Taking over the universe of Altered Carbon could seem like a daunting proposition. After all, the first season of Netflix’s sci-fi detective yarn was reportedly the most expensive in TV history; add to that the incredibly complex plotlines and miasma of characters and futuristic conceits, and the idea of seizing the reins might seem even more challenging. But longtime TV writer and producer Alison Schapker only found inspiration in the size and scope of the project, not intimidation. Having logged time in a wide variety of genre series over the years—from science fiction (Fringe, Almost Human) to spy intrigue (Alias) to metaphysical fantasy (Lost) and even superhero action (The Flash), Schapker has been there and done that, and was eager for the opportunity to level up in terms of scale.
Altered Carbon is back for a second season that drops today on Netflix (you can read our review here), and in addition to the lengthy two-year gap between seasons, there’s also a mostly brand-new cast to follow. Marvel’s Falcon, Anthony Mackie, steps into the lead role of Takeshi Kovacs, a character who has spent the intervening 30 years (since we last saw him at the end of season one) hunting down the love of his life, revolutionary leader Quellcrist Falconer (Renée Elise Goldsberry, one of only a few returning actors). Talking with The A.V. Club in advance of the show’s return, Schapker opened up about the difficulties of shepherding such a sprawling universe, the differences between the new season and the first installment, and what contemporary political issues continue to reverberate into the future.
The A.V. Club: When you were first offered this showrunner role, what about it initially appealed to you?
Alison Schapker: I was excited on a number of levels. It was just so grown up, you know? It was such hardcore, adult sci-fi on Netflix, no rules—well, not no rules, but just like a wide-open canvas to sort of paint on, so that was fun. And I had admired [creator and season-one showrunner] Laeta Kalogridis from afar, so the idea of getting to work with her was really enticing to me. And then I had watched season one, and I really enjoyed the world, and there were actors that I thought gave such incredible performances—I was thrilled at the idea of coming in and getting to play with them in that sandbox.
AVC: Then you got there and they were like, “Oh, by the way, here’s your all-new set of actors.”
AS: [Laughs.] Exactly. “And we’re going to be diverging even more from the books, and…” It was fun. I’ve had many genre shows I’ve worked on, and I’ve enjoyed them all. But it also felt a little like, oh, I’ve been waiting for this, you know? I had a nice period of overlap with Laeta where we were working together and kind of crafting the vision for season two. And then, when she went and her career took off on its own momentum, and she passed the baton, I ran with season two… it’s been a real joy.
AVC: You and Laeta were originally announced as co-showrunners before you ended up being the sole showrunner. Was that just a result of her wanting to do other things?
AS: Yeah, there was no creative issues. I mean, this is very much in keeping with what she was imagining for season two.
AVC: When you came on board, was it with a specific goal for doing something markedly different for the second season?
AS: No, I think it was more that she was looking forward to working with me, and I was looking forward to working with her. I was available, there was a need… you know. [Laughs.] I knew people at Skydance [Altered Carbon’s production company—Ed.] It sort of all was kismet.
AVC: This season pulls back from some of the larger philosophical stuff that was happening in the first season to tell a more intimate story. Was that intentional from the start, or did you naturally move in that direction?
AS: I mean, everything was intentional, but it wasn’t intentional in terms of, “We’re going to do something different than season one.” Kovacs at the end of season one set off on a journey, very much making a promise to the audience that he was in search of Quell. And we wanted to deliver on that promise.
Season two does take him to a new sleeve, a new planet, and a new mystery that is more personal. He’s on his home planet, and the mystery involves the woman he’s been in love with and searching for for centuries. So in that respect, yes, I would say there is a general sort of turning inward in season two, in terms of, we’re looking at the past, we’re looking at ghosts that Kovacs is carrying around, ghosts on his home planet… all that is intentional. But I feel it’s more the momentum of the story. There was certainly no desire to not be examining big questions, or leaving behind ambitious world-building. We wanted to—and I hope we did—thread the needle where, while we’re telling a more personal mystery, what’s happening on the planet is still big and complicated, and we’re not shying away from that. It’s not like that’s a thing that’s gone.
AVC: Anthony Mackie brings a very different presence to the character in some ways—less of the weary gumshoe vibe that Joel Kinnaman embodied. How much of that was the script bringing out different parts of Kovacs’ personality, and how much was born out of what you think Mackie brings to the role?
AS: Probably a combination. I think that we certainly wanted to pick up with Kovacs and allow Anthony both to look to Joel’s performance, which we all adored, but also make it his own. But I also think this is Kovacs at a different point in his very long life, you know? Whereas the Kovacs from season one had sort of lost it all—was taken off ice, hired, worked for a billionaire, under duress who he had a lot of disdain for. He was cynical; he was more noir. I don’t want to curse…
AVC: It’s fine. Curse away.
AS: … fuck it, you know? He’s doesn’t-care guy, in this hardened place. And the Kovacs of season two starts out closer to finding Quell than he’s ever been in centuries. And he encounters her, which opens a whole new set of questions. That Kovacs is going to care. Like, that Kovacs has a lot to lose.
