Altered Carbon is a complex thriller worth binging

William Johnstone

Set in a dystopian, futuristic Bay Area (now called Bay City), the rich are so wealthy that they are considered gods, while the poor can barely afford a tent to sleep in. Most of Netflix’s newest sci-fi thriller “Altered Carbon” takes place in Marin, but instead of the rolling hills of the headlands and breathtaking Mt. Tam, they have been replaced with a cluttered mess of skyscrapers that completely destroy any resemblance to the Marin County we know.

“Altered Carbon” is a binge-worthy, thrilling sci-fi show that keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout its ten-episode season. Since the storyline is so gripping, it is difficult to notice that the story is progressing very slowly throughout the complex web of plot twists.  

The protagonist of “Altered Carbon”, ex-rebel Takeshi Kovacs, was “put on ice,” which means he went to prison for 250 years and was brought back to life in a new body. This new body is known in the show as a “sleeve.”

The plot is centered around the murder of the trillionaire Laurens Bancroft, one of the oldest founders of Bay City. He has gone through many sleeves as his human body disintegrates, leading him to continue living through a series of new sleeves.  As one of the oldest founders, he is a powerful political figure so solving his murder is critical to Kovac’s freedom. Kovacs is a mercenary who was imprisoned for criminal acts. He has been offered the opportunity to solve Bancroft’s murder: if he does, his prison sentence will be dismissed. This plotline may seem simple, but it’s only the start of the web of investigations and mysteries explored throughout the show.

“Altered Carbon” can cause a lot of confusion. It is incredibly difficult to remember each character’s name. Remembering names becomes even harder when characters switch “sleeves.” Switching sleeves is possible because of the development of stacks. A stack is a disk that contains your consciousness and soul, and replaces one of your vertebrae in your spine. People can switch sleeves by removing a stack that belongs to them and replace it with another sleeve. This means that multiple actors play each character which can puzzle the audience along with the many sci-fi terms which are sometimes difficult to understand unless you are a hard core sci-fi devotee.   

One of the key elements which makes this show great is the continuously flowing narrative. There is no mystery about what is going on; there are no dangling threads. As long as viewers can keep the characters and terms straight, the story line is direct. Throughout the quest to solve the murder, there are underlying themes relevant to our own world. These themes include class struggles, racial and religious divides, extraordinary abuses of power, as well as control issues between men and women. These are issues everyone watching the series will find current and relevant.

“Altered Carbon” engages and hooks you in. Full time immersion is a definite reason why binge-watching is the way to go. The dimensions of each episode and the numerous characters definitely contribute to a complicated but fascinating series. If you can remember who everyone is and keep track of the web of stories that are told throughout the show, you won’t be able to close Netflix until you’ve indulged yourself by watching the entire season.