“Death Note”

“Now, supposing a god and his world existed, even then I’d stop and think for myself. I’d decide for myself whether his teachings are right or wrong. After all, I am just the same as you. I put faith in my own convictions as to what I believe is right, and consider them to be righteous.”

I don’t think I’ve ever watched a show as fast as I watched Death Note last week – I don’t have an exact time, but it was in under 48 hours. That alone speaks to its quality, but let’s jump into the specifics of this brilliant anime.

Based on the Japanese manga series by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata, this 37-episode, single-season anime follows 17-year-old Light Yagami, a gifted but bored and slightly jaded high school student as he stumbles across the Death Note, a magical notebook that automatically kills anyone whose name is written inside of it, so long as the writer also knows the person’s face. Light soon learns that the Death Note belongs to a Shinigami (a god of death in some Japanese mythologies) named Ryuk, who deliberately dropped it on Earth out of boredom to see what would happen.

Light soon decides that he will use the Death Note to eradicate criminals and create a world where he uses his superior mind to rule as Justice. As more and more people are inexplicably dying, the mysterious killer the public has monikered “Kira” still baffles police and government officials. They are forced call upon the brilliant detective L, who has never revealed his identity in public, but has solved every case he’s ever been given. So begins an intricate game of cat-and-mouse between geniuses.

The art for this show is absolutely stunning. I’m not an artist myself, but as a viewer (and an often picky one), the use of specific colours to code characters and their intentions during asides or inner monologues was so appealing, as was the idea to draw Light and L as visual foils.

Even though Death Note is more cerebral and focused on elements of suspense rather than fast-paced fight scenes (think chess as opposed to a boxing match), the creators managed to make things as simple as writing in a notebook or having a conversation feel as exciting and action-packed as a combat scene. The only other shōnen anime (a label for stories geared towards teen boys, generally with a male protagonist and lots of fight scenes) I’ve watched didn’t hit the mark for me like Death Note did, and it did it with displays of intellect instead of brute force badassery. Very cool.

Some of my complaints about other animes I’ve watched before this one were incomplete or two-dimensional characters and awkward dialogue. Once again, Death Note delivers big where other shows simply don’t. Not only does it avoid both of these issues, but it provides several complex characters whose motives I had so much fun dissecting and analyzing. There aren’t really any good people in this show either; if you’re all about those morally gray characters like I am, this show is for you.

I also can’t go without talking about the plot – I mean, talk about intricate. The cat-and-mouse game between Light and L has so many layers and watching them think ten moves ahead, plan their attacks against and escapes from each other, and deal with unforeseen variables as they surface in lurching, unexpected twists was a genuine treat. I was constantly fully attentive, dying to see what they were going to do next.

Along with the constant strategizing between the two, the overarching narrative is dealing with some very tough, complex topics and questions: specifically, what does justice really mean?

All this to say: I fucking loved this show and I plan on re-watching it for sure. If you like suspense, mystery, fantasy, police shows, or serious anime, Death Note will not disappoint you. I’d recommend this even to non-anime fans, including the people who think cartoons can’t be serious or are just for kids, because this show will prove you wrong in the best way.

*End of spoiler-free section*

I talked about the broad points of Death Note above, so I really want to take this section to talk about some of the more specific things that absolutely made fall in love with this show (and maybe a few that I didn’t like).

First of all, I was absolutely devastated when L was killed off. I expected that either he or Light might die because the story had been building to something huge like that, but I definitely didn’t think it would happen as early as it did. As much as I mourned him, so many moments leading up to his death were so well done (that rooftop scene in the rain and the ensuing moments on the stairs… fucking incredible) and I definitely think that ultimately, L dying was a good plot decision. It was a gutsy way to resolve the mounting tension and it hurt, but it had to be done. It was good pain.

However, I was bit less keen on Near and Mello. I hear they’re more well-developed in the manga (and considering Ohba and Obata’s character work on Light and L, I believe it), but their introduction into the anime storyline felt a bit rushed to me and I just never latched onto either of them in the way that I did with L. It seemed like they didn’t know what to do with Near’s character; they tried to make him a lot like L to try and scoop up the remaining hype from him, but there were just enough differences (and not enough new substantive character work) that Near felt signficantly subpar.

