This is a spoiler-free review.
Early in Altered Carbon‘s second season it seems the show is simply going to rehash its season one story, but with a new male lead. Anthony Mackie has replaced Joel Kinnaman as the “last Envoy.” The last time we saw Takeshi Kovacs he left behind his old “sleeve” so Elias Ryker could reclaim his own body. But when we rejoin Kovacs—30 years of searching the universe for his lost love, Quellcrist Falconer, later—he’s being recruited by a wealthy Meth with big promises. It’s the same premise that kicked off the show’s debut season. An unexpected event immediately following that offer only strengthens the feeling the show is going to remix a song we’ve already heard.
Fortunately that surprise, and an unexpected appearance, leads us down a whole new, far more personal road. The result is an even better season of Altered Carbon. It combines what worked best in the show’s first year with a more intimate and important mystery, which makes for a more compelling story.
The show picks up three decades after the end of the first season, over 300 years in the future. Since we last saw him, Takeshi Kovacs has crossed the cosmos looking for Quell’s lost “stack.” It’s possible to travel the universe quickly in the world of Altered Carbon, because you can be transmitted to new bodies (a.k.a. “sleeves”) digitally. Kovacs unexpectedly ends up back where he started, on his home planet of Harlan’s World. It was seen in flashbacks in season one. It’s a lot like Bay City, but Harlan’s World has been dealing with domestic terrorists (or revolutionaries depending on which side you agree with) and political upheaval. Plus, its founder is missing, with his daughter now in control.
It’s on Harlan’s World where Kovacs picks up his newest sleeve, played by Anthony Mackie. How much you enjoy the show’s second season will likely depend on how much you enjoy its new star. Joel Kinnaman was outstanding in the role. His Kovacs also had a different presence than Anthony Mackie’s. Kinniman’s “last Envoy” had a kinetic danger. The way he filled a room was menacing, in part because Kinniman’s height (listed 6’2”) made him loom over everyone else. Mackie’s Kovacs feels less immediately threatening though. He doesn’t seem as unstable. Plus, he’s more intimidating in the way the unquestioned toughest guy in the neighborhood doesn’t need to ever actually raise his voice. Mackie’s Kovacs doesn’t have to stand over you to be scary. He simply has to look at you.
But that change works in the context of the show. The events of the first season, combined with 30 years of fruitless searching for Quell, has changed Kovacs. Mackie manages to make it feel like we truly are watching the same character, just an evolved version of him. The differences between the actors works for the character.
The return of a season one favorite does help the transition though. Poe (played by Chris Connor) has come back from the digital dead as Kovacs’ A.I. travel companion. Three decades together hasn’t made them immune from Kovacs’ anger issues though. Especially since Poe is still suffering dangerous longterm effects from the attack he suffered in season one. But in a world where mankind has all but cured death, and questions of identity and what constitutes a soul re very different, Poe’s own quest to fit in results in some of the most heartbreaking moments of the season. He’s not human, but his feelings are.
As the show’s official trailer revealed though, he’s not the only character returning. Quellquist Falconer (played by Renée Elise Goldsberry), only seen in flashbacks and hallucinations before, is back. Maybe. Who or what is using her own sleeve anchors the major mystery of the season. It’s a story that involves deep secrets, Meths, the planet’s founder, his newly elected daughter, and the Protectorate (more dangerous than ever). And the deeper Kovacs gets into this secret world the more the past keeps finding ways to turn up. He’s not just wrestling with ghosts, he often has to literally fight them. And that makes for some fantastic moments.
Because just like in season one, the show continues to fully utilize its sci-fi elements to create compelling situations for Kovacs to deal with. That’s why Altered Carbon‘s second year might be even better than its first. It combines a richly established world, great action sequences, and compelling characters with a story that is simultaneously bigger and smaller, and also di. There also aren’t as many clunky moments, even if some of Kovacs’ voiceovers still feel heavy-handed at time.
Ultimately, Kovacs’ own issues are intimately connected to the season’s biggest mysteries. That makes for a more compelling journey, one with stakes much higher than in season one. Because even if it’s story is more accessible on a personal level, the future of mankind hangs in the balance.
A new sleeve isn’t always easy to get used to. But it won’t be a problem for Altered Carbon viewers in season two.
Altered Carbon season two premieres on Netflix on February 27.
Mikey Walsh is a staff writer at Nerdist. You can follow him on Twitter at @burgermike, and also anywhere someone is ranking the Targaryen kings.
Featured Image: Netflix