Sunday, February 11, 2018

REVIEW: Netflix's 'Altered Carbon' - Season 1

Netflix dropped the entire 10-episode first season of Altered Carbon on Friday, February 2. This post will feature brief reviews of each specific episode of the season.

The drama stars Joel Kinnaman, James Purefoy, Martha Higareda, Chris Conner, Dichen Lachman, Ato Essandoh, Kristin Lehman and Renée Elise Goldsberry.

101. "Out of the Past"
Written by Laeta Kalogridis and directed by Miguel Sapochnik

This is mostly a world-building premiere. Sci-fi/fantasy series can be tough sells upfront because they need to spend so much time establishing their sometimes crazy premises while still making things entertaining. At times, it feels like this show opts for as much spectacle as possible in order to distract from some of its shortcomings. Yes, it's absolutely gorgeous and inventive to look at. And yet, it's possibly troubling that Tony winner Renée Elise Goldsberry and Dichen Lachman - two fantastic actresses - may only be appearing via flashbacks and troubled hallucinations. That's lame and disappointing. Plus, a lot of the story upfront is about how troubled a soul Takeshi Kovacs really is. He's a man out of place in time fighting for a cause that no longer exists. He believes he's better off just being asleep for the rest of eternity. He's willing to kill himself and end the suffering of being the last of his kind. But that threat never feels genuine. The story is always going to keep him alive and investigating this murder that has just been set up. It's a false act in order to get the audience invested in this character. And yet, it features too cryptic of a personal backstory as well. So, it's a little unclear in certain moments what's exactly going on with him. That makes it more difficult to invest. But then, the action builds to those fight sequences showing Kovacs in action. It's effective when Byron Mann is the version of Kovacs shooting energy blasts through walls at targets only he can see. It's also effective when he's teaming up with an A.I. version of Edgar Allan Poe to take down the unit of killers tasked with eliminating him. Those details make this show entertaining while buying the patience to make this world and main story more compelling in the future. B

102. "Fallen Angel"
Written by Steve Blackman and directed by Nick Hurran

It's already apparent that Altered Carbon will be suffering from the same kind of streaming drift that defines so much of Netflix's dramas. It's a story being told across ten hours without doing much to distinguish each individual episode. That may not be a problem for those binging the entire series in a day or two. But it also produces an episode like this where it doesn't seem like much progress has been made in any regard. Kovacs pursues one lead in his investigation. It doesn't seem to produce any results except in introducing a new potential ally or formidable foe in troubled marine Vernon Elliott who is struggling to remain connected with his family. Ato Essandoh immediately proves himself as a fascinating addition to the cast. But the show also finds itself distracted with weird moments that seem to just exist to titillate the audience. Yes, there's full frontal nudity from both men and women. But it's not balanced in the slightest. The sex scene between Kovacs and Miriam especially fells odd and retro in a way that doesn't seem all that exciting. The music swells in weird ways while the camera goes in and out of focus to somewhat display that Kovacs wants this even though he doesn't. It's all just so random though. This mostly just proves that Miriam can be just as cryptic and mysterious as her husband. But this is basically her only significant action on the show so far. Meanwhile, Ortega is obsessed with Kovacs and Bancroft for some reason. But she's also trying to uncover a dead body that the police department wants to keep buried for.... reasons. A lot of stuff happens but not a whole lot that actually means something. C+

103. "In a Lonely Place"
Written by Brian Nelson and directed by Nick Hurran

The show may be better off by completely dropping the murder mystery plot altogether. It's certainly the least interesting aspect of this series at the moment. It's the story that justifies some details and character interactions. But there is just so much more compelling material elsewhere. Bancroft invites Kovacs to this elaborate party to meet the people who may have had a motive to kill Bancroft. And yet, there is only a brief montage of Kovacs sizing the guests up to see if anyone actually did it. There's also the intriguing complication of the Bancroft children being able to take the clones of Miriam and Laurens whenever they want. But for the most part, this hour is more effective because it has a trimmed down story it wants to tell about the life of excess in this world. Kovacs is more compelling as a piece of property owned by Bancroft than as an independent investigator trying to solve his murder. That adds more nuance and complexity to that relationship. It makes it so Kovacs' quickly forming bonds with Poe and Vernon feel more genuine and real. No, he can't completely trust them either. Vernon is still motivated by selfish reasons that get in the way of watching Kovacs' back at this party. But it's also just so compelling to see how this technology has changed the world and humanity. People are more immature and pompous because they have no respect for human life. This world above the clouds is so dangerous and lethal. And yet, it's the precise world that everyone aspires to get into. Kovacs sees it and is horrified but is still trapped within the system. Plus, that zero gravity fight was pretty impressive. B

104. "Force of Evil"
Written by Russel Friend & Garrett Lerner and directed by Alex Graves

