Altered Carbon Review – Episode 3: In a Lonely Place

The Netflix Original, Altered Carbon

Recently, I dove into the Netflix-original series Altered Carbon, posting my thoughts about the first two episodes.

Well, here we are again, with the third episode in Netflix’s much-ballyhooed Frankenstein of a science fiction show. You probably recall that I was pretty dismissive of the first two episodes, but I was also hopeful that things would pick up as the show gathered a little steam. In some ways, Episode 3 definitely points in a more defined direction for the show.

The only problem is this direction doesn’t bode very well. I watched Episode 3 with my partner, and she was quick to lament about fifteen minutes in, “This is pretty cliché.”

I laughed, but I couldn’t agree more.

The Netflix Original, Altered Carbon

The one nagging feeling I get from all of the bizarre camera movements and strange angles is that this feels like a Fox show with just an influx of hard swearing and superfluous nudity (mostly breasts). And although that isn’t a make-it-or-break-it delineation for me, it is a bit puzzling why the quality of original shows on Netflix can vary so widely. Maybe it’s because they commission content without enforcing a clear continuity like Fox or NBC would?

Regardless of the content of the individual programs on major cable and network channels, everything has an overarching aesthetic, much like the Marvel movies. Each network seems to put their own stamp on their products so nothing feels out of place. This can be an issue in and of itself, but it becomes glaringly obvious when a content provider, such as Netflix, doesn’t adhere to this framework.

That’s how you get a show as polished as House of Cards (although still vapid) or Daredevil (Season 1 is practically a masterpiece), which both feel incredibly cinematic. But then you also get a show like Travelers (a personal favorite of mine) that resembles something from the network template. This can lead to unique and interesting programming, along with a great deal of freedom for content creators, but it can be jarring when the content varies in aesthetic quality and vision so wildly. It makes it hard to know what to expect, and even harder to compare the individual offerings as a whole.

But I digress. We were talking about Altered Carbon.

The Netflix Original, Altered Carbon

And I must say, this show is very much lost in the world it is creating.

The problem with a lot of science fiction programming is that the grander and more encompassing the world, the larger the budget required. This is a genre that can be uniquely slavish to technology — an interesting note in a genre that is oftentimes about technology. Altered Carbon‘s budget constraints — although I’m sure the budget is still impressively high — keep the show looking downright silly and cheap at times.

When we see Takeshi Kovacs (portrayed by Joel Kinnaman) strolling through a section of the housing area built up on the Golden Gate Bridge in broad daylight, it looks like he wandered onto the backlot of the Syfy-original Defiance. This is not a compliment. The quality, as is the case with so many shows post-pilot, drops noticeably.

The Netflix Original, Altered Carbon

So where are we?

At the end of Episode 2, Kovacs sleeps with Miriam Bancroft (Kristin Lehman, yet again acting through her nipples), who is the wife of Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy), the man whose murderer Kovacs was hired to find (my head is already spinning). We learn this was being secretly recorded, which, of course, cannot be a good thing.

And where does Episode 3 take us?

To a party at the home of Laurens Bancroft in his tower above the clouds. It’s the perfect excuse to get everyone that wants Kovacs dead in the same place so he can do a little sleuthing. This seems like a promising premise, since he’s done so poorly at what little sleuthing he’s bothered to do up to this point.

The Netflix Original, Altered Carbon

To be fair, he did have a nice bit of clever detective work in Episode 2 at a quaint little mom-and-pop club called Jack It Off. while investigating the death of Lizzy Elliot, Vernon’s daughter, he convinces one of the dancers that he is in fact Lizzy’s mother in a different sleeve, gone undercover to find her daughter. It’s a touching scene that has promise for a decent payoff later on.

And of course Detective Ortega is also invited to the party. Her ulterior motive is that she’s trying to solve a completely different woman’s murder.

