The ending of Altered Carbon explained
Altered Carbon is an explicit, flesh-revealing, and surprisingly philosophical exploration of a world where immortality is a commodity and consciousness is easily transferable. In Netflix’s high-budget cyberpunk noir, TV has never looked so eye-wateringly, HD-validating beautiful.
But there’s much more than good looks to Laeta Kalogridis’ adaptation of Richard K. Morgan’s novel. Such is the rich complexity of Bay City (formerly San Francisco) in 2384, you’ll need a glossary and careful reflection to make sense of the show’s intricate, jargon-filled plot.
What’s the result of Resolution 653? Are the murdered spun up regardless of Neo-C coding? Where’s Quell’s DHF stored? Has Reileen RD’ed? Get the glossary … it’s time to explain the ending of Altered Carbon.
Warning: heavy spoilers for the entire season ahead. Naturally.
There's no such thing as death in Altered Carbon
In Altered Carbon, consciousness is transformed from the physical form into code known as Digital Human Freight (DHF). This DHF code is stored in a stack, a device implanted in all citizens in their first year of life. DHF code can be backed up to disk or transferred to a different body. Such is the ease of this process that bodies are referred to as “sleeves.”
The death of a sleeve isn’t final if the stack remains intact, as the DHF of the person within can be stored and resleeved in another body. Destroying a stack results in real death (RD). It’s possible to have DHF code regularly backed up to protect from RD, but this is extremely costly and only affordable to the filthy rich.
Sadly, rather than create a death-free utopia, stacks have increased the power of the world’s wealthiest. Being resleeved is an expensive process, and cloning — another possibility in the Altered Carbon universe — even more so. The richest of the rich are immortal, continually transferring their DHF to a clone of themselves to remain eternally youthful. These immortals are known as Meths, after the Biblical figure Methusaleh.
Kovacs is revived for a specific reason …
Altered Carbon opens when Takeshi Kovacs, a skilled mercenary, is killed by Colonial Tactical Assault Corp (CTAC). They’re a group of futuristic soldiers who work for the Protectorate, the UN’s military force covering many human-inhabited worlds. Two hundred and fifty years after his murder, Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman) wakes in a violent rage — in someone else’s body.
Kovacs has been on ice (his stack stored in backup without a sleeve) for centuries due to his pivotal role with the Envoys, a rebel terrorist group who planned an uprising against the elite. He’s been brought back from sleeveless purgatory with one condition — he’s now the property of one the Settled World’s most influential, Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy). Bancroft, a powerful Meth, has resleeved Kovacs to solve his own murder.
Like all Meths, Bancroft has his DHF backed up every 48 hours to a satellite to protect him from RD. He was murdered ten minutes before backup, leaving him with no recollection of the two days before his death, and no recollection of the culprit. Bancroft was killed by a powerful particle blaster, contained in a biometric safe only he and his wife had access to. Yet he rules out suicide and is adamant his wife Miriam (Kristin Lehman) is innocent.
Kovacs forms a pack to survive
To help him in his case, Kovacs is given all access to the privileges of the wealthy. He takes up residence at the Raven Hotel, run by the amiable A.I., Poe (Chris Conner). With Poe’s help, Kovacs begins his investigation. Searching through a collection of death threats sent to Bancroft leads Kovacs to Vernon Elliot (Ato Essandoh), who sent Bancroft a death threat “for my girl.” That’s his daughter Lizzie (Hayley Law), who was murdered. Lizzie was a prostitute, and Bancroft one of her clients. Vernon suspects he was involved in her death.
Though her body died, her stack remained, and Vernon keeps Lizzie’s DHF in VR. She’s caught in a trauma loop, driven insane by her death, unable to talk. Kovacs enters the VR, which gives him the first break in the case. He finds Alice, a prostitute who worked with Lizzie, who tells him wealthy clients are known to choke the other workers, possibly killing them.
