Altered Carbon, while fun, has a serious misogyny problem. The show mixes intimacy, violence, and apathy in a way that is neither compelling nor conducive to its plot.
The overarching plot of the season is a murder mystery. Our protagonist awakens in a distant future to learn that the future he died trying prevent has come to pass. Humans are practically immortal and have divided themselves into 2 levels of society, rulers and ruled. (Sounds like pretty much all of human history. I take no issue with this.) These “Meths” are enormously wealthy and live above the law... and the rest of humanity, literally... while also thinking themselves gods. It’s a rich setting with lots of complex ideas floating around.
But then there’s the regrettable casting of Joel Kinnaman. Ever since his introduction to American cinema in the 2014 remake of Robocop, Kinnaman has been the poor man’s Alexander Skarsgaard. Wikipedia tells me he won an award for Best Actor in some Swedish film. I find myself strongly doubting the Swedes in, like, everything.
Kinnaman seems utterly unable to emote anything other than annoyance and lust. He growls and threatens his way through the gorgeous cityscape of Altered Carbon with a menace that is so one-note it becomes comical about 6 episodes in. This is a shame, because the character of Tokashi Kovacs seems to be rooted in a sort of righteous empathy. When played by Will Yun Lee, the character displays a brokenness and charisma that is quite compelling. When portrayed by Kinnaman, he’s a dead-eyed, ultra violent psychopath who fucks every woman in his orbit while simultaneously being a complete asshole to them.
Kinnaman’s portrayal of Kovacs is problematic, to say the least. For example, in episode 2, Kovacs is seduced by his client’s wife, whose skin secretes an aphrodisiac chemical that makes someone feel every physical sensation she does, and vice versa. This is as ridiculous as it sounds. We are treated to shots of Kinnaman’s rapidly humping ass and Kristin Lehman’s (fantastic) tits. He does absolutely nothing to inspire this attraction other than giving her a lot of side eye and housing a barely restrained desire to murder her. Then, a woman strongly resembling Lehman’s character (or was it her? I’m still unclear on this) falls out of the sky to her death, also nude, and in slow motion.
In episode 3, Kovacs befriends a prostitute that his client has previously abused, had sex with, murdered, and had re-sleeved into a new body. In what is probably the only startling moment of actual human emotion that Kinnaman can muster, he tells her that she shouldn’t let anyone hurt her. Well (spoilers, folks) men hurt her, bad. The first woman we see Kovacs have a real connection with gets tortured, betrays him, and then gets her throat slit in glorious HD.
In episode 5 Kovacs learns that he inhabits the body of Ortega’s dead boyfriend. After asking a couple questions about this bizarre twist, the two just skip all the plot stuff and have lots of sex. Kinnaman’s rapid butt movements resurface, and there’s full frontal nudity from Ortega. A few minutes later they re-sleeve a criminal and Kovacs encourages her to murder him in cold blood during interrogation. He literally yells “BLOW HIS FUCKING STACK OUT!” to a cop questioning a restrained, unlawfully detained prisoner who poses no immediate threat to anyone. Am I the only one who has a problem with this?
Of course, now that Kovacs has boned her, it’s time for her to suffer some awful violence. True to form, not 10 minutes later, Ortega’s skin is being ripped off in an elevator, because women are objects of sex and violence on this show.
It’s this pattern of sex and violence that I find so disturbing about Altered Carbon. There’s an unhealthy nihilism in Kinnaman’s Kovacs that he systematically spreads to everyone he connects with. This is a show that had Kinnaman murder everyone in a scientific torture facility, even the ones he promised to spare, then walk out carrying a severed head that he identifies as “some asshole” which he later puts on ice in a champagne bucket in his hotel room to show of to Ortega. Notably, this nihilism only appears in Kinnaman’s Kovacs, not Lee’s.
I don’t have a problem with sex in media. I don’t have a problem with violence in media. Both should be employed to further plots or develop characters... or maybe even just to make a point. But when they are combined in this repeated pattern of attraction, graphic intimacy, then even more graphic violence, for no other reason than interesting visuals, I can’t help but raise an eyebrow and call bullshit.
But enough about that. The things Altered Carbon gets right are it’s worldbuilding and compelling antagonists. With the exception of the Russian double-sleeved “brothers” (a complete waste of Tahmoh Pinikett) the show does some brilliant things with the villains. The villain/client of Bancroft and his totally-screwed-up-yet-awesome family is the primary focus of most of the episodes, and James Purefoy and Kristin Lehman are more than enough to make up for all of Kinnaman’s flatness.
And then there’s Poe, the delightful AI sidekick superbly played by the relatively unknown Chris Conner. While I wasn’t sure where the plot was going with Poe at first, his involvement in the recuperation of Lizzy was well done.
Last, and least, there’s the character of Vernon Elliot (played by Ato Essandoh) who flits between “handy sidekick” and “angry jerk” pretty effortlessly. I wasn’t terribly impressed with this guy or his arc, but I think the scripts are more to blame than the actor.
The philosophical questions the show raises are interesting. Does the cycle of life and death make us human? What do we become when we are liberated from it? How does the human mind cope with immortality? Is apotheosis truly within our grasp, or are the Meths simply charlatans lost in their own delusions? What does a tiger taste like?
It’s all rich fare, and when the scripts and actors take these questions seriously, it’s as good as any cinematic science fiction in the last 10 years.
All that being said, I think the positives ultimately outweigh the negatives. I’m not one to brush over misogyny or the exploitation of women, but I am a genre fan and in the end, I enjoyed more of Altered Carbon than I took issue with.