An argument can be made that in a show that explores themes of immortality it needs to be seen just how casually destructive the average person is to other bodies in addition to their own skin. It makes it more cavalier because they can always expect a different body to be waiting for them after "death." As such, the show needs to be incredibly violent to prove just how sick and twisted all of this is. And yet, that's a very thin line to walk. It's on the verge of making this entire story nothing more than torture porn. That's essentially what this episode is. It's largely focused on one story - with some brief cutaways to Ortega family drama which is a little too melodramatic and forced. Kovacs is being tortured for information. And yet, there's no personal connection to this torture. The audience has no awareness of who these people are who have taken Kovacs. For the longest time, it seems like nothing more than a stalling technique to ensure that Kovacs doesn't make too much progress in his investigation too quickly. That's lame and forces the show to indulge in these torture fantasies over and over again. There's nothing all that playful on display here in regards to Kovacs dying in virtual reality several times. It's played super seriously with the final conclusion of him killing everyone in this building because they have no idea who he is or the Envoy training he has. But it's all just some convoluted way to possibly explain why Ortega is so obsessed with him. It's because his sleeve belonged to someone she knew on the force. That makes sense. It just takes a long time to get to that point with no real answers coming until the next hour. It's annoying and gruesome - especially once Kovacs threatens to kill himself in front of Ortega in order to get her to talk. That's just played completely casually which has the potential of being so destructive. C-

105. "The Wrong Man"
Written by Nevin Densham and directed by Uta Briesewitz

Yeah, this is the episode where I just completely lost the thread of the overarching conspiracy plot. Big picture, I understand that the mysteries regarding Bancroft's murder and Ryker, Ortega's partner and lover, being framed for murder are connected. And yet, the actual details that produce the mounting evidence for Kovacs and Ortega just seem lost on me. It's just important that they appear to be making progress even though none of it ultimately means anything. Instead, it's much more important that the two of them are growing closer. That intimacy largely comes from the revelation of who Ryker was to Ortega. Kovacs is a completely different person. He's only after his freedom. But he keeps being pulled into this world despite an offer from Miriam to get his freedom now. That pull largely comes from Ortega. It's just something the audience has to accept because they have graphic sex. That's lame and forced. Plus, it feels rushed. Yes, personal feelings can get confusing when different people exist within the same body. Ortega has a history with this sleeve that draws her in. She's basically obsessed with it and very reckless in her actions. As such, the hour ultimately builds to her seemingly dying at the hands of the mysterious Ghost man. That's an additional complication that seems to appear largely to keep things mysterious and off balance. It's not abundantly clear why anyone is doing anything that they are doing. Ortega only survives this attack because the ghost is out of bullets. That's convenient. Her new partner/father figure sacrificing himself for her also doesn't have much merit because he really hasn't done much as a character this season. C+

106. "Man With My Face"
Written by Steve Blackman and directed by Alex Graves

Just as I was about to throw my hands up in the air and be done with this show, the season manages to produce an entertaining episode. No, the conspiracy stuff still doesn't make a whole lot of sense. This hour basically confirms that the lead Kovacs and Ortega were following with Bancroft's son was a dead end. That just concludes with Bancroft beating up his clone so it can never be used again. But it's also an hour that knows exactly how confusing this world and the mystery actually is. It embodies the idea of how disorienting it must be to wear the face of someone who was despised by so many people in this world. No, it doesn't retroactively justify the torture episode. But it is beneficial now knowing about Ryker and his history in this community. So even though the audience and Kovacs don't understand the specific details of these animosities, it's entertaining that they exist and Kovacs has to deal with them. That produces a very compelling final sequence where its Kovacs and Ortega fighting for their lives. It's a sequence that knows just how ridiculous and campy it is while playing into some familiar sci-fi conventions. The heroes seem down and out in this fight only to miraculously make a recovery that allows them to defeat their opponents over and over again. And when they are actually defeated, that's when a new savior swoops in to save them. That savior just so happens to be Kovacs' younger sister. That's an intriguing twist that makes me excited because it means there will be more Dichen Lachman in the future. B

107. "Nora Inu"
Written by Nevin Densham & Casey Fisher and directed by Andy Goddard

I groaned the moment I realized this episode was 67 minutes long. The rise of streaming means that episode lengths can largely be whatever they want. There doesn't need to be consistency across a season. But I'm still of the belief that premieres and finales are the only episodes that can sometimes extend over an hour for dramas. Random episodes in the middle are more bothersome in doing so. This episode does try to justify it by finally fleshing out the backstory of Kovacs. Flashbacks have been used sparingly throughout the season. They've played more like flashes of memory or dreams that Kovacs is having that have immediate resonance in whatever is happening to him in that moment. Here, that story of his past as an Envoy with Quell and Rei is revealed in all of its tragic glory. It provides more dimension and context with those important relationships than any previous episode. I now know that Dichen Lachman's character is named Rei. This episode makes a strong case for why Lachman and Renée Elise Goldsberry were hired for these roles. Sure, Quell will continue to exist in the past while Rei still has a complicated future. But right now, it's important to have this understanding of what happened to Kovacs. He went from a ruthless killer to an empathetic revolutionary and back again. That journey had to have purpose. There had to be a reason for him to go back and forth so many times. It was a journey defined by loss and the hopefulness that came from reuniting with loved ones. Kovacs changes in an instant when he sees Rei for the first time in years. He felt the same way in the present day. But that's what makes that final twist so effective with Rei turning out to be the reason for all of this destruction. She turned on her fellow Envoys because she wanted to live forever with her brother. Then, it's revealed she's been spying on Kovacs throughout his return using different sleeves. She appears to be the grand antagonist for the season which is so much more compelling than the mystery of who killed Bancroft. B+

