Netflix's Altered Carbon Season 2: Season 1 Recap - Story And Characters To Remember
It's been quite a while since Season 1 of Altered Carbon first hit Netflix, so if you've forgotten some or all of what happened, nobody would blame you--after all, the story included a twisting murder mystery, a whole bunch of sci-fi terms, and a ton of characters switching bodies. At the center of it all is Takeshi Kovacs, a character with an extremely long history, a bunch of cool abilities, and some keen detective skills.
There's also a whole bunch of dense sci-fi material you need to be intimately familiar with to really appreciate Altered Carbon's future world, from artificially intelligent hotels to technology that makes some people effectively immortal. Altered Carbon is full of confusing terminology, which can make it tough to follow the story if you're not up on your concepts.
Lucky for you, we've run down everything you need to remember about Altered Carbon Season 1, from the concept of stacks and sleeves to the vast murder mystery and the lengthy political history of the world--all of which is important to enjoying the newest chapter. Here's everything you need to know about Altered Carbon to get ready for Season 2.
Disclosure: ViacomCBS is GameSpot's parent company.
Stacks And Sleeves
The essential thing you need to understand about the world of Altered Carbon is the concept of "stacks" and "sleeves." In the far future, humanity has discovered technology that allows for effective immortality through the use of cortical stacks, which are like hard drives that store consciousness. When they turn one year old, each person has a stack installed in their brain and their consciousness is stored on it. That means that, rather than being the combination of your brain and your body, you are your stack--everything that makes you who you are is stored on the stack. While your body might die, if the stack survives, you survive.
Stacks can be transplanted between bodies, allowing you to go on living even if your original body dies. In Altered Carbon, bodies are colloquially called "sleeves" to highlight how interchangeable they are. In most cases, you can survive the loss of a sleeve if your stack is unharmed. If you really want to kill someone, destroying their stack is the way to do it.
There are some caveats to that, however. Some people in Altered Carbon are so rich that they can transfer their consciousness into other computers, sometimes in orbital satellites, like backing up a hard drive. In Season 1, Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy) was murdered and his stack was destroyed, but he survived the incident because he'd backed up his consciousness in a satellite, allowing him to be downloaded into a new stack and go on living. There's also the concept of "double sleeving," which is where a person copies their own consciousness into two stacks, with each one in a sleeve--essentially making a copy of themselves. Double stacking is illegal, but that doesn't seem to do much to stop people from doing it.
That raises some interesting questions: is what makes you a person just data, or are you more than that? Is the information in a stack really "you" or just a computer recreation? If a stack is moved to a new sleeve after death, is the new person really you, or just a copy? And where does the idea of a soul factor in? This is all stuff that people in Altered Carbon grapple with, and there are no clear answers.
"Meths" And The Rich Versus The Poor
There's another wrinkle when it comes to stacks and sleeves: money. As one might assume, while everyone has access to the technology that gives them access to immortality, not everyone can afford it. The "haves" in the world of Altered Carbon are often called "Meths," after the extremely long-lived biblical figure Methuselah. Meths are rich people who can afford things like satellite backups for their stacks and clones of their original bodies for additional sleeves.
Meanwhile, things are tougher for poor people. If you can't afford a nice new sleeve, you might find yourself tossed into whatever random body the government has lying around, which leads to some trying situations as people wind up in sleeves that don't fit their personalities. (One scene in Season 1 saw a murdered little girl resleeved into the body of a fully grown man, which, understandably, freaked her out.) If no suitable sleeve is handy or if your family can't spring for one, your stack might also get placed in cold storage, where it could sit indefinitely until someone finds a reason to "spin it up," or reactivate and resleeve it. That's what happened to Takeshi Kovacs in Season 1: He was left in cold storage for decades until Laurens Bancroft decided to spin him up in order to solve Bancroft's murder.
In Altered Carbon's vision of our future, humanity has expanded across a number of other planets in addition to creating technology that allows for effective (or maybe assumed) immortality. A lot of that advancement has been made possible by the discovery of artifacts left behind by the Elders, an ancient alien race that colonized much of the galaxy, but has mysteriously vanished.
The discovery of stuff left behind by the Elders gave humanity access to special new metal known as alloy, and that led to the creation of cortical stacks. The Elders also had a bunch of information about habitable worlds and interstellar travel, which helped humanity to spread to other planets. Basically, a bunch of futury stuff is possible in Altered Carbon thanks to the Elders, but we still don't know much about them. You'll occasionally see artifacts and other things left behind by the Elders on planets like Harlan's World, and they seem to continue to be significant to Altered Carbon's story in ways we haven't necessarily seen yet.
