I was discussing Altered Carbon Season 2 with my wife the other day, and we both agreed it isn’t very good. It has the same problem as Game of Thrones does, a show I stopped watching early on and a book series I don’t know if I want to finish even if George RR Martin ever does.
Now before you start about how great Game of Thrones is, and that the Red Wedding is just… And do you know what happens to Jaime Lannister?! Yeah, I know, I read the books. I opened the first novel back in 1997, a year after it came out. I even have a signed copy of it on my bookshelves.
But, you know, 23 years is over half my life ago. I’ve had a long time to think about these books. And with the initial emotional impact far behind, and a decade to stew while waiting, I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t care very much any more.
Back to Altered Carbon
I liked Altered Carbon season 1. I also liked the book. Season 2 deviates from the books — logical, given how different the second book is and that actually the third book does more with the open ends from the first book.
My wife and I started enthusiastically on the second season. And it looks good. Anthony Macky is the lead actor this season, and he does a good job. However… I found I couldn’t make myself care.
It took some thinking to figure out why. The problem, really, is that the main character, Takeshi Kovacs, has no personality. He’s obsessed with finding his long lost love, but if you take that away there’s nothing left. No wants, no needs, nothing.
The first season solved this by having him round up a crew of interesting side kicks and showing how Takeshi has a heart under that gruff exterior. Season 2 shows us that same character without the heart, and only an obsession with a woman he loved centuries ago, to the exclusion of his only remaining side kick.
It doesn’t help that they changed actors. They had to, story-wise. But I think the writers failed to realize that put our engagement with the character back to zero. You’re literally looking at a different person.
Some actors can pull something like this off. Tatiana Maslany was able to play several distinct clones in Orphan Black, and she managed to pull off not only giving them a personality, but realistically having one of them pretend to be another one. Macky isn’t that good, though, and in this case, it might be harder as well, given Joel Kinnaman didn’t give him a lot to work with in season 1. Or maybe I’m just not seeing it.
In the end, it all comes down to engagement. Do I want to know what happens to certain characters in a show? Altered Carbon season 2 fails there: I don’t care what happens to the empty shell fueled only by his obsession. I care about Poe from Season 1, but that character is immediately side-lined in favor of torturing the main character, over and over.
And that brings me back to Game of Thrones. I don’t like most of the characters in Game of Thrones. They’re nasty people doing nasty things. Who am I going to root for? There are a few characters that are okay, but Game of Thrones has a second problem. I’ve already written about the main trick Game of Thrones plays. I quote:
Make the story appear to head to a positive outcome. Then, when things are about to resolve, have one of the characters do something unexpectedly evil or stupid that gets some other character horribly killed, or worse. Then repeat this trick over and over again.
As a result of the above, any Game of Thrones character I do like, I can reliably say very bad things are going to happen to. And not because they deserve it. They usually don’t, unless you — for example — believe that you deserve to get beheaded and a wolf-head sown onto your corpse because you fell in love while being promised to another out of political expedience.
So, Game of Thrones doesn’t engage me: either I hate a character, or I know terribly unfair things are going to happen to them. Either way, there’s no pay-off in it for me. If I want to read about people unfairly murdered I’ll just read the news.
Gratuitous violence and sex
And when you strip all that away from both shows, you’re left with nothing… well, almost nothing. Both Altered Carbon and Game of Thrones feature violence and sex. People are beaten or murdered on a regular basis, and both shows don’t shy away from sex.
Violence and sex are, of course, both extremes of emotional interaction between people. They can further a story and show us something about the characters. Interestingly, however, neither sex nor violence are effective at showing us new aspects of a character. They are mostly good for raising the stakes of things already brewing.
An example: imagine a story opens with a tall blond man beating somebody half to death until the victim kills him by wrapping a chain around his neck. We might feel disturbed at the violence, but we don’t know what is happening or why. It can show us a little about how the characters behave while being beaten up, but that’s it. With no basis, we learn very little, and if the story ended there, it might be annoying, but you wouldn’t lose any sleep over it.
Now imagine the same scene at the climax of the story. We know the protagonist is trying to stop a group of terrorists and save his wife from death. We also know the tall blond man beating him up is a terrorist and the protagonist killed his brother. Suddenly, the fight matters — and yes, that is a scene from Die Hard.
And that is where Game of Thrones sometimes misses the mark and Altered Carbon Season 2 certainly does: the violence and sex don’t do anything without us rooting for the characters. I didn’t care about Kovacs in Altered Season 2, and I couldn’t feel very distraught when people started to continually beat him up and torture him.
I’ve had over two decades waiting to learn the fates of the members of the Stark family, of the Lannisters, and of Daenerys Targaryen.
And since ten years or so, I just don’t care. I have better things to do. Most of the characters will meet terrible fates or be damaged and haunted for the rest of their lives. Finishing A Dance With Dragons was a slog, and the thought of watching all 73 episodes of the TV show doesn’t appeal to me at all.
For the Wheel of Time, I only read the final five volumes when Tor published the final book and then I re-read all 14 books in three months. But for Game of Thrones, the idea of doing that just fills me with dread.
As for the rest of Altered Carbon season 2… Well, we’ll see.