Mary Lou, Ryker, and the Resolution 653 conspiracy
“Fallen Angel” opens, aptly, with Mary Lou Henchy (Lisa Chandler) falling from the sky. The mystery of her death is peculiar. For reasons unknown, her body is reported missing, even though it’s held in the morgue at the Bay City Police Department (BPD). Her tearful mother pleads with Lieutenant Ortega (Martha Higareda) to try and find her body. Ortega is shown to bend the rules, placing a tracker on Kovacs without a warrant. Moved by her mother’s grief, Ortega exposes Mary Lou’s body — not before removing her stack.
Such is Altered Carbon‘s depth that nothing is inconsequential. Ortega has an obvious emotional response to Kovacs’ arrival. His sleeve is one of the most important pieces of the jigsaw. It belongs to Elias Ryker, a police officer and Ortega’s romantic partner. Ryker investigated Mary Lou’s murder, perturbed by her stack being coded Neo-C shortly before her death.
Authorities are able to temporarily resleeve murder victims, a process known as spinning up, to testify in their case. That’s unless the victim is Neo-Catholic (Neo-C for short). As the law stands, authorities are unable to spin up a victim with Neo-C coding. A proposed law, Resolution 653, is looking to change this. Mary Lou wasn’t the first murder victim to be recently converted to Neo-C. Believing this too suspicious, Ryker beats a CTAC administrator to a pulp, convinced the coding was faked. Though he doesn’t kill him, the administrator later turns up dead. BPD Captain Tanaka (Hiro Kanagawa) arrests Ryker for the murder. He was framed.
Ortega suspects Ryker was on to something, motivating her to steal Mary Lou’s stack, which she later hands to Kovacs.
The many faces of Dimi the Twin
One of the biggest head-scratchers in Altered Carbon is Dimi the Twin, a Russian mobster who fully exploits resleeving. Dimi is known to double-sleeve, an illegal act when someone copies their consciousness into two bodies simultaneously. Dimi number one (Tahmoh Penikett) ambushes Kovacs in the Raven, but is killed when Poe shoots him.
Dimi’s “brother” is upset by this, and comes gunning for Kovacs. He forces Alice to drug Kovacs, and tortures him at the Wei Clinic. When Kovacs channels John Wick and shoots everyone at the clinic to smithereens, he decapitates Dimi, takes his head as a trophy, and leaves his stack behind for Ortega to find.
Later, Ortega and Kovacs spin up Dimi at the BPD, using the body of the gangster (Matt Biedel) Ortega previously used to sleeve her grandmother on Day of the Dead. After their interrogation is interrupted, Ortega escorts Dimi with another officer, entering an elevator. Little does Ortega know that officer is the Ghostwalker, Mr. Leung (Trieu Tran), an assassin who has links to the murder of sex workers. Leung viciously attacks Ortega with a medieval-looking weapon.
Dimi shares the same boss with Leung, a man called Hemmingway (Arnold Pinnock). When they meet, Dimi tells Hemmingway he wants revenge on Kovacs, and Hemmingway tells him to stop his pursuit. Dimi escapes when it looks like Leung is about to kill him, after delivering his trademark pre-kill question: “Are you a believer?”
The return of Reileen, a familiar face
This is where things get even more confusing — Dimi runs to a tattoo salon and uncovers a device that can extract his DMF remotely. His DMF then leaves the body of the bearded gangster and is transported into a new sleeve. Not just any sleeve, though — it’s the one Kovacs had in the opening scene (played by Byron Mann) that, somehow, Fight Drome proprietor Carnage (Matt Frewer) acquired.
Wearing his new sleeve, Dimi tracks Ortega and Kovacs to a VR cafe. They’re at the cafe to uncover the identity of the person Tanaka is leaking information to. Kovacs briefly meets Hemmingway in VR before Ortega pulls him out due to Dimi’s arrival. The pair are knocked unconscious in an explosion and Dimi captures them, delivering them to the Fight Drome. Presumably, this trade was part of the deal with Carnage allowing him to remotely change sleeves.
The Fight Drome lets people pay huge sums of money to witness brutal battles. As police officers, Ortega and Ryker-sleeved-Kovacs will presumably be worth a high entry fee. After defeating a few monstrous opponents but seriously injured, Dimi enters the arena to finish the job. Just as it looks like their luck has run out, they’re saved by a masked avenger: Reileen Kawahara (Dichen Lachman), Kovacs’ sister.
