Altered Carbon: Broken Angels and Philosophy

Photo by Diyah Pera/Netflix

eason 2 of Netflix’s sci-fi noir Altered Carbon released last week to great anticipation. While there was no shortage of questions and themes across season 1, the new season clearly wants to raise the stakes and present itself as deep, philosophical material.

So how does it measure up?

Season 1 gave us a much harder look at moral philosophy and justice in this new frontier of human civilization. The season-long focus on securing justice for the murdered and the mistreated has been left behind on Earth. Several of the lessons learned or lines drawn in the sand are erased without a thought, or are presented in the same hollow manner that the season 1 cast is puppeteered around to torment Kovacs during The Circle.

While disappointing and a bit of a step backwards, this shift can be (somewhat) explained away by Kovacs’s new, more personal quest and by the 30 years elapsed since the end of the first season. In that time, it seems that Kovacs has been run ragged by the futility of his quest to find his lost love and by the frustrating degradation of his companion AI, Poe. And it is in this transition that the seasons’s true philosophical focus emerges: identity.

In a meta-narrative opening, the season even presents itself as a formulaic copy of the previous season — Kovacs, out of options, is pressed into service by a powerful meth and given vast resources to that end. But that illusion is shattered when Kovacs awakes to the carnage of his benefactor murdered by the very woman he’s been unable to find. The concept of “illusion” is also foreshadowed in the ballad that lounge-singer Kovacs croons in the opening scene — “I think I fell in love with an illusion of you.” As for depth, this dichotomy between reality and illusion never really transcends beyond the typical for a noir genre. The aspect of identity that the show develops most deeply, and most interestingly, is that of change.

“We can’t quantify the change, but we are not the same. I’m not the person I once was. Neither are you.” — Hideki to Kovacs

The most obvious change we are made aware of is Kovacs himself. With the return of Ryker’s (Joel Kinnaman) body at the end of the previous story arc, Kovacs is forced to inhabit a new military-grade sleeve (Anthony Mackie) for his mission. We are immediately forced to accept that this man is Kovacs, despite any instincts an audience we may have. The friction we feel when an actor is replaced reconciled with our meta-narrative understanding that we know this to be the way the world of the story functions; the audience becomes complicit in the plot, strengthening our acceptance of the new body as Kovacs. This acceptance is essential for the challenges we will be presented with later.

Kovacs’s changes conjure elements of Heraclitis, whose philosophy centered heavily on the concept of change. Perhaps most famously, Heraclitis’s philosophical fragments of the river illustrate the nature of change — “One cannot step twice into the same river” (Fragment 12) and “We step and do not step into the same rivers; we are and are not” (Fragment 49a). Even returning to his home, Kovacs does not have the same life he once had. Even rediscovering the woman he loved, Kovacs does not have the same relationship he once had. Even reuniting with the same enemy who dogged him in his old life, Kovacs does not fight the same war he once did. A cognitive dissonance begins to build for us as we are forced to accept this new Kovacs and as we are forced to reject the old Kovacs in this seeming contradiction.

If Kovacs becomes more real through his initial changes, Poe provides narrative balance by becoming less real. We face a character we were led to believe was dead, only to have the emotional weight of his perceived death undone and the charm of his character — and its defining trait of loyalty — significantly sterilized by his new condition. This is mirrored by the dilapidation depicted in the state of the hotel itself as well as its own shift in identity from The Raven to The Nevermore. Poe’s dilemma is one between duty and self, between uncertainty and certainty. He can choose to remain a damaged, unreliable ally or take a leap of faith to be reborn, risking the memories of those he cares about. Is he more himself to cling to the fragments of his former self or to lose them in service to friends he may never remember?

Poe’s dilemma elicits — among other concepts — those faced by G.E. Moore between his Principia Ethica (1903) and his later Ethics (1912). Is the right thing to do the act that produces the most good for the most people, even if it goes against my own interests? Or can the act that produces the most good still be wrong? Poe is defined by his loyalty, and his loyalty to his friends has suddenly forced him into direct conflict with his loyalty to self. In this conflict, he is also forced to make a choice. The majority of season 1 saw Poe in service to Kovacs and the Elliots through contract. And while we might say he was a loyal friend, we could just as well say that he was a loyal servant since the risk to his safety was low (especially now that we know he didn’t die and that he can simply be rebooted) and he’s designed to please. After his near-death experience, Poe is confronted with having to make a choice that bears tangible consequences, and much like the parable of Sartre’s student torn between duties, Poe is reluctant to choose for himself. But after enough dragging of his feet and witnessing the consequences of his indecision, Poe ultimately takes action. There’s an Existentialist tinge to his emergence as an empowered person though this taking of action, that once he makes the choice, his integrity and agency are restored (or perhaps gained).