Close to the final confrontation, when Light says something like “it was always going to come to this, a one-on-one with L” or whatever and they show L’s face, I remember kind of rolling my eyes and feeling a bit disappointed, because they clearly wanted it to feel like Light versus L, but it didn’t because obviously it was actually just Near that was there. He had potential; I did like his seemingly genuine commitment to justice (rather than just entertainment in L’s case). I wish we’d gotten more insight into why he was like that. Maybe that stuff’s in the manga.

Anyway, even though I didn’t love Near and Mello and my overall excitement did drop for the post-L arcs, the show didn’t get bad by any means. I think that’s largely thanks to the incredible character work on Light. The intersection of his boredom, brilliance, and god complex to eventually show us that absolute power corrupts absolutely was perfect. I especially loved when he lost his memories of the Death Note and we got to see what he could have been without it, including his friendship with L.

I get chills just thinking about that moment when he’s in the vehicle with L and he gets the Death Note back and his memories flood him, and it zooms in on his face and he just goes “I’ve won” – best moment in the whole show (except maybe for the final minutes of the last episode). The writers’ ability to create dread, thrill, and suspense like that is something I haven’t seen in a while and that I honestly didn’t expect to find in Death Note.

From the bit of fandom discourse that I’ve read, it seems that people are torn on the ending, understandably I’d say. I personally think a full circle like that is fitting and I loved witnessing Light’s downfall from the careful, strategic genius to a reckless, paranoid, insane mess. Apparently this made some fans angry, especially fans of Light, who say he “shouldn’t have lost/died” because it “wasn’t realistic/accurate to the character” that he was fooled by the whole Mikami-fake-Death-Note situation, but as someone whose favourite character is also Light, I personally think they’re wrong. It’s totally accurate, because by the end of the show, Light was shutting down and going completely crazy. Long before the warehouse scene, he was frantic, all over the place, clinging to the last shreds of his power as Near was closing in. Maybe I feel that way because I knew Light needed to be stopped (despite rooting for him) but either way, I don’t think this was lazy writing and from the moment Light realized he had lost, his death was a given. Again, it came back to what Ryuk had told him at the very start: that he would write Light’s name in his Death Note one day.

Speaking of Ryuk, this isn’t a criticism of the show, but I do wish we could have seen more of the Shinigami realm. I liked the addition of Rem to the story, but I really wanted to learn more about how the Shinigami operate and what their realm is like. I know that’s not what the story was about, and I’m thankful that it wasn’t because Light and L’s tale was much more fascinating, but I still crave more worldbuilding in that area.

My one criticism of the show is its treatment of women. Death Note definitely doesn’t pass the Bechdel and there’s some pretty sexist dialogue (I think at one point, Misa says something like “I just want to be happy at home, where a woman should be” or something like that). Yikes.

Also, every female character (except for that one random FBI agent at the end) is or ends up being at least one of the following:

1) killed
2) otherwise severely victimized (kidnapped, traumatized, or sexually assaulted)
3) unrequitedly obsessed with a male character to the point that she has zero personality beyond that or motivations of her own
4) a stay-at-home wife and/or mother

I was initially excited by the appearance of Misa, because thus far everyone had just assumed that the Second Kira was a man, and I thought this was a really good opportunity to bring in a strong female character to subvert their expectations. However, any promise Misa had beyond a plot device was quickly stifled by the choice to make her a ditsy, obnoxious love interest whose only personality was venerating and obeying Light.

This isn’t to say Misa doesn’t do cool stuff (her role in the Yotsuba arc in particular was fun to watch) but objectively, she’s just not good female representation and there’s absolutely none in this show. I get that that’s pretty standard for shōnen, but for an anime that surpassed or subverted every other shōnen element and expectation, I hoped Death Note would do the same with sexism and misogyny. Oh well, you can’t have it all.

Ultimately, Death Note is an excellent show. Combining incredible characters, pacing, and art with deep topics and an awesome story, it’s no wonder that this is an anime staple that is still recommended and watched as often as it is, fifteen years after its creation.

“The Queen’s Gambit”

“Chess isn’t always competitive. Chess can also be beautiful. It was the board I noticed first. It’s an entire world of just sixty-four squares. I feel safe in it. I can control it. I can dominate it. And it’s predictable, so if I get hurt, I only have myself to blame.”

I try to keep Reading, Listening, Vieweing limited to media I’ve recently consumed so as to get my most visceral thoughts on each work I cover, but I had to make a small exception for The Queen’s Gambit. While I finished this show back in mid-December, it’s still spinning around in my mind, because that’s just how awesome it was.

