckoned with your past, what does that mean for your fight for the future?” We leave Quell, she casts off to another planet to restart the uprising, She’s picking up the fight. And we leave Kovacs Prime embedded with the Protectorate, and he’s there too. And obviously Tak’s stack. I just love the promise to the audience of wondering whose body that stack could end up in. But there’s a continuity of consciousness of somebody who has lived through all the seasons.
If we’re going to pick up the fight again in season three, what knowledge did we gain from going through season two? Why was it important? And what from interacting with the past can we carry forward? What knowledge may or may not have been gained from Quell having an Elder in her stack?
There’s a lot of fallout from season two that will affect the fight going forward. Both on a knowledge level and a world-view level for our characters who’ve gone through season two. They’re absolutely going to be thinking about those questions. Quell is still absolutely on her mission to reset the balance.
Featured Image: Netflix