While Kovacs and Poe represent different philosophical concepts of identity and the self, we are offered a more direct opposition of ideas through the two newest additions: Quell and the back-up copy of Kovacs (who let’s distinguish by his codename, Evergreen).

The Dichotomy: Determinism vs. Free Will

Quell has been the object of Kovacs’s attention since he first thawed out in season 1, but until now we’ve only been exposed to memories or facsimiles of the woman herself. In season 2, we finally get to see Quell in the flesh (along with her parasitic alter ego) and, just like when we get to meet our heroes in real life, she feels like a bit of a disappointment. The idealism and spirit of the figure from Kovacs’s memories are nowhere to be seen. She is broken from her centuries of torture and isolation, exacerbated by the alien consciousness that unpredictably takes over her body and kills without her consent. In this way, Quell has very much become a tool of another being’s will, and her mindset shifts to reflect this situation toward a more pessimistic, fatalistic one. But this isn’t an analysis of her psychology, rather the philosophy represented by her beliefs in regards to identity, namely determinism.

Ignoring for the time being the fact that Quell is being controlled, this philosophy expresses itself most obviously in her treatment of Evergreen. When Kovacs questions Evergreen’s trustworthiness after the events of Stronghold, Quell responds flatly, “He’s still you.” Earlier, she shuts down Kovacs’s doubts by questioning if she should have rejected his allegiance for the same reason he suggests rejecting Evergreen. Quell seems to be operating under one of the two related views:

  1. ) Evergreen cannot help but become Kovacs
  2. ) Evergreen is Kovacs

It seems to be that, as long as she demonstrates the same behavior to Evergreen she did for Kovacs, Evergreen will arrive at the same decision Kovacs did. This seems to fly directly in the face of her behavior in the past, where she did not treat the Envoys as interchangeable, but instead recognized the unique talents and psychologies of each as she prepared lessons, sermons, and missions — unless she is still doing this, but applies the exact same stimuli for Evergreen, not valuing the impact that context or environment have in the process. Kovacs had, among other things, a rivalry with DeSoto and a push-pull relationship with Rei that directed his development with Quell and the Envoys, and Quell knows this. So for her to not tailor her treatment of Evergreen to the situation means that she expects him to turn out the same, that there isn’t a reasonable chance he could do otherwise. The person he already is up to this point has set him on the path to become the man Kovacs is now (or at least close enough).

Interestingly, this stands in direct opposition to Evergreen’s views of free will. Evergreen initially rejects the possibility of being Kovacs, demonstrating absolute disbelief in how such a transformation could have happened to his original self. Further, Evergreen rejects the value that Kovacs’s experiences have given him as being a guaranteed advantage, at one point scoffing, “You think because you’ve lived longer that makes you wise?”

Though initially loyal to Jaeger, Evergreen believes that his path is always up to him to decide. He never despairs or questions how he can stop a man who has lived his life and more, instead pushing forward to find a way to put an end to the menace of his other self and secure his individuality. When he engages a more experienced Kovacs in combat, he even quips, “I’m not failing; I’m learning,” before besting his more experienced counterpart. Evergreen believes that he is free to choose his own path, regardless of what experiences or circumstances he’s been through.

Unlike the show’s more superficial depiction of double-sleeving at the end of the first season, Broken Angels delivers a more nuanced take on the philosophical ramifications to identity that result from such a situation. In the end, Quell, Evergreen, and Kovacs are left to move forward with their lives and see how things work out.

If you want to check out an intro-level discussion on the topics, check out Free Will and Determinism by Clifford Williams and feel free (or determined) to share your own reactions.

My name anagrams to “a man becomes.” I love movies and Kurt Vonnegut. I don’t understand how anagrams work.

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