This Netflix miniseries based on Walter Tevis’s 1983 novel of the same name follows the life of young chess prodigy Beth Harmon as she navigates the male-dominated 1950s-1960s American chess scene. Over the course of seven episodes, we watch as she hones her gift, from learning to play chess in the orphanage basement to becoming a skilled tournament player.

Alongside her chess career, however, we witness Beth’s maladaptive coping with the serious trauma she experiences before, while, and after growing up in an orphanage where tranquilizers are distributed to all the children, and she develops a long-lasting addiction. As we wait on the edge of our seats for the outcomes to her brilliant chess matches, we’re biting our nails, asking ourselves when she might just collapse from the weight of all the misfortune and misery that have befallen her life.

Before anything else, The Queen’s Gambit is an amazing character study. Beth is a complex and nuanced character, and although opinions on her are apparently mixed, I personally loved her instantly.

As I’ve said before, I love character-driven stories, including ones that only feature one prominent character. However, in my opinion, for such a story to work: 1) the character must be well-developed, 2) the worldbuilding or setting has to be airtight and appealing, and 3) the story must know and capitalize on the fact that it’s a single-character study.

That last aspect is crucial, because nothing bothers me quite like a story that clearly thinks itself far-ranging and filled with multiple complex character arcs, but that can only really deliver one (maybe two) good character(s) (for more on that, see last week’s blog post on Erika Johansen’s Tearling trilogy, which suffered from this very problem).

The Queen’s Gambit fulfils all three of these “requirements” easily, and I respect the fuck out of it for never trying to be something it’s not. The show doesn’t try to bullshit you by pulling you in ten different directions other than Beth’s; it’s honest about the story it’s trying to tell and what it wants to make you feel, and as a result, you get a great character-driven story.

The acting and soundtrack are strong as well, and thinking back, I still marvel at the fact that so much great material was fit into a miniseries without major pacing problems. I don’t recall ever feeling like we were rushing through a phase of Beth’s life, or that we took too long on another.

That being said, The Queen’s Gambit is not an action-packed show geared towards viewers who like drama and excitement. It has lots of dramatic and exciting moments for sure, but ultimately this show is a slower-paced character study about a chess prodigy who is trying to cope with her issues and be the best she can be. If you’re not that kind of viewer, you might find yourself bored or disappointed. I recommended the show to a family member because he likes chess, but I should’ve known that as a fan of action-packed media, he wouldn’t get past the second episode.

All that to say, you know yourself as a viewer, and if this description of the show’s vibe resembles what you usually watch, then I can confidently say that you’ll love The Queen’s Gambit, because it’s just so well-done.

(Also, if you’re a writer, which I know some of my readers are, this show is a brilliant example of how to write a complex character – I’ve also heard that it can apparently be understood as a deconstruction of the manic pixie dream girl archetype (stock character?) which I didn’t notice myself while watching, but in hindsight totally agree with, so that’s pretty cool).

*End of spoiler-free section*

From that opening scene where we’re introduced to Beth as she scrambles to get out of bed for her match against Borgov, I knew I was going to like this story. When I learned soon after that that was a snapshot of the future and that we were going to be shown exactly how Beth got there, I knew I was going to fall head-over-heels for The Queen’s Gambit.

(I’m an absolute sucker for the “starting on a flash-forward and the story builds up to it” device, I just think it’s so smart when done right).

In terms of the show’s highlights, as discussed already above, Beth’s character is number one. I love that every quality of hers has a realistically offsetting flaw. She’s brilliant, but perfectionist in a toxic way, where she’s desperately trying to maintain that very specific and difficult-to-attain self-concept, and she’s doing that through substance use.

She’s pleasant to talk to and be around in everyday situations, but as soon as she has to be vulnerable, she goes cold and she infuriatingly pushes away those who want to help her. She’s resilient, but she also mistreats people who don’t necessarily deserve it, like Harry and Benny, and she refuses to confront her personal problems, like her addiction to tranquilizers, her grief, her loneliness, and her abandonment issues, and instead she lashes out at others and hurts herself.

Yet I couldn’t help but empathize with her in almost every situation and think “well, no wonder she’s doing that” because each of her actions and personality traits can be so directly linked back to her trauma. That doesn’t excuse the way she hurts others and herself, and yet the painful, bitter realism of it all is what really made me feel for her.

