Altered Carbon Review – Episode 4: Force of Evil

The Netflix Original, Altered Carbon

“No matter how long you live, you never finish.”

These sage words come from the elderly grandmother of Detective Ortega, spoken while encased in the sleeve of a tattooed ruffian with a foul mouth and an even fouler attitude.

This encapsulates the theme of Altered Carbon‘s Episode 4: “Force of Evil,” an episode heavy on violence and torture, which seem at odds with the show up to this point. Although grisly and even gratuitous at times, all this violence gives the viewer a much deeper understanding of Kovacs’ constitution. And this is aided by some of the best flashbacks yet.

The Netflix Original, Altered Carbon

So where are we?

After a dinner party plan that lead to almost zero plot propulsion, we are pretty much where the end of Episode 3 left us (if you’re feeling lost, you can catch up in our rundown of Episode 3). Bancroft knows that Kovacs and Mrs. Bancroft had carnal relations, and he has already warned Kovacs to steer clear. Bancroft also reminds him that he does in fact own Kovacs and can end him at a moment’s whim.

Vernon Elliot managed to refrain from killing Bancroft at the banquet, earning his place on Team Kovacs, alongside the deliciously salacious, if not slavishly devoted, Hotel Poe A.I. aptly named Poe (Chris Connor).

I suppose I should apologize for failing to mention Poe until now. He has been one of the more consistent bright spots in this show, reveling in the ridiculous nature of it all. He stands in much-needed contrast from Kovacs, who rarely seems to be having much fun even at his smarmiest.

At this point, Poe has garnered Kovacs’ trust — as much as Kovacs can trust anyone, I mean. It was Poe that backed Kovacs up and saved his life in a flesh-shredding gun battle back in Episode 1, while Kovacs participated in a bout of fisticuffs with a Russian merc named Dimitri Kadmin (Tahmoh Penikett). And it is only now that the outcome of that skirmish — the death of Kadmin and his henchmen — is coming home to roost.

Kovacs sets out to follow up on his informant at the Jack It Off in his case to discover who killed Lizzy Elliot. Shit doesn’t end as heart-warming as the first visit. We find his informant visibly battered and shaken. She apologizes before injecting Kovacs with a knockout drug before shoving him through a glass partition. Before Kovacs passes out, he removes his identity bracelet thing, which I assume was done in the hopes of eventually finding some answers from whomever has set him up.

The Netflix Original, Altered Carbon

Enter the strong guy with the web-lined arms and a new player: the reliably sleazy Eklund, with a ridiculous coif and beard ensemble.

They murder the informant in yet another display of violence against a disposable female character before absconding with our hero to places unknown. And, for the most part, this is what the rest of the episode is about for Kovacs: torture ad infinitum and flashbacks to help us better understand his code and conditioning.

Detective Ortega has a lighter story this episode with more screen time than the first three episodes. It is Día de Muertos and her family is celebrating at her basement store/home/apartment. After knocking out the aforementioned foulmouthed perp and sticking her grandmother inside, Ortega is off to the party. Of course, hilarity ensues as we are treated to a veritable skinhead now inhabited by an elderly Hispanic woman, complete with the mannerisms and sweet, kindly accent.

It’s nice to see this show have a little fun and take a breath after bathing us all in so much violence. It also gives us some moments of reprieve from the vicious things happening at the virtual torture center — from broken bones to immolation to who knows what the hell else, Kovacs is in for a hell of a ride. But we are assured that he is in control the whole time.

The Netflix Original, Altered Carbon

There is also a new development in Kovacs’ backstory. We get, for the first time, a sense of who the mysterious Quell (Renée Elise Goldsberry) is, and there are some tender moments in the end of the episode involving her and Kovacs that add some much-needed heart (no pun intended) to the world of Altered Carbon.

And Goldsberry is phenomenal as the tough-as-nails Quellcrist Falconer (such a badass name!!) who taught a squad the ins and outs of futuristic guerilla warfare. She’s thus far proving to be the toughest female character on the show. And although their tale of love unfolds over the course of two overlapping torture sessions, its genuine enough that when three actors (two of them Kovacs) sell it, you can definitely buy it. But I’m jumping ahead.