Artificial intelligence is a fairly big part of society in Altered Carbon, but it's also, somewhat hilariously, passé. The AI we spend the most time with in Season 1 is Poe, the proprietor of The Raven hotel and something of a sidekick for Takeshi. In fact, there are a bunch of AIs who own and operate automated hotels, but while they were once a fad, they've fallen out of favor with humans because AIs tend to be creepy, as well as clingy. We've also seen a few scenes of Poe hanging out in virtual spaces with other hotel AIs, where it's revealed that most think of human beings as disgusting and inferior. Poe stands apart from those guys--he instead seems to like humans and find them interesting.
Virtual spaces exist for humans to visit too, thanks to interfaces between computers and stacks. In Season 1, we see Poe work in VR to help Lizzie, a woman who was attacked and traumatized, and whose father Vernon keeps her in a VR construct in order to keep her alive after her stack was damaged.
Humanity has spread out over a whole bunch of colonized worlds by the time we reach the future of Altered Carbon, creating an empire that reaches about 100 lightyears in all directions around Earth. In Season 1, we saw a couple of colonized planets, including Harlan's World, where Takeshi and the Envoys had set up shop. All the human worlds are governed by the United Nations Interstellar Protectorate, a giant government agency that succeeded our United Nations. The Envoys fought against the Protectorate in the flashbacks we see in Season 1, with the goal of eliminating the use of cortical stacks.
The protagonist of Altered Carbon, Takeshi Kovacs is a former member of the Protectorate's Colonial Tactical Assault Corps (CTAC), as well as an Envoy, which makes him a guy with some particular ass-kicking capabilities. When he was a kid, Tak killed his abusive father to protect his sister, Rei. After the crime, Jaeger recruited Tak in to the CTAC, promising to keep him out of jail and protect his sister. Tak agreed and served for 12 years in the Protectorate's fighting force, before deserting when he realized he'd been tasked with killing Rei, and the two became fugitives until they were recruited by the Envoy, a group of freedom fighters trying to end the immortality for the rich offered by cortical stacks. The Envoys were eventually defeated and Tak, believing his sister dead, became a fugitive again and worked as a mercenary. He was eventually tracked down by Jaeger and the CTAC and framed for murder. His sleeve was killed and his stack imprisoned in cold storage.
In Season 1, Tak is paroled and made to work for Laurens Bancroft to help figure out who murdered Bancroft's sleeve and destroyed his stack. Tak eventually solved the crime, discovered Rei was still alive, and learned a whole bunch of stuff about his past. It's all kind of tragic. Season 1's Tak was (mostly) played by Joel Kinneman, but because of the joys of resleeving, in Season 2, he's played by Anthony Mackie.
The leader of the Envoys, Quell Falconer trained her freedom fighters with a bunch of particular skills that made them extremely good fighters. She also became a love interest for Tak when they fought together against the Protectorate. We find out through the course of Season 1 that Quell is actually the person who invented cortical stacks, which she intended to be a way to make interstellar travel more manageable. When she realized that rich people were able to use stacks to become effectively immortal, creating an even more ridiculous and horrible class gap between wealthy and poor, she founded the Envoys in an attempt to destroy stacks once and for all.
Quell and the Envoys were eventually defeated by the Protectorate after they were betrayed by Rei. Quell was also seemingly killed, thanks to Rei, when her shuttle was destroyed by an orbital laser. In fact, Rei saved Quell's stack data as a backup, against her wishes. So Quell might still be out there somewhere, but we have no idea where she is or what she's been doing.
Tak's AI buddy who runs The Raven hotel is fascinated by humans, and his big aspiration as a person is to study and understand them. That helps make Poe more human than most computers, and he takes it upon himself to help out Tak and other humans, including Lizzie. Poe spent a lot of Season 1 helping Lizzie through therapy in virtual reality, after she was driven mad by Rei's VR torture. Poe helped Tak and his allies in the fight against Rei, but he was seemingly killed at the end of Season 1 by Rei's henchmen when they attacked The Raven hotel.
Jaeger is something of a personal nemesis for Tak. The CTAC officer first discovered Tak on Harlan's World after Tak killed his father. It was Jaeger that convinced Tak to join up with CTAC, which turned Tak in to an effective soldier. Jaeger promised the government would take care of Rei if Tak joined up, but when Tak was assigned to take on some Yakuza gangsters on Harlan's World, he realized Rei was among them and that Jaeger had lied about protecting her--instead, he sold her to the Yakuza.