Moving on so as not to beat a dead horse, I found the chess match scenes to be really well done. Even though you know Beth is often the smartest and the best when she sits down to play, the scenes are always tense, because she’s so unpredictable. You know she could win pretty much any match, but can she, at that given time, in that given mental state?

Using Beth’s flaws as the source of her own problems in chess matches to create tension was a great idea. If they hadn’t done this, the scenes wouldn’t have been as tense, because again, we know she’s the best and she could win anything. This helped up the ante even more every time she played Borgov and in the final matches at the world championships in Russia, and it makes her final win that much more satisfying.

Even though there were a ton of good memes making fun of it, I thoroughly enjoyed the scenes where Beth would play chess in her mind on the ceiling. It was a cool way to show the extent of her visualization skills on-screen.

I was so happy when she eventually realized that she didn’t need the drugs to help her visualize or uphold that idealized fantasy version of herself, because she’s always been good enough. It was a powerful moment.

Another aspect I loved was the nuance in the final message: while you don’t need your blood-related family or even a tight-knit “found family” to be whole or good enough to achieve what you want, that doesn’t mean you can’t lean on other human beings in a time of need or that you shouldn’t make strides towards vulnerability and healing.

The story encourages the viewer to process trauma and to have some kind of support system by showing that these things are beneficial to Beth, but the narrative doesn’t shame her either in the moments where she craves solitude and chooses to process her emotions alone. It’s not framed as the best thing to do considering her alcohol and drug problems, but I think it’s a refreshing change from the usual urgency of the “you need to be vulnerable now or you’re doomed” message, because I find that that often lacks nuance. (Hopefully that makes sense).

This sort of brings me to the ending, with which I’m absolutely enamoured. I think it’s perfect and I wouldn’t change a thing about it. I love that Beth goes off alone, finding peace in what she loves to do and in herself. She’s still a bit of a lone wolf, but she’s leaning on people now rather than drugs.

What better way to end the series than to come full circle like that and simply play chess in the park, for the fun of it like she used to with Shaibel, without that pressure and that damn drug-fueled self-concept demanding she be this impossible level of genius? Just beautiful.

All this to say, I absolutely loved The Queen’s Gambit. An excellent combination of a great, complex character and amazing execution on the story, setting, and message made for a miniseries that I will definitely be rewatching and that I think will stand the test of time.

“Bridgerton” (season 1)

“I am looking out for myself. I am ensuring my own future. Because I know… in my heart… I know that there is no one else who ever will.”

After finishing a pretty heavy show a few weeks ago, my girlfriend and I were looking for something a bit lighter and funnier to watch: enter Bridgerton, a period drama created by television giant Shonda Rhimes and based on the popular Regency romance novels by Julia Quinn.

The show follows the Bridgertons and a couple of other aristocratic families as they begin the London season, where young debutante Daphne Bridgerton is making her entrance at only the fanciest high-society events, with one goal in mind: finding a husband. Soon, she meets Simon, the Duke of Hastings, who is handsome, but a notorious “rake” (womanizer).

In an entertaining combination of mild enemies-to-lovers and the well-loved fake dating trope, we experience their banter and watch their tumultuous relationship develop over the course of the season, all the while keeping up with several side characters and micro-plotlines. We also have an overarching story about the mysterious Lady Whistledown, an anonymous writer who prints “society papers” filled with the gossip of the season and the aristocracy’s most well-guarded secrets.

The development of the main romantic relationship, particularly the banter, was pretty good, and I was kind of rooting for Daphne and Simon. As the show progressed, however, I become pretty indifferent towards Simon and I even began to hate Daphne. Neither is a very realistic character (their motivations are often vague and inconsistently depicted) and though the better of the two is definitely Simon, that’s not saying a whole lot. The plethora of enthralling supporting characters was a saving grace for a show that, while entertaining and well-produced, left me underwhelmed and with a bit of a bad taste in my mouth.

The show’s strongest aspect is its setting. I think that something many writers of the Regency romance micro-genre often forget is to emphasize and really toy with the glamour inherent to this setting (or at least, viewers’ romanticized perception of it) when crafting their narrative. It’s about more than just nice ball gowns and dancing with handsome men (though that’s certainly a fun part of it); it’s also about the intricacies of the aristocratic gossip, the charming mores of London high society at that time, and honestly, the ubiquity of the social struggles of non-conforming women across class lines. Maximizing the setting to serve the narrative is not something Bridgerton ever shies away from, and for that I was thankful.