Where does Episode 4 take us?

Ortega’s storyline is basically just character building 101. But her grandmother (and the punk body actor) work well with the material they’re given. All of this is fun, light, and tender.

The Netflix Original, Altered Carbon

Kovacs’ captors are eventually revealed to be after not him exactly, but the man they think he is due to the sleeve he’s in. And after a grim 30 or 40 minutes of inflicted pain in this Matrix-like torture VR program, Kovacs finally gets the upper hand and goes ape shit.

And it is this scene that is the highlight of the collective action sequences of this series. Kinnaman is in rare psychotic form, and he really delivers. He exits the facility with a new-found purpose and some actual actionable intel.

This, however, leads to this episode’s biggest head-scratching moment. Earlier in the episode when Poe and Elliot fear Kovacs is missing, Elliot begins what appears to be a plotline where she’s trying to find Kovacs, maybe to hit the pavement and rattle a few cages. But nothing happens. He literally is not seen or heard from for the rest of the episode until Kovacs has already extricated himself from danger and killed every last motherfucker in that torture emporium.

The Netflix Original, Altered Carbon

So when Elliot appears with the strong web-armed guy at gunpoint, seemingly after having apprehended him, only to have Kovacs kill the brute without batting an eye, it all seems moot.

Sure, the merc (played by Eklund, who is either Dimitri’s brother or is Dimitri in a new sleeve) mentions that Kovacs’ tracker is blocked by the torture facility’s security system, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t see Elliot putting forth the effort to find him — which he obviously does since he arrive moments too late with a captive that isn’t even needed. It’s all a bit nonsensical.

So where do we end up?

After the bloodbath, Ortega arrives to witness the carnage that remains in Kovacs’ wake. She rockets over to his hotel and we are treated to yet another Kovacs butt shot. I’m pretty sure this is a double, although it seemed like Kinnaman in the first two so it’s hard to say. It doesn’t seem like Kovacs minds showing some rump.

When confronted by Ortega, Kovacs turns the tables with questions of his own. Namely, who is Stryker, the man the torture mercs think he is, and how does he relate to Ortega? Kovacs even goes so far as to mutilate his sleeve to get her to spill the beans. This self-mutilations seems like lazy shorthand to move the story along, but it does move along so I’ll let it slide. And right before Ortega’s big, teary-eyed reveal, the episode ends.

Overall this is a step in the right direction. We’re still nowhere closer to solving the mystery at the core of the series, or even the loose-thread side stories, but we are getting movement. Of course, I’m hoping to god Stryker’s body — now Kovacs’ — isn’t Ortega’s dead lover.

This series already hangs it hat on cliché, and this would be the biggest cliché to date. But I’m still giving Altered Carbon a chance to blow me away as I get ready to head into Episode 5. If it can capitalize on the steam coming out of the explosive final minutes of Episode 4, I’m ready to rumble.

The Netflix Original, Altered Carbon

“Force of Evil” Tidbits and Takeaways:
  • The scene with the biker granny smoking pot was trite, but her monologue about wanting to be left un-sleeved was touching and felt genuine.
  • Poe is pretty much the star of the show, but the scene with him performing virtual surgery on the sleeveless, catatonic Lizzy Elliot in some bizarre cyber clinic was painfully silly.
  • This show has a hard time presenting and grappling with existential conundrums that are the byproduct of the world it’s showing us. It would be nice if we were allowed to see characters musing about this.
  • The electronic police barrier is one of the cooler gadgets added to the show. It makes practical sense and is a believable part of the world. More of this is desperately needed.
  • Every time we see a shirtless Joel Kinnaman, it seems like he is incapable of moving in an organic fashion, much like Chris Hemsworth in Thor: Ragnarök. It’s fine to be a leading badass and not look as if you’re chiseled from granite, but no one working on Altered Carbon got that memo.
  • Unless I missed it, do we know where the sleeves come from? Are they made like replicants in Blade Runner, or are they simply bodies that someone found lying around?
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