108. "Clash by Night"
Written by Brian Nelson and directed by Uta Briesewitz

This is a very performative show. It's a show that wants the audience to be aware of just how much effort it has put into every single detail. It feels the need to show off with the ideas it came up with. Sometimes that's a very good and impressive thing. Other times it just feels like a genre show doing the same exact thing as other fantasy shows and films. This is a very performative episode because the entire story is basically about Kovacs getting Bancroft to believe he has solved his murder. He's doing that because Rei cryptically needs him to. He is being pressured into doing it to protect his new friends in this world. He is only able to pull it off by counting on his new friends - except Ortega. There's no real reason why he needs to lie and be distant from everyone else. It just makes for a more complicated story where Ortega is far behind what the audience already knows. That makes her seem like a less capable detective even though she really isn't. Kovacs' story to Bancroft is entertaining. But it also feels like this investigation should be solved now so the show can be what it actually wants to be about. The murder mystery has never been the best story. And yet, Kovacs puts on this performance and then has a realization about the murder. That's followed up by a very performative fight sequence between Rei and Ortega. Now, I'm not completely sure if it is empowering or exploitative. Dichen Lachman is completely naked for its entirety. It's a fun concept in Ortega battling a bunch of clones. It has fine action choreography. It helps that there is a female director staging it. But there's still full frontal nudity and all of that broken glass. Yes, it shows just how skilled Lachman and Martha Higareda are. But the broken glass is what really pushes it over a troubling line. Every clone has to break her way out of her containment. That provides Ortega with all the clues necessary to figure out which body will animate next. But it seems like a poor design choice for there not to be a way for the clones to get out of this containment without having to break through the glass. That's just lame and makes it seem like this is nothing more than the show trying to perform for a certain segment of the audience. B-

109. "Rage in Heaven"
Written by Russel Friend & Garrett Lemer and directed by Peter Hoar

Well, this episode certainly provides answers to all of the ongoing mysteries of the season. It confirms that Rei is the one who set up Bancroft to kill himself and revive Kovacs because he wouldn't believe he committed suicide. It confirms that Rei framed Ryker for murder to protect her own business. There's a lot of exposition hanging over this episode. There is confirmation that Kovacs has the support of his team whether he wants it or not. Poe and the Elliotts feel indebted to him and will assist him on this crazy journey to expose his sister. It's a tense journey that takes them up to the sky to see just how depraved and horrifying Rei has become over the last hundred years. It's a mission to rescue Ortega as well who is being tortured in virtual reality - though that is never really seen. The show did something very important and inspired during the second half of its run in making the main story more personal to Kovacs. This conflict between him and Rei actually means something. The show has put in the work to make it a personal and devastating conflict. Now, Bancroft and Miriam seem completely extraneous. That's not disappointing. It's a natural evolution. And thus, it's sensible that all the answers come out here with the final resolution to this story coming in the finale. Kovacs has his taped confession but Rei still has her brother and Vernon outnumbered. It's tense. But it also just feels like the show is killing characters in order to increase the stakes heading into the finale. Ortega doesn't have a reaction to her entire family being murdered at all. Moreover, the big reveals do mean something. But it also doesn't feel all that important to hear it either. It's more intriguing to see how all this knowledge being out there will end for Kovacs and Rei. B-

110. "The Killers"
Written by Laeta Kalogridis & Nevin Densham and directed by Peter Hoar

In modern-day genre storytelling, there is the constant need to set up serialization and future franchises. Hardly anything in this particular space is allowed to be self-contained anymore. It's always just setting up the next phase of the story while also trying to tell the current story. That's what makes it so powerful to see just how close-ended the story of this season is. This finale lays out the final resolutions for every character. Yes, there is some setting up for a second season should one be ordered with the reveal that Quell's consciousness was backed up as well. But it could also just serve as a finite ending that says Kovacs cares about people in this world but is still most effective while working alone in whatever sleeve he happens to land in. There are many moments in this finale that work. The showdown between Kovacs and Rei is very satisfying. It's a grand love story about siblings who have different idealized versions of that relationship. They have both twisted it into meaning something that just wasn't real. In turn, that led to this tragedy with Kovacs needing to kill Rei. It's also satisfying seeing Ortega get justice for her family by killing Leung. She didn't have a reaction to that massacre in "Rage in Heaven." Here, she's tortured by it in a potentially troubling way. But the show doesn't linger on that because it has a lot of business it needs to address here. The protagonists get their complicated happy endings. The most joyous reunion comes from the Elliott family all being together once more - with Lizzie being some weird hybrid no one can explain. Ryker will be returned to his body even though Ortega fell more in love with Kovacs and is distraught about the idea of losing him all over again. But again, Kovacs needs to explore the world searching for his one true love who is lost out there. Sure, the show really hammers home that point to ensure that the audience gets it. But overall, this is a pretty satisfying ending - with the Bancrofts both getting their comeuppance as well. B+