This is the most self-contained and succinct episode of Altered Carbon yet, basically telling two stories — the torture of Takeshi Kovacs and a unique family dinner with Officer Kristin Ortega — and hitting pause on the mystery of who killed the ultrawealthy Laurens Bancroft. The richest man in the universe and his weird family don’t even appear in “Force of Evil,” but we do learn a great deal about Kovacs’s background and skill set. Perhaps Ortega’s interest in the last envoy may be because of who this sleeve was before Tak was needlecast into it.
Was he a man named Ryker? Someone thinks so, because they’re willing to torture Kovacs nearly to the point of insanity in their belief that he is actually a man named Ryker. The episode opens in a creepy place called the Wei Clinic, where technicians claim they’re going to crack Kovacs “like a walnut.” Turns out that men are still insensitive boobs centuries from now, and there’s a particularly nasty moment when Alice’s body is torn apart as Kovacs and his kidnapper lie on tables next to each other, wires on their heads. We discover that Kovacs’s kidnapper is the twin of the assassin gunned down in the Raven Hotel lobby in episode one — and he’s going to virtually torture Kovacs to find out why his “brother” was killed. Of course, we know Kovacs was just defending himself, but there’s something suspicious going on, and it’s all related to a man named Ryker.
The important thing to know is that the bulk of this episode takes place in a virtual world where Kovacs can literally be tortured to death over and over again. The concept of Altered Carbon has allowed for multiple interesting philosophical conundrums over only four episodes, and here’s another one. Imagine the world in which the body is completely disposable and consciousnesses can be transported to virtual torture chambers. An enemy could literally be raped and killed over and over again to get information. The pain would feel real every time. Kovacs’s torturer starts slowly, ripping off his fingernails, and gets more and more intense, graduating to chopping off his limbs. He really gets intense when he takes a sluglike alien and drops it into one of Kovacs’s open wounds. This episode really capitalizes on Netflix’s willingness to go R-rated; it’s not for the kids or the faint of heart.
To survive his torture, Kovacs flashes back to his envoy training with Quellcrist Falconer, played by Renée Elise Goldsberry of Hamilton fame. Falconer has appeared in Kovacs’s flashbacks before, but this episode deepens their connection and the lessons she taught him about how to survive torture. It’s a nice showcase for Goldsberry, although one hopes her character becomes more than just an inspirational memory.
While this dark subplot is playing out, the episode spins something a bit lighter and more philosophical when Ortega temporarily resleeves her own grandmother into the body of a recently arrested convict so that her abuela can come to their Día de Muertos party. It creates some fighting around the family table as Ortega’s mother believes that death should be final. Ortega wonders why God wouldn’t want her loved one at the table for a family dinner, and the convergence with the concept of Día de Muertos, a holiday meant to honor lost loved ones, is clever. It’s a fun subplot, although the scenes back at the station in which Ortega and her abuela talk about heaven, souls, and (maybe) doing drugs in this new body drag on a bit too long.
Although “Force of Evil” is less narratively meaty than the first three episodes, it’s all worth it for how it closes. After Kovacs literally virtually rips his heart from his chest and hands it to a virtual memory of Falconer, he wakes up on the table in the clinic, ready to kick some ass. He sees the torn-apart body of Alice, sheds a tear, and then basically tells everyone in the room that he’s going to kill them, their families, their friends, their dogs, their cats, and their goldfish. And then he does just that, destroying everyone in sight with a “Hello Unicorn” backpack on as PJ Harvey plays as the soundtrack. Hell yes. He shoots the metal dude with the cool spine in the throat as he carries the severed head of his torturer back to his room.
Ortega says good-bye to her abuela and gets a call about the boom-boom at the clinic. On her way in, she tells a reporter to fist herself. She’s really not messing around. They arrive at the bloodbath, where she finds the tracker she had placed on Kovacs on the middle finger of the headless corpse. She marches into Kovacs’s room, finding him waiting with the dude’s head in an ice bucket. Kovacs knows that Ortega was tracking him. Why? Why is she so interested in him? He cuts his skin to see if she gets upset. She clearly doesn’t like it. Is he Ryker? And who is Ryker to her? She gives in just as he’s about to cut his own throat: “I’ll tell you everything.”
• The song that plays during the shootout is called “This Wicked Tongue,” from PJ Harvey’s phenomenal Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea. You should not only listen to it, but to as much PJ Harvey as possible. She rules.
• “Force of Evil” was directed by Alex Graves, a TV vet who has helmed episodes of Game of Thrones, Homeland, and House of Cards.
• Although I missed the Bancroft mystery, it was interesting to see that this show is willing to leave it behind. Will the case even be solved this season? What if the show just uses Bancroft’s murder as an excuse to go other places?
• This episode’s sci-fi recommendation is one of the most influential pieces of anime of all time and a clear influence on Altered Carbon: the original Ghost in the Shell (not that Scarlett Johansson remake nonsense.)