I also want to mention the pretty diverse cast. I didn’t read the books, but this has Shonda Rhimes written all over it, and thank goodness, too. Historical romance is always overwhelmingly white, and Bridgerton‘s diversity is a nice change. I really like that they gave a historical justification for the presence of people of colour within London high society while not making the story entirely about race either. I ultimately think they actually ended up having the opposite problem; they didn’t really dig into race enough at all. Here’s a really good article that provides an astute race-focused critique of Bridgerton.

If you like steamy romance with lots of playful banter and any of the tropes I mentioned earlier, you’ll likely enjoy this show. Even if you’re like me and you prefer a romance that branches out a little more, Bridgerton’s hint of social commentary, its humour, its intriguing overarching plotline, and its memorable supporting characters will likely make it appeal to you as well, even if it does come off a bit soapy. If you’re looking for a nuanced romance with realistic, consistent characters you immediately latch onto and root for… frankly, Bridgerton might just disappoint you.

All in all, it’s worth a watch if you’ve got little else to do (and it’s pretty quick, with only ten or so episodes) but in all honesty, it’s not worth going well out of your way for if you don’t already have a soft spot for this genre. Also, content warning for sexual assault in the show.

*End of spoiler-free section*

I’ve already provided quite a bit of criticism of Bridgerton, but I still expect that I’ll continue with it when more seasons come out. This is primarily because the showrunners did a great job of making me care about many of its supporting characters, and based on the general feel of the last couple of episodes — what with Daphne and Simon having kids and apparently solving all of their problems that way — it seems like there’ll be less focus on their story moving forward (or so I hope). From the academically-driven Eloise Bridgerton, to the coy Lady Danbury, to the clever and beautiful Marina Thompson, I was definitely invested in their lives way more than in the main romantic pairing’s, and I’m excited to know what they’ll do next.

As a brief aside, I also find Daphne to be a huge waste of potential as a character. A calm, highly feminine character who genuinely aspires to be a wife and mother in a historical period where doing so was often the only available path for women could have made for really interesting character work. There’s power in many traditionally feminine traits, and Daphne could’ve showcased that really nicely.

Instead, we got “rape-your-husband-and-then-he’ll-change-his-inconveniently-stubborn-ways-and-forget-a-decade-of-childhood-trauma-and-have-babies-with-you.” (Can you tell that bit bothered me?)

Before I launch deeper into my three main criticisms of Bridgerton, I want to emphasize a couple more positives so that this review isn’t solely negative, because I really did have some fun watching this show. The banter between Daphne and Simon was good, and I thought there was a good amount of chemistry between them. I also loved the exchanges between Eloise and literaally anyone (but especially Penelope) and I thought the showrunners did awesome at prolonging the suspense and mystery when it came to uncovering Lady Whistledown’s identity. Finally, as mentioned earlier, I loved the setting. While I’m picky with my romance, Regency (if well-done) is a soft spot of mine and I thoroughly appreciated the costumes, the dialogue, and the delivery of most of Bridgerton‘s cast. Pretty typical of big-budget Netflix series, but I don’t want to take anything away from the actors and writers either.

The problem, I think, is the story itself. Again, since I haven’t read the books and don’t plan to, it’s hard to say what can be blamed on Quinn and what can be blamed on Rhimes and company (just trying to clarify that I’m not trying to shit on one specific person either, because I literally don’t know who made what choices or how faithful the show was to the books). Anyway, I personally had three main issues with the story.

#1 – When Daphne rapes Simon
I don’t think I need to talk about this one much since so many others have written great think pieces on this topic already. I didn’t like that rape was used purely for dramatic shock value and I think that its onscreen depiction (apparently made “better” by the fact that he said “wait” rather than “no” like in the book) is harmful, and perpetuates the idea that when men get raped, it’s not to be taken as seriously. It instantly made me completely write off Daphne as a character (whereas I only disliked her before). That action clashed so drastically with her initially sweet nature with little explanation that it just felt like poor writing to me.

