It's not just you.
Altered Carbon, which we called "a cyberpunk masterpiece" in our Season 1 review over two years ago, is back on Netflix for a long-awaited second season. And those who have already spun up the show for another go have likely noticed that the vibe is pretty different from Season 1. Gone are the trappings and tropes of a future-noir gumshoe mystery with a brooding protagonist and neon-soaked gutters; instead, Season 2 is a more straightforward action thriller, set on a different world, with an almost entirely new cast, and with a very different tone.
"I love the world that Season 1 set up," Altered Carbon Season 2 showrunner Alison Schapker told GameSpot during a recent interview. "Season 2 is...a little bit more of a thriller. They're more on the run. I don't think it has to be any particular subgenre of cyberpunk or sci-fi."
Schapker took over as showrunner during production on Season 2, receiving the torch from Season 1 showrunner and show creator Laeta Kalogridis. The two worked together on the new season for around six months before Schapker, whose previous producing credits include sci-fi shows like Alias, Fringe, and Lost, took over entirely.
The Season 1 world she referred to is one in which humans no longer fear death the way we do now, thanks to the invention of the "cortical stack," a small disc installed in your spine that holds "you" inside it. If your body "dies," your stack can get "re-sleeved" in a new one, and you go on living, albeit sometimes with a totally different appearance (don't worry, we also have a handy Altered Carbon glossary defining all these weird terms). Poor people don't get to choose where or when they get re-sleeved, while the wealthiest in society keep regular back-ups and clones of themselves on-hand in case of accidental sleeve death.
"I love that you have this kind of class-based resource, and what that looked like, and the stratification of society, I thought, was fascinating," Schapker said. "And I thought the character of Kovacs was a great lead character."
Kovacs, played by Joel Kinnaman in Season 1 and the Marvel Cinematic Universe's Anthony Mackie in Season 2, finds himself in highly different circumstances this time around. Season 1 Kovacs was re-sleeved hundreds of years after his arrest and the destruction of his rebel group, the Envoys, and tasked with solving the "murder" of a Meth (short for "Methuselah," the richest of the rich). "I felt like that was a Kovacs who really had nothing left to lose, and was kind of in a state of shock, and sort of almost bitter, or cynical," Schapker said. "[The Envoys] hoped for a world, and he woke up in a world that was the exact opposite."
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But Season 1 flashbacks to Kovacs' earlier life (during which he's played by Will Yun Lee, who has a major role in Season 2) showed what the character was like before--tough, but also hopeful and loving--and Mackie's version in Season 2 is somewhere in between, thanks to the knowledge that his leader and love, Quellcrist Falconer, might be out there somewhere after all.
"I was very excited, in Season 2, to find him in a different moment," Schapker said. "He's on his own and he has a mystery that's way more personal, on a planet that's way more personal. I was super excited to almost take the themes of Season 1 and now look at them through a more personal lens, and see where this mystery would take us."
That mystery puts Falconer, played by Hamilton's Renée Elise Goldsberry, at the forefront. "Quell was very much a ghost in Kovacs' mind in Season 1," Schapker said. "She was a memory. She was this person he carried around in his consciousness, and he longed to find her. And in Season 2, he does, but is she the person he remembers?...In a world where any mind can be in any body, that's the first thing Kovacs has to ask."
"Quell's gone through a dramatic change," Goldsberry told GameSpot. "She was 100% in support of [Kovacs'] journey in Season 1, and in Season 2, that is the opposite. She is on her journey. He's actually there to help find her and bring her back to herself and to help her figure out how to save this particular world that they're on, and humanity. So when we meet her in Season 2, it's, I think, the first time we really meet her."
Simone Missick, who played Misty Knight in Netflix Marvel shows including Luke Cage and Iron Fist, plays a new character in Season 2: the bounty hunter Trepp. She's hired to track down Kovacs, and winds up partnering with him to protect her homeworld.
"I think that one of the positive things about this season and the show was that you see so many female leaders on the show," Missick told GameSpot. "What I love about the show was all of us are, in a way, atypical to the way that Hollywood would normally cast and present these women, these characters. I feel very fortunate to be able to embody the character of Trepp. This is the first time we've ever seen her. This is her original sleeve, and this is who she is, and she looks like me. I think that there's no conversation about it on the screen; there's never a conversation where the characters are like, 'Well, me as a black woman,' or 'Me as a black man.' It's just that these people are who they are."
Instead, the disparities in society are all based on one thing, their natural epicenter: money. "It's an interesting commentary on society's values and what value we place on human beings, based on how much money they have and how much they're worth," Missick continued. "At the end of the day we, as human beings, fight over black or white or brown, but it's really green. It's really money that is the thing that's the great divide and the great separator. I think that Altered Carbon does a good job of showing that that is the future."
"We do these incredible things, but then there's limits to our knowledge--and there's always the unintended consequences," said Schapker.
Those consequences become very clear over the course of Altered Carbon Season 2, which, although the vibe has changed, is definitely still the same show in the end.
Altered Carbon Season 2 is streaming on Netflix now.
Disclosure: ViacomCBS is GameSpot's parent company