This story contains spoilers for Season 1 of Altered Carbon.
Netflix’s audacious new cyberpunk sci-fi series, Altered Carbon, is a lot of fun. Set in a futuristic San Francisco (renamed “Bay City”) where buildings float in the sky and the human spine is a giant USB port, it’s full of edgy tech, schlocky violence, and coded terminology that all contribute to its pulpy, hard-boiled feel. The show delivers exposition in nuggets, like breadcrumb trails to the next revelation. It works, for the most part, but with a plot so rich in detail, world-building, and lore, the conclusion hits like a freight train.
In the universe of Altered Carbon, human consciousness can be downloaded into something called a “stack,” or a small disc that goes into the spinal chord. The development of stacks mean that humans can exist outside of their original bodies, now known as “sleeves.” Humans are still born organically, but are able to transfer their stacks into new sleeves, essentially achieving immortality. As long as the stack isn’t damaged, no one ever dies. But because Altered Carbon is a smart show — based on a smart novel by Richard K. Morgan — there are limitations to this tech based on social status and ethical autonomy. Wealthy folks, known as “Meths,” can afford to clone their original bodies so that their stacks are always in familiar casing. But lower-class citizens must make do with the stack they can afford, sometimes a different race, gender, or age. In one horrifying moment, a mother and father are reunited with their 7-year-old daughter, who is now in the body of an elderly woman — the only available sleeve that their insurance covers. Some groups, like Catholics, opt out of “re-sleeving” altogether, believing it immoral.
At its core, however, Altered Carbon is a mystery show. A wealthy and very old man, Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy), places the stack of a super-soldier named Takeshi Kovacs into a new sleeve (Joel Kinnaman). Bancroft needs Kovacs’ help solving a murder — his own murder, it turns out. Bancroft’s stack was destroyed, but because of his wealth and influence, he was able to transmit its code to a satellite. But now he can’t remember what happened to him, or who would want him dead. And there’s another caveat: the gun used to kill him could only be accessed by Bancroft or his wife Miriam (Kristin Lehman). That means his death was either a suicide (which Bancroft rules out), carried out by his wife, or something far more complicated and potentially devastating. Kovacs’ past training and biological advantages make him uniquely suited to solving Bancroft’s murder, and after some convincing, he agrees to help.
That’s the gist of the main plot, but things get pretty wild in the nine ensuing hours. In the end, the crime involved more than one perpetrator, and dozens of other twists and turns. Though it comes together in a mostly compact finale, the whole thing is little confusing. To help you out, here’s a breakdown of the Altered Carbon finale, and some guesses at where it could go in Season 2.
Bancroft killed himself… sort of
Bancroft was both right and wrong about this one. Though he did, technically, pull the trigger that ended his life, it was an act of desperation after he was corrupted by two women: his wife, Miriam, and Kovacs’ sister, Reileen (Dichen Lachman).
In his original body, Kovacs was an Envoy, or a form of government soldier outfitted with special abilities that made them useful to the governmental Protectorate. As the Protectorate grew egomaniacal with their stack technology, the Envoys turned on them, attempting to overthrow their leaders and corrupt stack coding so that it would short circuit after 100 years. The new code was created by Quellcrist Falconer (Renée Elise Goldsberry), Kovacs’ lover who also originated the stack technology before watching it grow into her own Frankenstein monster. In their attempt to flee the chaos of the battle between the Envoys and the Protectorate, Quell and Reileen were killed in an explosion.
Or so Kovacs thought. In reality, Reileen cut a deal with the Protectorate, selling out the Envoys so she could survive. They were destroyed, and Kovacs’ stack placed “on ice” as punishment. Reileen eventually worked her way to a place of status in Bay City, though she took several moral leaps backward to get there; she winds up running a brothel called Head in the Clouds, where Meths come to abuse sex workers whose stack codes were manipulated with the Catholic “DNR” programming; no chance of re-sleeving means there would be no witnesses to crimes committed against Catholics. Essentially, at Head in the Clouds, Meths could torture and kill women with zero consequence.
Reileen was always desperate to have her brother freed from his mind prison, so she concocted an elaborate plan to have Bancroft kill himself so that she could suggest he re-sleeve Kovacs to help solve his murder. The plan worked, but not without some manipulation. Bancroft was having an affair with a sex worker named Lizzie (Hayley Law), and Reileen used this to get Miriam on her side. Miriam learned that not only was Lizzie sleeping with her husband, but she was also pregnant with his child; out of rage, she killed Lizzie and the baby, and administered a drug into Bancroft’s system that made him delusional and aggressive. Under the influence, Bancroft killed another sex worker at Head in the Clouds, and then killed himself out of shame. This set in motion Reileen’s plan, and Kovacs was brought back.
But in the end, Reileen still lost
When Kovacs learns of his sister’s depravity, he finds a way to bring her down: by “sinking” Head in the Clouds with both of them inside. It looks like self-sacrifice, but Kovacs had earlier cloned his sleeve and duel-cast his stack so that his consciousness was in both bodies. Before the body with Reileen is destroyed, she tells him that she made a copy of Quell’s stack and hid it at an undisclosed location. He remembers this information, and at the end of the season vows to find Quell and bring her back. (Reileen’s stack is presumably destroyed when Head in the Clouds collapses. Miriam is arrested for the murder of Lizzie and corruption of her husband.)
Kovacs also vows to give up his current sleeve, which he learns belongs to a man named Ryker, the former partner and lover of Agent Ortega (Martha Higareda), who worked with Kovacs throughout the season. Ryker was another victim of Reileen’s tampering, falsely accused for a murder he didn’t commit, and Kovacs was able to clear his name so that, presumably, his stack will return to his original sleeve and be reunited with Ortega. This sets up a way for Joel Kinnaman to return for a potential season 2, while also leaving room for a new lead actor to portray Kovacs on his search for Quell.
Season 2 could also get deep into the mythology
All of the above means there are lots of ways Season 2 could go, even though the central mystery of the first season has been resolved. In the Altered Carbon universe, humans live in colonies on planets other than Earth. There’s also a rich history to these colonizations, explored in Morgan’s two sequel novels. Should another season get greenlit, there’s a good bet we’ll learn more about these other planets, perhaps even follow Kovacs to them on his mission to find his lost love, who is also the key to dismantling stack technology.
Wherever Altered Carbon goes, we’re happy to follow it into strange new terrains.Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email and subscribe here for our YouTube channel to get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.
Lindsey Romain is a writer and editor living in Chicago. She covers politics for Teen Vogue and has also appeared in Vulture, Birth.Movies.Death, and more. Follow her on Twitter @lindseyromain.