A flashback to the Envoys explains everything
Altered Carbon‘s longest episode, “Nora In,” focuses on Kovacs’ relationship with Reileen. The siblings were extremely close during their childhood, but separated after Kovacs shot and killed their abusive father. When arrested, Kovacs escaped prison by instead agreeing to work for CTAC. He was promised Reileen would be protected.
On a CTAC mission years later, Kovacs fortuitously reunites with Reileen, who was working for the Yakuza. Finding themselves on opposite sides, they make the instinctive decision to stick together. They kill everyone around them — both Yakuza mobsters and CTAC soldiers. They’re soon discovered by the Envoys, though, an elite rebel group of soldiers. They’re led by the charismatic Quellcrist Falconer (Renée Elise Goldsberry), who convinces Kovacs to join, bringing Reileen with him — much to her annoyance.
Reileen killed Quellcrist Falconer
Quell opposed the structure of society, and deplored the Meths’ immortality. During an impassioned speech, she makes a call to arms to end immortality, saying “The ebb and flow of life is what makes us equal in the end.” She’s created the Acheron program, which downloads into a DHF, rewriting the code to make it valid for exactly 100 years regardless of the owner’s wealth. Enacting the plan, though, would require a borderline suicide mission.
What makes Quell’s stance even more pertinent is her revelation that she was formerly Nadia Makita, the creator of stack technology. As society unraveled and her miraculous breakthrough was misused, she decided to take a stand. Reileen is upset by Quell’s plan, and jealous when she and Kovacs fall in love.
Unbeknownst to Kovacs, Reileen agreed to work as a double agent for CTAC. She infected the Envoys at their base, Stronghold, with Rawlings’ virus, causing the soldiers to kill each other and themselves. Kovacs, Quell and Reileen are out of range. Quell and Reilleen escape on a ship, but Reileen kills Quell, shortly before their ship is destroyed.
Why did Reileen turn on the Envoys — and, indirectly, her brother? The way she speaks of Kovacs’ relationship with Ortega, Vernon and Poe illustrates this mindset. “To me, they’re fireflies,” she says. “Each a tiny spark whose beauty lies in how quickly it’s extinguished.” Her only connection is with her brother. But bringing him back wasn’t easy; he’s known as the last Envoy, and the Protectorate will do all they can to keep him on ice.
How Miriam's crime helped Reileen's plan
For preventing the Envoys’ uprising, Reileen is rewarded with wealth and immortality. Like Bancroft, she’s cloned and has her consciousness backed up, explaining how she came back from the explosion on Quell’s ship. She tells Kovacs that in the 250 years since the explosion at Stronghold, Reileen has become a “titan of industry,” in “the weakness of flesh.” As well as operating a highly lucrative sex industry, she owns the Wei Clinic, where Kovacs was tortured in VR.
Despite her wealth, she doesn’t have the influence to get Kovacs off ice, but her business empire leads her to the Bancrofts. Miriam Bancroft killed Vernon’s daughter, Lizzie, who was pregnant with Bancroft’s child. When Lizzie went to Bancroft’s home to tell him of the pregnancy, she encountered Miriam, who in a rage repeatedly kicked her in the stomach, killing both Lizzie and the unborn child.
On behalf of Miriam, the Bancroft’s lawyer, Oumou Prescott (Tamara Taylor) hired Reileen to deal with the mess. Reileen used VR torture to send Lizzie insane, so she wouldn’t speak out if her murdered body was discovered.
653 was bad news for Head in the Clouds
Silencing dead sex workers is one of Reileen’s specialties. She owns a satellite venue, Head in the Clouds, that promises to fulfill any fantasy of the visiting Meths. Sex workers are tortured and killed, a sign of how desensitized the elite have become. For Reileen, Resolution 653 is the ultimate enemy. If this law is passed, her business will come crumbling down, and she’ll be severely punished.
Bancroft has a huge influence at the UN, enough to help defeat Resolution 653. So Reileen blackmails Miriam into drugging her husband with a male-aggression enhancer. Bancroft has a reputation for choking prostitutes, and Reileen knows this’ll send him over the edge. He visits Head in the Clouds, loses control, and RDs a sex worker. Mary Lou was also at the scene. She flees and jumps, believing her stack will be recovered.