That’s a Kovacs we haven’t seen. And, as a writer, I believe that absolutely narratively jells with, justifies, and gives Anthony Mackie room—and I know he felt the same way—to embody Kovacs as a character, and bring shades to that character, that you wouldn’t have seen in season one. Because this is Kovacs with everything on the line. And, you know, he tells Poe at the beginning, like, “This is a new situation, so stakes are higher now.” And I think Anthony embraced that and you can see that in his performance. Which I found very moving.
AVC: The first season already diverged radically from its source material, and this one seems to take that even further—it borrows elements from the third book and from the second. Do you look at the novels less as primary, fundamental source material and more as loose inspiration for the series?
AS: I think that, when I came on board, there was a sense that it would have been cost-prohibitive to film them as-is, straight as written. So there was that. But there’s so many rich things to mine from the books, and the world is just endlessly provocative and giving on a story level. So, yeah, we want to be inspired by the books as much as possible and still let it become its own television series. So that’s a good way to put it.
AVC: You mentioned the cost-prohibitive nature of it. Between the smaller number of episodes and the more intimate story, were there any adjustments necessitated by budget? The original season was sort of famously reported to be the most expensive in TV history.
AS: I mean, I’m not supposed to get into any numbers discussions. I can just say—and maybe it’s because, for me, it was such a leap, coming from where I came from—I didn’t feel constrained in any way. I’m always trying to make smart decisions about where you spend money, but to me that’s just being a responsible showrunner. So I didn’t feel constrained by season two. I thought we got to work with the best in the business—I mean, it was so much fun, we got to work with Weta [Digital] and DNEG on the creature… we had amazing viz effects people.
AVC: Were there any specific moments for you where you got that sort of kid-in-the-candy-store feeling of, wow, I’m getting to do this?
AS: Yes! Oh, my gosh, I mean, so many. I was like a kid in a candy store, absolutely. The circle fight [Takashi battles multiple characters one-on-one in episode 3—Ed.] for me was such a personal fight. My favorite moments in the circle are between the actors. But there were some incredible visual effects moments. So sometimes it’s technical: You look at what somebody achieved on a visual effects level, or you’re, like, “Wow, that was nothing! That was a blue screen. And now we’re flying.” And that’s a pinch-me moment. Or, “That was a square in Surrey in Canada, and now it looks like we’re on another planet.” And then, a lot of the moments that are amazing are just… Quell walking into that ring in the circle, and him standing up, and them looking at each other—I mean, those are chills on a whole other level.
AVC: Since it’s been two years since the first season, was there any worry about how to integrate the first season’s narrative, given the gap between when audiences likely saw it, or did you just have to operate on the assumption that people will remember?
AS: I mean, it’s definitely a new paradigm, these long waits between seasons. Although, I do feel like I remember watching The Sopranos and starting to get used to that, you know? And feeling like, hm, maybe I should go back and watch a season before it comes on. We consciously designed it so that if you didn’t watch season one, that if you came in for the ride on season two, you could take it. And I think you can.
But I think that, watching season one—if you did watch season one—you’ll be rewarded by having that knowledge and bringing that knowledge to the show. We wanted to operate on both levels, because the last thing you want to feel is that you can’t pick up new viewers two years later. Or that you’re not going to reward people that have stayed engaged with it two years later. So it’s a fine line. But, yeah, that’s a definite concern, that there’s so much material out there now—are people going to remember? Are they going to come back? We care about that and we’re excited and hope they will.
AVC: It’s fascinating to see the choices the show makes in terms of dealing with certain contemporary issues, like class or technology, while others seem to get at least partially dealt with or set aside via the designs of the sci-fi possibilities—for example, race and identity politics. Were there any discussions about what social issues endure in the future, and what would be changed or considered moot since you have the choice in your setting to determine these things?
AS: We talk about everything in the writers’ room. So, yes—it’s not that we’re not talking about that stuff. And I would never say there’s no racial politics in Harlan’s World because the show is not explicitly exploring that. I feel like the racial politics of Altered Carbon right now are almost operating at an optical level. Like, they’re not making it the text of the full narrative this season—that’s not Kovacs’ story, right? That’s not his narrative, like, “What does it mean that I’m in a Black body versus a white body versus an Asian body?” That’s not where the narrative lies.
But I feel like it’s actually posing a lot of questions about identity just by the fact that your hero is in an Asian body and a white body and a Black body. And I think to say there’s no racial politics to that would be not true. In fact, I think there’s really interesting—and, I hope, positive—and fascinating politics to watching a show that’s actually asking all kinds of questions about who we are beyond our bodies or in our bodies. So there are many ways in which Altered Carbon will continue to explore identity, and we’re talking about all those things.
I mean, one of the things specifically about an envoy—and this is from the books—is that, no matter what sleeve Kovacs is going to drop into, he’s going to acclimate and function and continue on his mission. He’s been trained to not deal with that issue. So to spend a ton of time on that would almost not be “envoy philosophy” as it’s constructed on the show. But I’m interested in it! 100 percent. And let me tell you, I love centering people of color in the show. I’m super proud of the diversity in the show, I think it’s awesome on screen, and I think it looks like the future.