Later, Jaeger tracked down Tak after the Envoys were defeated. Tak fought the CTAC team sent after him but wasn't able to stop them, and in a cruel move to get back at Tak, Jaeger killed the mercenary Tak was working with, Sarah, and framed Tak for her murder. So Jaeger basically ruined Tak's life on a number of occasions and was also the guy responsible for Tak's imprisonment, where we find him at the start of Season 1. It's not clear what happened to Jaeger after that.
Tak's sister Reileen is a central figure in the first season of Altered Carbon, and there's a whole lot of stuff that happens with her. After she was separated from Takeshi as a child, she was sold to the Yakuza. Later, when Tak was charged with wiping out the Yakuza as a CTAC soldier, he found Rei again and the two escaped and became fugitives. They later joined up with the Envoys--Tak was taken with Quellcrist Falconer and her cause, but Rei wasn't as enamored. She did, however, really really love her brother.
When Rei saw that Tak was getting especially close with Quell, she made a deal to betray Envoys to the Protectorate for a whole bunch of money. The Envoys were destroyed and Quell's sleeve was killed, but Rei saved her as a backup. Rei escaped the battle and Tak believed she died, and went on to be incarcerated in cold storage.
Meanwhile, Rei became one of the Meths that the Envoys wanted to stop. She used her Protectorate money for turning on the Envoys to become something of a crime lord, hiding her identity behind various sleeves and go-betweens to get what she wanted. She also created Head in the Clouds, a floating brothel where Meths could come and do whatever they wanted to the sex workers there. To protect herself from being outed, Rei had religious coding secretly added to the stacks of their sex workers. When people are murdered in Altered Carbon, the authorities can "spin up" their cortical stacks in order to question the person about who killed them, but some religions, including Catholicism, considers being spun up a violation of their faith. The religious coding prevented the sex workers from being spun up by authorities, thus protecting Rei's secrets if they should be killed.
Rei is pulling most of the strings in Altered Carbon Season 1. She uses her big brothel crime empire to blackmail rich Meths--which is what she did to Laurens Bancroft after he accidentally killed a sex worker on Head in the Clouds. She also used her influence to finally get her brother out of cold storage by convincing Bancroft that Tak was the only one who could solve his murder.
In the end, Rei became the villain of Altered Carbon Season 1. Although she did a lot of awful stuff to try to save Tak and reunite them, she's also become pretty much evil thanks to her extended life. In the end, Tak destroys the many clones Rei uses to keep herself alive and ultimately kills Rei herself to stop her.
Everybody Else In Season 1
There are a whole bunch of other people floating around in Altered Carbon Season 1, who play integral but sometimes confusing roles in the plot.
Laurens Bancroft: The super-rich Meth who makes a deal to get Takeshi out of cold storage to enlist him in solving Bancroft's murder. Bancroft was so rich that he not only can afford clones of his original body to resleeve his stack into, he has a dedicated satellite in orbit, which holds a backup copy of his consciousness--so even if his stack is destroyed, he can live on. Just before the start of Season 1, Bancroft's sleeve was murdered and his stack destroyed. When he redownloaded from his satellite, he set about trying to figure out who killed him. (There are a lot of suspects, including his extremely crappy family.) Turns out that Bancroft killed himself, though, after committing a murder and being blackmailed by Rei. He destroyed his own stack out of shame, minutes before his scheduled backup, so that when his consciousness was downloaded again from the satellite, he wouldn't remember what he'd done.
Vernon: Tak found Vernon by investigating death threats against Bancroft, who blamed Bancroft for his daughter Lizzie being beaten and driven to madness. When Tak confronts and interrogates him, he makes Vernon an ally by helping him try to treat Lizzie's psychological problems, with Poe's assistance. Vernon becomes an ally of Tak's and helps him in his fight to solve Bancroft's murder and take down Rei.
Lizzie: Vernon's daughter Lizzie was a sex worker who was visited by Laurens Bancroft, and eventually got pregnant by him. When she went to his house to tell him about it, Lizzie was confronted by Bancroft's wife, Miriam, who feared the threat of an illegitimate Bancroft child and nearly killed Lizzie. Miriam enlisted Rei to have Lizzie driven insane with virtual reality torture, fragmenting her mind. Vernon kept Lizzie in VR to protect her, and Tak and Poe worked to help Lizzie recover. When she did, Tak learned about what had happened, revealing another piece of the puzzle regarding Bancroft's murder and Rei's involvement.