Why Reileen framed Prescott for Bancroft's suicide
As Reileen tells Kovacs of her plan, she reveals Lauren’s death was suicide. Riddled by guilt, he kills himself to remove memory of the incident. The trouble is, memory-wiped and resleeved in one of his clones, Bancroft refuses to believe he killed himself.
This is where Reileen spots the opportunity to bring Kovacs back — Bancroft is one of the few people in the Settled Worlds with the power to bring him off ice. So she promises Bancroft to find the best person to investigate — the only known living Envoy. Later, Reileen makes Kovacs frame Prescott for the murder; she knows Bancroft won’t rest, and she knows Kovacs will never find the culprit.
Using multiple sleeves to pull the strings
Dimi the Twin isn’t the only Altered Carbon character seen in multiple guises. Kovacs discovers a collection of sleeves in Reileen’s home: She’s the girl in the museum who has an interaction with Kovacs; the Meth who presents a snake with DHF inside at the Bancroft’s party; and crucially, she’s Dimi’s boss and Tanaka’s point of contact, Hemmingway. Reileen has been pulling the strings from afar.
There’s one final sleeve she uses that really gets under Kovacs skin, though. Ortega tracks down Reileen’s clones, killing them off, one by one. Eventually, Reileen uses the sleeve of the little girl to deceive Ortega. Reileen goes to Kovacs’ apartment in Ortega’s body, having taken her prisoner. Simultaneously, Leung, who earlier attacked Ortega, kills the rest of her family. This is the last straw for Kovacs.
Kovacs and his pack needed to stop Reileen
Kovacs and his crew — Poe, Vernon, Vernon’s wife Ava (cross-sleeved in a man’s body), and Ortega’s BPD colleague, Mickey (Adam Busch) — get to work on taking down Reileen. Kovacs has a Portable 3D Bio Organic Printer, acquired from the house of Bancroft’s son, Isaac. He creates a full clone of himself, with a copy of his DHF inside. The clone acts as a decoy while the original Kovacs heads to Head in the Clouds.
Kovacs uses a device to corrupt Reileen’s backup with the Rawling virus, which Ava reverse engineered from the stacks of dead Envoys. He forces Reileen to confess, recording it on a microwire cam implanted in his eye. After her confession, though, Kovacs, Vernon, and Ava are ambushed by guards. Reileen plans to kill them, along with Ortega, who is held hostage on the ship.
Meanwhile, at the Raven, Poe is killed, but before he dies he sends Lizzie’s consciousness to a synthetic sleeve in Head in the Clouds. Lizzie, who has been training extensively in Poe’s therapeutic VR construct, rescues Vernon, Ortega and Ava as Kovacs faces Reileen one on one, beating her and holding a gun to her head.
At this point, Reileen makes a stunning revelation — she made a backup of Quell before she died, and has her DHF stored, intact. She promises to tell Kovacs the location of the stack if he escapes with her. Kovacs refuses, and shoots Reileen through the stack, RD’ing her. The rest of the pack escape, but Kovacs stays with Reileen as Head in the Clouds crashes into the sea.
What now for Kovacs, Ortega, Ryker, and Quell?
Original Kovacs and his clone then appear in VR. Original Kovacs died in the wreckage of Head in the Clouds, but his stack was recovered. For exposing the Head in the Clouds scandal, the UN pardon Kovacs for his past as an Envoy. But double-sleeving is illegal, meaning only one of Kovacs’ DHFs can remain in Ryker’s sleeve. After talking to himself, the original Kovacs has his consciousness sent to the clone’s body.
Now cleared of charges, Ryker is ready to return. Despite falling for Ortega, Kovacs knows he must return Ryker’s sleeve, so he can be reunited with Ortega. His true love is Quell. Knowing she’s out there, her consciousness stored, gives him a new mission. “She sleeps, waiting to be awakened,” we hear Quell say via voiceover. “And someday, without fail, he will find her.” But first, he needs a new sleeve.