I have no specific set of standards when it comes to sci-fi, if it plays in front of me, I will watch it. What I enjoyed about Netflix’s latest blockbuster series Altered Carbon is how, unlike most science fiction shows, and ironically, since it talks about the soullessness of humans of the future, it delivered big on feeling. Let’s credit that to well-written characters — my favorite, a charming AI hotel named Poe.
Set in a very distant future where technology has allowed humans to, simplistically, “live forever” for a price, and not just that, but also use each others’ bodies in unspeakable ways. Sex trafficking is the least of their worries. In the AltCarb universe, human bodies are inhabitable “sleeves” that can be bought, preserved, cloned, taken away. It obviously revolves around a human race corrupted by ego, greed, lust and power. I’ve been hearing the term “playing God” since I was an elementary school student learning about Dolly the sheep. It’s not a new concept and we know what it comes with: violence, injustice, questions of morality and a lot of nudity. It is a show about humans, after all, as the title so nerdily suggests.
On its first week of release, immediately the focus was on whitewashing. Joel Kinnaman (Swedish, very white), is the new sleeve of the surviving stack of Takeshi Kovacs, a Japanese Envoy (supersoldier rebelling against the system), who was sleeve death’d. It’s the same in Richard K. Morgan’s book, upon which the show has been based on. I read an article that says that’s not a good enough reason, that there’s a bigger problem and Netflix had the power to “fix” it by correcting said problem in its adaptation. Um, if Netflix had done that, they would be unfaithful to the source material and a different lynch mob with whole different buzzword would have come after them. Will Yun Lee, the actor who plays the other Kovacs sleeve, appears in flashbacks, which make up a good part of the show. His role is just as crucial as the other Kovacs.
“Whitewashing” is an actual internet buzzword that gets hits — are these critics so deeply concerned about Takeshi Kovacs being portrayed by a white man? Or did they just want their numbers to shoot through the roof by way of contagious indignation without having to boost their post on Facebook? Just a thought.
And then, perhaps after watching the first two episodes of the show, these critics decided that it was too violent, especially towards women. Truthfully, there’s a lot of nudity on the show and none of it is what I would consider sexual or particularly arousing, just a bunch of flaccid penises and gyrating females. The sex scenes are not brief, but they often come with dialogue or montaged with another scene that’s key to the story. Yes, there are a lot of female deaths — one in particular was crucial. Lizzie, played by Riverdale Pussycat Hayley Law, has died and nobody knows what happened. It’s one of the mysteries Kovacs has to solve along with his pack. Even her stripper friend over at Jack-It is violently killed over the secret. What these critics maybe didn’t stick around for is her “salvation and redemption.” She has one of the most satisfying revenge arcs I’ve seen of late, and the most badass scenes in the show.
And let’s not forget about Lt. Kristin Ortega (played by Martha Higareda), the stubborn and incredibly capable detective who also had a pretty satisfying revenge scene. “Are you a believer, motherfucker?” has got to be one of my favorite lines ever to come from a Netflix show, and it’s loaded with so much more rage coming from a woman, don’t you think?
If you’re still worried about the portrayal of females in AltCarb — as weak victims unable to protect themselves from a male dominated narrative — may I remind you of the two evil females who are practically to blame for most of the deaths and abuse in the show: Miriam Bancroft and Takeshi’s sister, Reileen. The AltCarb world, inspite of Laurens Bancroft and his God complex, might only be superficially patriarchal. Women are pushing the story forward, starting with Quellcrist (Renée Elise Goldsberry), who actually started the whole rebellion that the characters to where they are hundreds of years later. Goldsberry had this to say about the violence in the show: “In order to really examine ourselves we can’t shy away from the best and the worst of us.”
Is it really that easy to forget that aspect of fiction? Was your stack on backup mode when they taught this in high school? Beyond entertainment, it’s a statement on the human condition, our human feelings and human ways. If we insist on sanitizing fiction, science fiction in particular, how are we ever going to have an honest dialogue on real issues? The issue here is not that Kovacs’ sleeve is white, or that AltCarb women are prostitutes. The issue is outside of this fictional universe and in the real world. It’s not TV’s job to make us comfortable and ease our worries and help us pretend that all is right in the world. To quote Lisa Simpson, the world is a cesspool of corruption. To blame that on TV, or even fearing that a TV show might encourage it, is to underestimate the viewer, who’s probably binge-watched enough shows to know that sometimes the moral of the story is not in the dialogue, or the color of the character’s skin, or the abundance or lack of strong female leads.
In the next season of Altered Carbon, Kovacs will be using a new sleeve, the actor still unknown. Let’s hope Netflix does’t cave in to the pressure and does what feels right, creatively. Everything is political, that much is true, but we don’t need television spelling it out for us every single time. That’s what thinking is for. If you want a feel-good show with no real violence and has a story that puts both white people and colored people on equal footing, watch Step Sisters.