Netflix’s Altered Carbon surprised both fans and critics alike with a high concept science-fiction series that paid off with a satisfying narrative arc. Season 1 felt like a complete story, and even held its own, visually, against contemporaries like Blade Runner 2049. But how do you keep fans engaged when you keep swapping out the actor who plays the main character?
With season 2 premiering Feb. 27, Polygon caught up with showrunner Alison Schapker to discuss the program’s approach this time around, which inserts Anthony Mackie (Falcon in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) into the lead role.
In Altered Carbon, novelist Richard K. Morgan posits a future in which human beings are able to transmit their consciousness great distances between the stars. The catch is that travelers must leave their bodies behind, only to be inserted into a new “sleeve” once they reach their destination. The novels follow one Takeshi Kovacs as he travels through space and time investigating mysteries both public and private.
In season 1, Kovacs was portrayed by two different actors — Will Yun Lee as the “original” Kovacs, and Joel Kinnaman as the newly-sleeved Kovacs some 200 years in the future. The challenge was connecting both men to the series’ central quest, which is the search for Kovacs long-lost lover, Quellcrist Falconer.
“We knew it was a love story, and we knew it was a ghost story,” Schapker told Polygon. “We new Kovacs wanted to find Quell. He had been searching for her for centuries. That really brings up the question of time. Time alters all things.
“What would it mean to love somebody for so long and then find them?” Schapker continued. “And would they be the person in your memory, and would they be the person you carried around? How have you changed and how have they changed? And how has the world changed and what would that be like? So you start from a very open-ended, pure places, imaginatively, and go from there.”
Season 1 ends with the revelation that Quell is still alive — or at least her consciousness is. But in the next chapter, Kovacs moves on to a new sleeve, introduced as Mackie at the start of season 2. It’s all likely to be a bit jarring, even for fans of the novels. Schapker says that’s part of the challenge of adapting such unusual source material. The team isn’t following Morgan’s books to the letter, so fans should head into this next season expecting to encounter the next portion of a collection of short stories.
“Kovacs is on a journey every season that does have a beginning and a middle and an end, but there’s a cumulative feeling to viewing his adventures,” Schapker said. “I think the idea that in every season, it’s a new Kovacs, and a new sleeve, on a new planet, and a new mystery, feels to us like the spine of a loose anthology. But, one that has a rewarding component for watching his adventures.”
The challenge, she says, will be in connecting the series’ hard science fiction themes to the same sort of emotional touchpoints that worked in season 1.
“To me that’s the challenge, and the fun, and the mandate,” Schapker said. “How do you tell a story in sci-fi that is both intellectually stimulating and thought provoking — and makes you question our present by examining the possible future — and not dumb it down?”