'Altered Carbon': Understanding the World of Netflix's Ambitious Sci-Fi Drama

Sleeves, stacks and Kovacs — here's everything to know about the Joel Kinnaman-starring series, bowing on Netflix this weekend.
Courtesy of Netflix

Still feeling an appetite for cyberpunk neo-noir after watching last year's Blade Runner: 2049, and the season two premiere of HBO's Westworld still feels too enigmatically far off in the distance? Good news: both of those cravings can be satisfied with this weekend's release of Altered Carbon, a brand new ten-episode series debuting in its entirety on Netflix.

From executive producer and showrunner Laeta Kalogridis, and based on an original 2002 novel written by author Richard K. Morgan, Altered Carbon takes place in a far future world where mankind has captured immortality like lightning in a bottle — or high-tech devices in the back of the neck, more like it. Through this surreal lens, the Netflix series explores subjects relevant to our own sociopolitical context: class struggles, racial and religious divides, extraordinary abuses of power and power dynamics between men and women evocative of the #MeToo and Time's Up movements washing over our current culture.

It also contains lethal swinger parties, alien technology, humanoid forms of artificial intelligence, naked sword fights, murderous zealots, time- and star-crossed romance and gratuitous gore galore. In other words, Altered Carbon is one-of-a-kind, despite some visual and thematic similarities with the aforementioned Blade Runner and Westworld. 

As you prepare to binge the series, consider the following your guide which points toward the most important characters and terms found in the first season of Altered Carbon: 

• Sleeve: The term that has all but fully replaced the word "body" in the future. In the world of Altered Carbon, death is no longer an issue. Well, it's at least less of an issue, assuming you have the means to harness eternal life. Humans have mastered the ability to live indefinitely, with bodies being nothing more than temporary vessels — hence why they're referred to as "sleeves." It's not uncommon for individuals to live long lives in several different physical forms and several different races and genders.

• Stack: A thin disc that's inserted into the back of every human being's neck at birth. This metallic device, roughly the size of an Oreo cookie, is the technological advancement that allows for immortality. Stacks contain the human soul, and can be inserted into different sleeves to allow for new life after a previous sleeve's death. However, destruction of a stack results in real death. It feels safe to say that a few of the faces you'll meet in Altered Carbon will suffer "real death" before the end of the season.

• The UN: Also known as "The Protectorate," the UN still exists in the world of Altered Carbon, and operates as the governing force across several different worlds. And yes, that means different planets. While most of the action in Altered Carbon takes place on Earth, there are other worlds (more on a specific world momentarily), with the stack technology owing roots to alien lifeforms. In order to maintain supremacy across these worlds, the UN employ…

• Envoys: Picture the United States Colonial Marine Corps from the Aliens franchise and combine them with Iron Man, and you're close to picturing the Envoys. Basically, this is the elite force of the Protectorate in the Altered Carbon universe. Soldiers in this army are mostly detached from basic reality, their lives fully dedicated to the military mission at hand. Envoys are trained and outfitted with abilities that make them ruthlessly efficient killing machines, not to mention human lie detectors in some cases. Case in point:

• Takeshi Kovacs: The main character of Altered Carbon, played primarily by Joel Kinnaman, but also played by Will Yun Lee, who serves as Kovacs' original body. (Actor Byron Mann also plays an early version of Kovacs, and boasts another shocking role later in the season as well.) Takeshi Kovacs, hailing from Harlan's World, is of Japanese and Eastern European descent, and grew up in a fraught home situation, serving as his little sister Rei's primary protector. Circumstances drove the siblings apart and pushed Kovacs into the arms of the Protectorate, where he became an Envoy. Eventually he defected from his post and linked up with…

• Quellcrist Falconer: A legendary figure within the world of Altered Carbon, played by Renée Elise Goldsberry. She's a revolutionary, someone who stands against the idea of humanity hanging onto eternal life, leading a group of like-minded warriors in this pursuit. Kovacs becomes intimately involved in this effort, and ultimately becomes the sole survivor of the campaign — though it's not long before his own stack is removed from his sleeve, taking him out of commission for hundreds of years.

 Bay City: The main setting of Altered Carbon. Centuries ago, it was known as San Francisco. These days, few similarities exist between the Bay City of the future and the city by the bay of our present day. There's a vast cultural divide within Bay City. The underprivileged live on the ground, a gritty world with slums, gangs and assorted forms of misandry. High in the sky, there's another culture, a literal high society populated by the wealthiest of the wealthy — people who are best known as…

• Meths: Not of the crystal blue persuasion, though there's a fair share of illicit activity thriving in the world above the ground. The term "Meth" applies to a class of people who are wealthy beyond your wildest imagination, the top one percent of the top one percent. Many of these people are so well off that they don't even rely on one single stack, but remote networks that host regularly uploaded versions of their consciousness. One of these people includes…

• Laurens Bancroft: The foil of Altered Carbon, played by James Purefoy. He is one of the oldest Meths in existence, having lived for hundreds of years, a man of many industries. With that longevity comes a significant amount of arrogance, not to mention high amounts of visibility — so much visibility, in fact, that someone appears to have murdered him. In the first episode of the series, Bancroft reinstates Kovacs (in a new body, hence the involvement of Kinnaman) after centuries of being in a sleeveless sleep, for one purpose and one purpose only: solving the mystery of Bancroft's death — which, thankfully for Bancroft, was not his real death. From there? Several real deaths ensue, as Kovacs finds himself pounding the pavement of a twisting and turning investigation with extremely personal and even potentially universal stakes.

With all of that out of the way, you have the core basics of Altered Carbon. The rest of the world will unfold as viewers sail across season one's ten episodes, now available on Netflix. Let us know what you think of the series in the comments section below.