This Altered Carbon review contains spoilers.
Altered Carbon Episode 4
In a rare stumble, Altered Carbon’s fourth episode contains both a retrospective torture bonanza and a family study of the emotional benefits and dangers of re-sleeving a departed loved one. Not only do the two stories feel inappropriately juxtaposed; they also each drag their message out over the full hour when half of that would have sufficed. The holiday setting was definitely fun, and trying to figure out how Kovacs would overcome his interrogator produced some enjoyable anticipation, but it felt as though this part of the ten-hour movie were being unnaturally forced into an episodic formula.
On the other hand, there was the office drama aspect of Kovacs’ VR experience, which had that same subtle, dark humor we’ve come to enjoy in earlier episodes of Altered Carbon. The cartoonish app-style buttons the lab techs used for the various instruments of torture were particularly humorous, and the fact that one of the flunkies began to worry about missing his important date the longer Kovacs held out contained its own smirking disdain for human life, a quality that is no doubt common in the age of digital consciousness and disposable bodies.
The actual interrogation itself is immaterial, it’s true, and perhaps that’s why it feels unnecessarily long. It’s fun to see both Tahmoh Penikett and Michael Eklund portray the same character in different sleeves, but Dimitri’s desire to learn who hired Riker, an identity Kovacs knows nothing about, to kill his brother doesn’t really matter. Even if Kovacs knew the answer to the question, he wouldn’t answer. The real story lies in how he learned how to beat VR imprisonment and the psychological impact of repeated virtual deaths.
The problem is that even the flashback explanation is too long. Not that it wasn’t nice to see a more extended training session with Quellcrist Falconer and the Envoys, but the platitudes she preaches such as “Your enemy is despair” and “Get to the next screen” aren’t really all that informative. Basically, it’s the old “love conquers all” that ends up saving Kovacs as he literally rips his heart out and offers it to Quell, even though controlling the construct through sheer willpower — supposedly a special Envoy skill — makes absolutely no sense, even in the crazy context of the show.
Maybe love is the uniting theme between the two stories. We already surmised that Kovacs loved Quell, but we got to see how he became convinced she loved him as well, even as she fought it. Likewise, there is implied love between Ortega and Riker, the co-worker whose sleeve Kovacs is apparently wearing. That reveal was certainly a high point of the episode and explains a lot about how the lieutenant got involved in the first place. Regardless, however, she still has plenty of question marks surrounding her that will no doubt be resolved in future episodes.
Speaking of which, did she really think it was a good idea to bring her grandmother home for Día de los Muertos to a family of devout Neo-Catholics? Make no mistake, it was fun to see the tattooed skinhead visit with the young ones, who think of re-sleeved family members as perfectly natural, and irreverently announce that she’s peeing standing up. But again, the point could have been made with much less posturing on both sides of the implied morality issue of letting the dead stay dead. Nevertheless, for those who’ve enjoyed Pixar’s Coco, the combined holiday of Día de los Muertos and American Thanksgiving was a nice touch.
Like Ortega’s abuela, many citizens likely decide when they’re finished being spun up for the holiday. Thematically, Altered Carbon is trying to tell us, like Abuela says, “You have to learn to let the world continue. Accept that death is part of life,” which is exactly what the Meths are thumbing their noses at. Those who care about someone other than themselves, whether it’s Kovacs and Falconer or Ortega and Riker, presumably aren’t selfish enough to desire immortality.
So yes, the message of “Force of Evil” is strong, there’s no arguing that. But the prolonged torture undermines the overall lesson somewhat through its sheer brutality and its protracted nature. We can be glad that Kovacs has his pink backpack back and has gotten rid of his Hawkeye tracker, but after this episode’s holding pattern, Altered Carbon should hit the ground running in the next installment if it wants to keep its momentum.