#2 – Simon’s recovery from childhood trauma
The show started off well by demonstrating that much of Simon’s childhood trauma was still affecting his adult life because he had never coped with it healthily. In the last few episodes though, the show throws all of that out the door. Simon suddenly seems to get over all of his issues (after being recently raped by his wife!) all because his dearest Daphne wants children and will be sad if he doesn’t do the one thing that he has been traumatized into never wanting to do. Now, it’s obvious that Simon is not blameless in the way he chose to deal with his trauma in adulthood or in some of the ways he treats Daphne (pretty serious lying), and it’s clear to the viewer that his concerns about becoming like his father are misguided because he’s fundamentally a better person, but the fact remains that this idea that loving someone enough will fix all of one’s deep-rooted personal traumas is just false and feels like a cop-out for actual character development. Daphne remains inconsiderate of everything Simon has gone through, and because plot demands it, I suppose, he caves to her every demand while she does nothing to try and achieve a compromise with him or tend to his needs in any way. And I get that it’s romance, so things get romanticized, but in romanticizing Simon’s trauma and giving him an unrealistic recovery, Bridgerton flushed all of his good character development down the drain while actively perpetuating harmful myths about how men handle mental health difficulties.

#3 – Whistledown’s identity reveal
Finally, I was not a fan of Penelope turning out to be Lady Whistledown, purely because of the way they handled the “investigation”. What I mean with this is that we considered Penny as a potential suspect, then the show explicitly had us rule her out in favour of Mme Lacroix (for whom the Lady Whistledown identity made perfect sense), only to, at the last minute, yank us back to Penny. Clearly, the showrunners wanted a last minute, shocking twist for that final scene with the carriage leaving, and it totally would’ve worked if it had been, you know, someone we hadn’t actually considered and been clearly told to rule out. I personally felt cheated by this; the scene was being hyped up and I was thinking “oh my God, I thought I knew it was Lacroix but it isn’t, oh my God, who is it?!” only to then be shown a face I had been told it wasn’t (“oh.”). It took away from the drama of it all, drama that had been building up for the entire season. I have no problem with Penny being Whistledown plot-wise, but the execution was off for me. She should’ve been avoided entirely as a suspect earlier as it would’ve made the surprise all the more rewarding and effective.

In the end, clearly I have a lot to bitch about when it comes to Bridgerton. It had a lot of potential, but in more areas than not, it fell short of the expectations I had for it. I can’t help but wonder what it would’ve been like to have a Regency romance blow up on Netflix in the way this one did, but without all of this show’s significant pitfalls.

“Altered Carbon”

“Humanity has spread to the stars. We set out like ancient seafarers to explore the limitless ocean of space. But no matter how far we venture into the unknown, the worst monsters are those we bring with us.”

For this first installment of Viewing, I figured I would talk about a TV show I finished just a week ago, because well, what a show it was. I am of course talking about the sci-fi space drama Altered Carbon, based on the novel of the same name by Richard K. Morgan.

In this show, immortality has essentially been achieved through the use of stacks, an electronic device that can preserve the human consciousness indefinitely, allowing humans to be transferred to a different body. This is an extremely expensive process, but the hyper-wealthy, known as Meths, can change bodies (“sleeves”) several times, make a bunch of clones of themselves, and essentially live forever. Earth has also expanded its rule to other planets, now thriving human colonies, one of which we spend some time on in flashbacks and in season two, Harlan’s World.

In this show, Takeshi Kovacs wakes up from serving a prison sentence of a couple hundred years in a body that is not his own. He learns that he has been re-sleeved and commissioned by Meth Laurens Bancroft to solve a murder that occurred in his home in exchange for a full pardon for Kovacs’s crimes, which included being part of a rebellion movement against the Interstellar Protectorate. Kovacs accepts, and while he makes some allies in the form of ex-soldier Vernon Elliot and detective Kristin Ortega, he soon realizes that there is a lot more to the case than initially meets the eye.

The setting is dark, gritty, high-tech sci-fi, with lots of violence, gore, sex, and overall badass-ery. While it sometimes overdid it with those elements, the show was still appealing and its setting generally did not hinder plot or character development; if anything, it enhanced it. Such a setting was needed for the story the show tried to tell, so I was generally unbothered with its heavy use of R-rated elements. However, if you are sensitive to any of this stuff, I would definitely consider watching a different show.

The characters are well-rounded and their motivations are complex and fun to unpack. The character-driven viewer will have just as much fun watching Altered Carbon as the viewer who simply wants a cool sci-fi/cyberpunk story with lots of fight scenes. With me being the former type of viewer and my partner being the latter, we often have different tastes in TV shows, but when it came to this show and its characters, our differences didn’t stop either of us from thoroughly enjoying it. I truly think that most people who try Altered Carbon will find something to love about it, and so I highly, highly recommend that you check it out.

