10 questions I have after watching Altered Carbon

You saw the trailers, you read the reviews, you watched the series… and now you have lots of questions about Altered Carbon. Who wouldn’t? It’s a complex and intriguing world Netflix has created (inspired by the original novels by Richard Morgan) and, at times, is confusing as hell and doesn’t give you much time to get used to the universe. Not to mention the open-ended conclusion, which clearly leaves room for a second season. Now you’ve devoured all ten episodes, let’s talk about the questions we’re left with after that ending. Below you’ll find ten questions we have after watching Altered Carbon, ranging from big queries about the world-building (what about overpopulation?), to specific plot doubts (how did Bancroft get a hold of Falconer’s book?), and possibilities for the future (will we ever see the same characters in new Sleeves?). It goes without saying that there are full spoilers below, so don’t read on until you’ve finished the series. 

1. Where do Sleeves come from exactly? 

Considering that the ability to change Sleeves is at the centre of the story, Altered Carbon never really goes into enough detail about where the Sleeves come from. We know that some of them come from the prison system. When someone is sent to jail, their Stack is taken out and stored, and unless a friend or relative pays a monthly Sleeve mortgage, their Sleeve is up for grabs by either another prisoner who is being released, a murder victim (like the little girl who was resleeved in the first episode), or - if it’s a high quality Sleeve - to be sold by the government to the highest bidder. 

If you’re uber rich like Bancroft, the other alternative is to just clone your birth Sleeve (or any other Sleeve you like) again and again and keep using that. But very few people are that wealthy and the prison system can only be churning out so many available Sleeves, so where is everyone else getting their’s from? The most obvious answer is that there’s a business creating artificial Sleeves, which people can buy if they don’t want a prisoner, but aren’t rich enough to pay for a clone. This seems to be the type of Sleeve Lizzie casts into when she infiltrates Head in the Clouds. Kovacs calls it a Synth and although it looks human, it was never a person and its appearance can be artificially changed. There’s also the possibility that there just isn’t enough Sleeves for everyone and anyone who can’t afford a clone or to buy a high quality Sleeve from the government is put on a waiting list until one becomes available. 

2. Can you be cast into a Sleeve which is already occupied? 

If you’re a Dollhouse fan, you’ve probably realised how similar Altered Carbon is to the Joss Whedon series. Both deal with consciousness being transferred to and from different bodies. One thing Dollhouse deals with, which is never raised in Altered Carbon, is whether or not you can transfer a consciousness into a Sleeve which is already occupied. In Dollhouse, this eventually becomes possible and leads to the complete destruction of the world as we know it as the most powerful members of society start stealing bodies and living forever. If there is a shortage of available Sleeves in Altered Carbon, as we’ve just discussed above, it makes sense that people would be stealing each other Sleeves if they had the ability to do so. Therefore, I think it’s unlikely that this is the case. If a Sleeve has an active Stack in it, then no one can cast into that body. Not yet anyway… maybe this is something which the series can deal with next season?

3. How does society deal with overpopulation?

So no one has to die too soon (if they don’t want to) and everyone lives forever (if they’re rich enough). Great! But what about overpopulation? The Earth is already on the brink of not being able to support the number of people living on it, and I can only imagine that this problem will get worse with time, especially if people stop dying. Not to mention, the longer people live, the more children they’ll have which will also need supporting (the Bancrofts had 21!). And yet, at no point in Altered Carbon is the issue of overpopulation addressed. 

It’s clear that there’s a severe financial gap suggesting that resources are limited, but this is no different from most dystopian futures, from Blade Runner to The Hunger Games. And yes, Laurens Bancroft and other rich members of society build their homes in the sky away from the ‘commoners’ on the ground but, again, only a few people are rich enough for this. If Altered Carbon is dealing with the issue of immortality, it feels like it should also be dealing with the issue of overpopulation. Where is everyone living? Are there restrictions on reproducing? Are there enough jobs for everyone? What is everyone eating?

There are a lot of possibilities the show could have introduced to explain how society deals with no-one dying anymore. Humanity has colonised other planets so perhaps everyone is just spread out amongst the universe. Maybe a one-child per lifetime policy was introduced to control the population. Or maybe the fact that not everyone can afford to be spun back up, someone people with religious coding don’t want to be, and a lack of available Sleeves (see above), means that overpopulation isn’t as bad as we think. There’s also simple the chance that it is that bad, but the show failed to accuracy portray that anyone who isn’t filthy rich is living in slums, unemployed, and struggling to survive. 

4. How does Laurens Bancroft get a hold of Quellcrist Falconer’s book?

Bancroft uses the book, which belong to Kovacs’s lost love and former rebel leader Quellcrist Falconer, to persuade him to take his case, but how did he get hold of such an old and valuable piece of history? Well, Bancroft is mega rich and influential and his wife Miriam made it clear that they’re collectors who’ll spend any amount of money (or lifetimes) to acquire valuable artifacts so... question answered, right? Well, not really because in episode 7, which is a flashback episode showing Kovacs and Falconer together, the book is clearly visible in Falconer’s possession, but she gets blown up at the end, presumably along with the book. It should have been destroyed. The only other possibility is that she accidentally left it down by the river (the last place we saw it) when she found out about the attack and ran to see what was happening. Given how precious the book is to her, that seems unlikely, but it’s the only way it could have survived to eventually come into Bancroft’s possession 250 years later. 

