“Altered Carbon” has its fair share of issues, but the ending isn’t one of them. Strictly from a narrative standpoint, that’s not always easy to do. Sure, a great ending can stand out from a snoozy middle, but often a poor start leads to a similarly lackluster finale.
Yet Netflix’s big-budget sci-fi series stands out for all the right reasons. The “love conquers all” kicker has real emotion behind it. There are answers aplenty, which is a kindness not often shown by other mystery shows. But most of all, “Altered Carbon’s” ending is a bona fide delight because it does what so many modern shows refuse to do: It ends. Definitively.
In an era when movies, TV series, and even commercials (coughPepsicough) are intent on surviving as long as they can, this Netflix original — of all the networks and streaming services, too, a Netflix show — provides closure. While no one is suggesting “Altered Carbon” Season 2 is an impossibility, if it never happened, fans would still have all the closure they need.
Before we get into how series creator Laeta Kalogridis accomplished this and what it means for the future, let’s get a few of the nitty-gritty details out of the way. “Altered Carbon” is awash with new terms and diegetic slang. Hard sci-fi fans may pick them up quickly, but the rest of us likely need a refresher:
- cortical stack: a disc in a human’s neck that can store DHF (Digital Human Freight); a.k.a. the data comprising the human’s mind
- sleeve: a human body
- CTAC: stands for Colonial Tactical Assault Corps, a universal police force who transmit their stacks to various sleeves throughout the universe
- Meth: a derogatory term for a member of the supremely wealthy upper-class society
- Grounder: a derogatory term used for a poor person living on the ground, rather than up in the clouds (like Meths)
- Envoy: a resistance fighter who opposes the totalitarian rule of Meths, as well as the idea of immortality itself; Kovacs was an Envoy before he died and retains his training when he’s brought back)
- AI Hotel: outdated hotels owned and operated entirely by artificial intelligence; Poe, an A.I. being, operates a hotel called “The Raven” in “Altered Carbon” — and bares a not-so-coincidental resemblance to Edgar Allen Poe.
- 653: a bill put before the Protectorate that would allow victims to testify against their killers even if they have religious coding in their stacks
All of these terms, in one way or another play into the final episode of “Altered Carbon” Season 1, so hopefully that refresher is enough to get you through the following summary of Episode 10: Kovacs’ (Joel Kinnaman) personal story — where his sister, Rey (Dichen Lachman), finds him and tries to recruit him — ties loosely into the more predominant arc of the murder mystery. The two siblings trained as Envoys in their past lives, though Rey wasn’t as allegiant as her brother. She sabotaged the rebellion’s efforts and escaped, preserving Quellcrist’s (Renee Elise Goldsberry) stack against her wishes and putting her in a cloned sleeve to tempt her brother to her side.
It doesn’t work, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Rey has been serving Meths via her torturous sex brothels, where the rich can pay for the right to permanently kill (and have sex with) unknowing victims, and she blackmailed one of the wealthiest ones — Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy) — to block 653. Rey drugged Bancroft and, as a result, he went too far with one of the victims. She threatened to expose him if he didn’t vote down 653, and his influence with the U.N. kept it from passing.
A ha, but here’s the twist: Rey needed someone to get the drugs in Laurens’ system, and that meant his wife, Miriam (Kristin Lehman), was a willing accomplice to the whole thing. Of course, Laurens had no idea he’d been drugged, and he killed himself out of shame — the very thing he claimed couldn’t have happened when he hired Kovacs to investigate his “death” in the first place.
All of this comes out in a lengthy, Hercule Poirot-esque diatribe, and it made for one elaborate — or at least confusing — murder mystery. Rey dies. The Bancrofts go to future jail. Kovacs takes his bounty and goes looking for his lost love. (Quell died, too, including her clone, but apparently, her being might still be out there? This is the one plot point left open, and the one aspect we do not understand.)
But it’s not the intricacy of events or how well the pieces come together that make “Altered Carbon’s” ending so solid. It’s that viewers aren’t baited for Season 2. It’s that there’s no last-second tease; no unsolved mystery; no thread purposefully left dangling so audiences would pull it until the next season unraveled.
Season 1 can stand on its own, and anyone who loves it can leave it at that or choose to watch the next installment (if “Altered Carbon” is renewed). And if there is a Season 2, it could look entirely different than Season 1. Richard K. Morgan is the author of the books on which “Altered Carbon” is based, and he wrote two sequels: “Broken Angels” and “Woken Furies,” both of which involve Kovacs. The series could follow that track and bring him back… or Kalogridis could bring in a new hero. Or she could keep Kovacs, but put him in a new sleeve and let Joel Kinnaman move on to other projects (as he’s said he’d like to do).
The point is, “Altered Carbon” didn’t abandon the unofficial Netflix ethos of “more is always better,” and yet it still satisfied the growing demand for closure in TV. It’s more like a hybrid of serialized stories and anthologies — or just, you know, a TV show that understands how to close an arc. It takes courage to wrap things up in a medium that always wants to leave a door open, and for that, “Altered Carbon” deserves respect.
One of the final takeaways from Season 1 is that just because a human can live forever doesn’t mean they should. The same can be said for TV shows, and it’s encouraging to see Kalogridis take her own message to heart.
“Altered Carbon” is streaming now on Netflix.