On a final note before I get into the spoiler-filled section, if you’ve read the book (which I haven’t), what I gathered from scanning the Wikipedia page is that a lot was changed for the show, including completely re-writing several key plot points and characters within the original story. If you’re expecting a 1:1 adaptation, you may be disappointed, so viewer beware.

*End of spoiler-free section*

I was honestly a bit surprised by how much I enjoyed this show. I never really thought space sci-fi could be my thing, since I don’t really love Star Wars (yeah, I said it, sue me) or anything similar, really. I think the technological setting especially, elements of which one might find in an urban fantasy or a dystopian work, really caught my eye. I loved the use of virtual reality as a tool for torture, covert meetings, and sex-capades — it felt extremely realistic, and I think that the show adequately made use of it as a compelling plot device. I really enjoyed the tension created both visually and narratively in every single scene done in virtual.

In terms of the plot, I personally preferred season two to season one. While I will admit that the familiarity of the “solve a murder” plotline helped ease me into the world at first and was ultimately a good choice on the part of the showrunners for that very reason, it was not nearly as original and compelling as what came in season two with the search for Quell, the politics of Harlan’s World, and the whole Elder struggle, in my opinion. The attempted quashing of the Quellist movement, the many flashbacks, Kovacs’s original DHF coming back in the OG sleeve… just brilliant stuff.

I think I preferred many of the non-main characters of season two as well. Danica and Trepp felt so much more complete than Ortega and Vernon, for instance, although that isn’t to say that those two aren’t well-done either; just not as well as season two did its side characters. I think my preference for the season two characters is purely personal and subjective, though, and ultimately, both seasons made great use of their characters, pimping them out to the plot, if you will, in really pleasant ways.

I want to emphasize this through a couple of examples. First, Elizabeth’s transition from traumatized victim to self-confident woman ready and willing to defend herself was not only really entertaining and heartwarming to watch unfold, but was also a clever way to further flesh out Poe’s character and help us better understand his abilities as an AI.

A second great example is Trepp, a great addition to the cast in season two. Rather than just being a jaded bounty hunter, the show provided her with a concerned wife, a child who was re-sleeved after a tragic accident (the financial consequences of which Trepp is still paying and which provide further commentary on the structure of the world), and a Quellist brother who mysteriously disappeared. These were all plot-relevant ways to not only weave Trepp into the story and develop her character, but to enrich the story and the show as a whole. But for those elements, the story would not have advanced as smoothly, and Trepp’s return at the end to help the group wouldn’t have felt so rewarding.

It’s this idea of everything being purposeful, every aspect of each character being made to pertain to the plot, to relate to the setting. Writers of any kind know this principle well: it’s what makes a story and its characters feel complete and compelling. And Altered Carbon does it brilliantly.

This dedication to properly fleshed-out characters outside of just Kovacs was a huge bonus for me personally in part since I was a bit back and forth on whether or not I liked him. As his near-fanatic obsession with Quell grew over the course of season two and he seemed to lose some of his sassy, aloof edge in favour of a slightly more mean-spirited version of himself, I grew a bit bored and annoyed with him. The Quell thing especially bothered me because it felt a bit like he was objectifying her by holding her up as this god-like figure, which I think was part of what the showrunners were trying to demonstrate (that he was unhealthily obsessed with her and that she was incredibly charismatic and brilliant, but still only a human being), but it still annoyed me.

I think that my one gripe with the show was Rei — while there is something to her character, I do think that her vengeful obsession with Kovacs was a bit overdone and not as justified or realistic as I think the showrunners hoped it to seem. She came off a little too much like a “big bad” that couldn’t really be empathized with or related to in the same way that other villains (for instance, Danica) were for me, even though you could probably successfully argue that Rei had more reason to be angry and turn evil than Danica ever did. It’s not necessarily about just slapping a tragic backstory onto a character, or of making their motivations seem justified in some fucked up way, though; it’s about making them relatable, and for me personally, Rei’s character failed to do this successfully.

Ultimately, though, Altered Carbon did an excellent job by combining effective characters, plot, and setting to create a highly cohesive and immersive story. It made particularly good use of the technology present in the show (virtual reality, cloning) and brilliantly used its characters as effective “chess pieces” or plot devices to drive various aspects of the plot forward. I absolutely loved this show and was left wanting more at the end of its second and sadly final season.