If you’re anything like me, at this point you’ve got at least three spreadsheets going so you can keep track of all the proverbial balls this show is juggling. Showrunner Laeta Kalogridis must be trying to set a record for number of plates spun while true developments are coming at a crawling pace. Having written numerous Hollywood screenplays, including Shutter Island, she clearly has a knack for macabre sleight-of-hand. Unfortunately, in Altered Carbon this tendency can be far more frustrating than rewarding.

Everything feel so disjointed. Characters that seem pivotal to the moment are suddenly woefully underrepresented with screen time, making it feel like actions that should be happening simultaneously are in fact happening in broad, rigid steps.

The Netflix Original, Altered Carbon

For example, Kovacs hires Elliot to watch his back at the party. Yet when Elliot infiltrates a restricted area with laughably little effort, he seems to be in a position that will allow him to come to Kovacs’ rescue moments later — yet he doesn’t. He finally emerges later, only to be stripped of his weapon so that Detective Ortega can save Kovacs instead.

But there are also some real highlights from this otherwise lukewarm bottle-light episode. When the show bothers to address philosophical and religious themes inherent to a world that allows people to potentially live forever, it gains a lot of traction.

For example, the Bancroft son is a perpetual asshole because, with a line of clones of himself from his late-teen years, he will never grow or mature into manhood. Kovacs comments on the frustration of forever being viewed as the boy your body resembles instead of the adult that inhabits the sleeve. It’s an interesting idea, but much like the rest of the deeper quandaries in this series, it’s only commented on in passing en route to the next scene.

The Bancroft daughter sneaks into one of her mother’s back-up sleeves to go around getting her rocks off, in this case banged in a secret chamber by a bodyguard. The idea on display here is pretty fucked up, and Kristin Lehman’s performance is spectacular when her personality shifts from faux Miriam to teenaged Bancroft daughter (herself over 60 years old).

It’s creepy. It’s fucked up. More importantly, it’s interesting, but it’s ultimately discarded for another Kovacs one-liner. Like when Kovacs encounters the bodyguard and says, “Only way you stay is if you’re unconscious. This is your call.” Well, actually that was pretty badass.

The Netflix Original, Altered Carbon

Where do we end up?

Nowhere really. At least, nowhere closer to resolving the main mystery or any of the side mysteries. We do have a better idea of character motivations and moral codes, but nothing much really happens here.

Elliot gets a little more screen time and gets a few chances to display more than just a look of rage and/or confusion. Ortega comes closer to being likeable, but she is still played as the icy foil for reasons I’m sure will become more evident later on. The Bancrofts are still dicks.

There’s a moment when the guests at the party reveal the gifts they brought for show and tell, an apparent tradition in these parts. One woman shows off a snake, which she’s uploaded the essence of a rapist/murderer into. This is an interesting aside and it’s played perfectly, but it’s yet another idea that we’re only ever allowed to scratch the surface of.

The Netflix Original, Altered Carbon

It is when Bancroft reveals his gift, however, that we get a little focus into the kind of world the super-rich inhabit. Bancroft’s gift is Kovacs himself, brought to life to be put on display. Once a hero, he is now seen simply as just another item to be bought, owned, and discarded at the whim of the purchaser.

I’m still not sold on Altered Carbon as anything more than just another middle-of-the-road distraction. I’m interested enough to see where it all leads and still hopeful for a surprise uptick in quality.

“In a Lonely Place” Tidbits and Takeaways:
  • At the party, the guests are eating freshly shaved slices of tiger meat. The animal is presented on a platter much like a pig at a luau. It’s fucking gross.
  • How much bare ass body doubling has there been for Joel Kinnaman up to this point? Netflix really likes to double down on the gratuitous nudity in their original programming. Altered Carbon is getting up there with Sense8, and that’s no small feat.
  • Everyone is orange in this episode.
  • The party had a really nice dream aesthetic when Kovacs arrived, a rare example of great camera work for this show.
  • Thus far, there hasn’t been much in the way of cool future tech or ideas — something of a surprise for a sci-fi serial — but the gun that can suck bullets back in is proper dope.
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