A lot changed from season 1 to season 2 of Altered Carbon. Anthony Mackie plays Takeshi Kovacs now, it’s 30 years later, and we’re on an entirely new planet. That new planet, Harlan’s World, has a history and quirks that the show touches on, but doesn’t really explore.
So let’s talk about Harlan’s World’s angels and their angelfire.
We’ll avoid major spoilers as much as we can, but the last few paragraphs contain major spoilers for season 2. We’ll put an extra warning before those paragraphs.
What is Harlan’s World?
About 400 years before season 2 takes place (so, 370ish years before season 1), human colonists left earth on a sublight colony ship. They arrived at a planet that would come to be known as Harlan’s World, named after one of the founders of the planet.
The planet could support human life, but it was (very nearly) completely surrounded by a hexagonal network of automated orbitals — something between a satellite and a space station (it’s hard to get a sense of scale from the show) — that would shoot down anything that got too close. These orbitals came to be known as angels.
Konrad Harlan, played by Neal McDonough, discovered (at least he takes credit for discovering) a hole in the angel network that would allow their ship to land.
The angels weren’t the only artifacts discovered on Harlan’s World. It soon became clear that the planet had previously been inhabited by a species that the humans named the Elders. We actually see an Elder fossil in the mayor’s office in episode 1.
Elders built the angels, but no one knows why.
Other Elder artifacts have been discovered all over the planet. Teams of “archaeologues” and AIs researched at dig sites all over the planet. Dig 301, who we meet in season 2, is one of those AIs. We’ve seen evidence of the past emerge from these digs throughout both seasons. Studying a unique alloy in those Elder artifacts is what led Quellcrist Falconer to invent stacks — those interchangeable hard drives that store a human mind as digital human freight (DHF).
The angels surrounding Harlan’s World are still very much active. At night, we see beams of blue-white light, called angelfire by the locals, bouncing between the angels like lightning — it’s angular because of the honeycomb-pattern of the angels’ arrangement. It’s unclear what the beams of light are, but it’s presumed to be either arcing power discharges or communication.
When something gets too close to the angels’ elevation — like the firework-bearing rockets we see in episode 4 — the orbitals destroy it with a more powerful blast of that same blue-white energy. This is probably why the flying cars that we saw on Earth in season 1 are absent from Harlan’s World.
The important thing to note here is that angelfire is only ever seen in the sky. As long as nothing approaches the angels from the surface, they’re completely harmless and seen generally as the planet’s protectors.
A spoiler-filled discussion of the angels in season 2
Angels, angelfire, and the Elders are all major plot points in Altered Carbon’s second season. In episode 6, Quellcrist seems to control the angels and uses them to call down angelfire against the Protectorate forces hunting her.
In episode 7, we learn that it wasn’t Quell controlling the angels, but the Elder that was sharing her stack. We see that again in episode 8, when Takeshi uses angelfire to kill himself and the Elder — though, he seems to have been saved by Poe.
This tells us a couple interesting things. The orbiting network of angels seems to be pointed at the planet’s surface instead of out at space, which feels less like it’s for defense and more like it’s for containment. However, we also see that the Elders can control the angels, so they likely weren’t put there by someone else.
Which raises the question: What were the Elders hoping to contain on their own planet? Cross your fingers for season 3.