5. How does Kovacs still have his songspire necklace? 

Speaking of valuable personal possessions which seem to survive centuries, how does Kovacs still have his songspire necklace after 250 years and his own death?! He had it in the opening episode when he’s cornered and eventually killed by Jaeger, which makes sense because it’s not too long after the events of episode 7 (even though he’s wearing a new Sleeve), but how does he still have it over 250 years later when he’s spun back up in a different Sleeve by Bancroft? In episode 2 he’s holding it when he looks at all the destroyed Stacks of his fallen comrades, which means it would have to have been processed by the correctional system and kept safe until Kovacs was released and then given back to him… which seems unlikely given how precious songspire trees have become. Like the little girl says, he’s not suppose to have it.

6. How can someone break out of or change a VR simulation?

VR simulations are used a lot in the Altered Carbon world, usually to torture or interrogate someone without permanently damaging their Sleeve or killing them so you can bring them back and do it again and again. Usually, because the VR simulation is set up by the interrogator/torturer, they control the construct and it’s impossible for the victim to break out of, but Kovacs finds a way. How? How do you change or break out of a VR simulation you didn’t make? It’s Falconer who teaches him how to do this during his Envoy training, but the details are unclear. Given what we learn during his flashbacks, it has something to do with accepting what will happen to you in the simulation and waiting until you’re able to take control of the construct, but it’s all kept very vague. Falconer tells Kovacs that he can break out of a VR simulation by focusing on what’s most important to him in the world, so it appears to simple be a case of being mentally stronger than the person who created the construct. It would be good to get some clarity on that though. You know, just in case...

7. Why did Kawahara wait so long to break Kovacs out of jail?

Eventually we discover that Kovacs’s sister Kawahara is the one who orchestrated Bancroft's death and everything else, so she could manipulate events to get Kovacs out of prison. It’s an incredibly long-winded plan, which is only semi-believable and relies a lot on luck and various assumptions. Plus, why did she wait 250 years to do it? She’s clearly become a very wealthy and powerful person in that time, but the show wants you to believe that she still needs Bancroft’s influence to get Kovacs out of jail. Given the resources at her disposal and how easily she manipulates Bancroft it seems unlikely that he can do anything she can’t… but I guess there’s always the possibility that she lives like a ghost given her criminal past and, despite all her power, she has no real standing in society and therefore no way to get Kovacs out without help. Again though, could she really not have done it 100 years earlier? Both she and Bancroft were alive then… Kovacs was still in prison… was she merely patiently waiting for some leverage over the Bancroft family which didn’t come until Miriam needed a fixer to make Lizzie go away? I guess so. 

8. Does Bancroft have a plan to get out of jail? 

It seems unlikely that someone as powerful as Bancroft wouldn’t have a contingency plan for getting out of prison. They guy has a mega expensive and complicated plan and backup system for avoiding real death… he definitely has one for prison! My guess is that we’ll find out in season 2 (if there is a season 2) that Bancroft has double Sleeved himself (like Dimi the twin) and while his Stack remains in prison, another version of him will be wandering around free as a bird, with a new identity.

9. Will we ever see the same characters in new Sleeves? 

And talking of season 2, is there a chance we might see some new faces… attached to old characters? In a world where you can body swap as easily as changing your clothes, it seems unlikely that everyone will look exactly the same should we get a new season. We already know that Kovacs has given back Ryker’s Sleeve and is walking around with a new face, so when a second season comes, we could find Joel Kinnaman playing Ortega’s boyfriend Ryker and a completely new actor playing main character Kovacs. Plus, we’ve gotten used to seeing Quellcrist Falconer looking like actress Renée Elise Goldsberry, but she only appears in the show as either a figment of Kovacs’s imagination or in his memories, so if he finds her Stack in S2, it’s unlikely she’ll be put into a Sleeve that looks the same. And if Bancroft does break out of prison he’ll probably be wearing a new Sleeve as a disguise which means no more James Purefoy! It’s sounds pretty confusing but, on the other hand, it could be a way to keep the show going for many, many seasons. Kovacs could change actors as regularly as James Bond and Doctor Who without explanation. 

10. Why haven’t all the rich people got super strong, slick, and beautiful Sleeves with angel wings and unicorn horns and glitter teardrops?

I don’t know about you, but if I lived in a world where I could change bodies, and I was rich enough to afford the best, I wouldn't settle for just some beautiful, young Sleeve. Oh no… I’d want a gold-plated, giant, Amazonian-like goddess, with wings and possibly laser eyes if that’s a thing, and… ok, I got a bit carried away, but you see what I mean. Why do the uber rich of Altered Carbon not have more spectacular and unusual bodies? Ok, they’re all young and beautiful, but it feels like at least some of them should have more impressive body modifications. We know the technology exists because Kovacs sees an ad for a fighting match between two animal-like Sleeves, the Synth Lizzie casts into can change its appearance on a whim, and Miriam Bancroft’s Sleeves are designed to secrete a biological pheromone when she’s turned on, which is not a normal human thing… not like that anyway! So perhaps it’s just illegal to have Sleeves made which are too inhuman to stop people walking around as giants or angels, but it seems a bit unlikely that the rich and powerful would abide by that and anyway, wouldn’t it be cool to have laser eyes?!