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When your body isn’t your own: The politics of Altered Carbon

Would you still want to be you?

Takeshi Kovacs, or at least a version of the character

Altered Carbon, a Netflix show based on the book by Richard K. Morgan, takes place in a world where only the poor have to die.

You can live forever if you can afford it, due to alien technology that houses your consciousness in a circular metal disk kept in the base of your head. You can be put into whatever body you can afford if your body dies, and you can kill someone forever by destroying the disc. The technology creates a shift in society that changes literally everything.

[Warning: The following contains major spoilers for Altered Carbon.]

The show gets creative when it explains how weird things can get in this world. We see a little girl that died in a hit-and-run accident placed in the body of an older woman, because her insurance wouldn’t pay for anything else. We see the body of a racist gang member used to bring a dead grandmother home for a night to celebrate Día de Muertos.

The ensuing scene, where the character plays with the children, gets drunk and enjoys herself throughout the holiday, shows what a good actor can bring to a performance through body language and voice. It’s both horrific and kinda sweet.

The show’s protagonist is named Takeshi Kovacs, and is played in the present day by white actor Joel Kinnamen, while Will Yun Lee handles the character in flashback, which is its own can of worms in the current political climate.

It’s hard to even have a conversation about a topic like whitewashing a character when that character is part of a fiction where bodies themselves are treated like commodities. You pay more for “good” ones, and the show is comfortable showing you vast swaths of naked human flesh in a variety of scenes and contexts.

The cast is diverse, and everyone elevates the material through sheer force of will; the actors bring more to the table than the often-bland scripts demand. And we learn so much about how society views bodies. People pay extra to keep an array of clones ready for their minds to be replanted in, should they ever die. An ultra-rich character, whose wealth grows as he passes down his fortune to himself over and over, notes that he selected the age of his clone to convey authority and wisdom.

And so you’re left with a society where the rich become immortal and grow bank accounts so vast, they may as well be limitless. How long could someone stay in that position and remain human? The book tackles this problem directly:

You live that long, things start happening to you. You get too impressed with yourself. Ends up, you think you’re God. Suddenly the little people, thirty, maybe forty years old, well, they don’t really matter anymore. You’ve seen whole societies rise and fall, and you start to feel you’re standing outside it all, and none of it really matters to you. And maybe you’ll start snuffing those little people, just like picking daisies, if they get under your feet.

One character is part of a fight scene that takes place inside a room filled with clones of her own body; she instantly returns to the fight every time she’s “killed,” and her consciousness is placed into one of her own physical backups. The entire scene takes place with the character fighting in the nude, and there are few jump cuts. That means the actress had to be nude, and fight among what looked like dead versions of herself.

“We first had to find eight girls who looked like me physically,” actress Dichen Lachman said about the fight scene. “They’d come in, and we’d discuss if they felt comfortable with the idea, and all the men would have to leave the room. I had to stand next to them and [female crew members] would decide if we were the right shape, if our skin tones matched, and that sort of thing.”

It’s an interesting example of the show’s production matching up with the show’s fiction.

This aspect of Altered Carbon never overwhelms the noir aspect of the story, but I did wish it had been explored a bit more. We meet characters who borrow the bodies of other characters, and are introduced to people who more or less clone themselves by downloading their consciousness into multiple bodies. There are ideas about what it means to be an adult when your parents never die and leave you their legacy, and thoughts on how religion would deal with such a huge shift in how we think about living and dying.

We may be more than our bodies, but we place a lot of importance on our own skin. Altered Carbon’s most interesting conceit is that, one day, that may not be the case.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Leonardo Nam played the “younger” Takeshi Kovacs. The character is instead played by Will Yun Lee. We’ve changed the story to reflect this correction.

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