Ortega: A police officer who worked with Tak on Bancroft's murder, and was in love with the man who owned the body Tak inhabits in Season 1. She was the officer originally assigned to Bancroft's murder, but ruled it a suicide against Bancroft's wishes. She spends the first season of Altered Carbon helping Tak as he works to solve the mystery, and they develop a close relationship. Ortega was formerly a Neo-Catholic--according to her faith, she could never be resleeved due to her beliefs. She renounced her religion, however, which causes strain between Ortega and her family.
The Envoys And Quellists
The Envoys were a group of rebels who resisted the Protectorate and the idea of becoming immortal through the use of stacks. They also became something of a group of legendary supersoldiers thanks to their heightened abilities. First, they were among a group of soldiers who could take advantage of "needlecasting," the transmission of their consciousnesses from one stack to another over vast distances. For most people, needlecasting is very disorienting, but Envoys and soldiers could needlecast into new stacks and bodies and be ready to fight moments later, making them extremely formidable. Quell also taught her Envoys to heighten their perception through techniques like pattern recognition. They became so good at it that, to regular folks, it seemed like Envoys could see through walls and anticipate enemies' moves before they made them--some people even believed Envoys could read minds, that's how good they were.
Quell and the Envoys wanted to stop a future in which only the mega-rich were allowed immortality through the use of cortical stacks, so they fomented rebellion against the use of the technology and the Protectorate. Quell even had a plan to destroy all stacks using a computer virus that would render them useless after 100 years. She never got to institute that plan, however; the Envoys were betrayed by Rei and ambushed by the Protectorate, and just about all of them were killed. Tak and Rei survived, their abilities intact, as did Quell, thanks to Rei's meddling. But in Season 1, the Envoys have taken on something of a mythic status in history.
The Murder Mystery
The central plot of Season 1 revolves around the murder of Laurens Bancroft, who discovered the scene after being re-downloaded from his satellite backup. Whoever killed Bancroft also destroyed his stack; if he wasn't backed up, that would have killed him permanently. Ortega was originally assigned to the case and ruled it a suicide, but Bancroft didn't believe he'd ever kill himself, so he worked out a deal to have Takeshi paroled to use him as a private investigator.
Tak went about investigating the murder and eventually discovered a detailed web of deception. At the center of it was Rei, his sister, who had become the head of a crime empire in the years since he had been imprisoned. Rei convinced disadvantaged, desperate women to be sex workers in her high-end brothel, Head in the Clouds, where she allowed rich Meths to do anything they wanted--even commit murder. Rei had all her workers secretly outfitted with religious coding, which added a religious objection to their stacks that legally prohibited them from being resleeved or spun back up after their deaths. That prevented authorities from questioning the workers about what happened to them, protecting Rei's illicit business.
Around the time of Season 1, a new law is potentially working its way through Altered Carbon's government: Proposition 653. That law would do away with the religious coding objection and allow murder victims to be spun back up by authorities for questioning. Rei knew that would be a major threat to her business and all the horrible things she'd done, so she needed a way to kill the bill.
Rei went to Miriam Bancroft, Laurens' wife, for help. Rei had previously helped Miriam when she nearly killed Lizzie, a sex worker Laurens had gotten pregnant, by using VR torture to drive Lizzine insane. Miriam drugged Laurens without his knowledge, and when he later went to Head in the Clouds, he accidentally killed one of the sex workers he was with. Rei then blackmailed Laurens into putting his political weight and money behind fighting Proposition 653. In his shame, Laurens killed himself minutes before his scheduled backup, knowing that when his consciousness was redownloaded from his satellite, he wouldn't remember anything about what he'd done.
With all that information, Tak eventually took on Rei, killing her and destroying her backups and bringing down her criminal empire with the help of Ortega, Lizzie, Vernon, and Vernon's wife, Ana.
Lizzie And Poe--And What Happened To The AI
Poe helped Tak in a number of ways as something of a sidekick in Season 1, but his biggest contribution was in helping Lizzie recover from her VR torture. He essentially gave her therapy in VR, helping the woman recover her mind. Poe also grew attached to Tak and helped him a few times by deploying his hotel defenses against the mercenaries Rei sent to kill him.
In the end of Season 1, Poe's program was seemingly destroyed by Rei's goons using, essentially, a computer virus--but not before Poe transmitted Lizzie's consciousness up to Head in the Clouds, where she could help Tak take Rei down once and for all.
Disclosure: ViacomCBS is GameSpot's parent company