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‘Altered Carbon’ Explainer: Here’s What It Means That Takeshi Kovacs Is an ‘Envoy’

In ”Altered Carbon,“ Joel Kinnaman’s Takeshi Kovacs has incredible abilities — here’s how he got them, and why he kicks so much ass

The world of “Altered Carbon” has quite a few weird concepts with tough-to-remember names, and it can be easy to miss key explanations if you’re not paying close attention. For example: why protagonist Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman in the show’s “present,” Will Yun Lee in flashbacks) has seemingly superhuman fighting abilities.

In the future depicted on “Altered Carbon,” humanity has spread from Earth to multiple planets. Originally, manned space travel was so costly and time-consuming as to be essentially impossible. That changed after the creation of “Stacks,” special hard drives installed in the brainstem of every human that saves their consciousness like software on a normal computer. The upshot is that as long as the Stack remains intact, the person’s consciousness will survive the death of their body; the stack can then be attached to another body, theoretically giving humanity a kind of immortality.

The fact that human consciousness is data means it can be transmitted from one Stack to another — even over vast distances between planets — via a process called “needlecasting.” The trouble with being needlecast into a new body, however, is that it’s a disorienting process.

Takeshi is what’s known as an “Envoy,” a special breed of soldier used by the military hundreds of years before the show takes place, and still held in awe by people in the present. Envoys were trained in response to the development of  Stacks, and needlecasting.

Envoys were trained and conditioned to transfer from planet to planet and into new bodies without the disorienting effects of needlecasting, meaning they could be combat-ready within moments. This allowed the U.N. Protectorate, the government in the “Altered Carbon” universe, to quickly field armies on any planet to put down rebellions.

But Takeshi later got even better training after he joined an uprising against the Protectorate, led by a rebel named Quellcrist Falconer, that sought to prevent a future in which immortality became available only to the super rich. To give them an edge against numerically superior forces, Falconer trained defectors like Takeshi as well as new Envoys to use several additional capabilities: not only could they needlecast between planets and be ready to fight almost immediately, they could withstand torture, and heighten their perceptions through pattern recognition and other techniques.

We see an example of this in the opening scenes in the first episode of “Altered Carbon,” set 250 years in the past. Takeshi (played by Will Yun Lee) listens as Protectorate soldiers ambush him in an apartment, then lines up shots on guys on the other side of a wall to easily take them out. It looks like he can see through walls, but he’s actually just using his heightened perception to intuit where his enemies were, and will be standing. Even so, Envoys like Takeshi appear superhuman to other people — to the point it’s commonly believed they can read minds.

Falconer and her Envoys lost their war, despite being “the most formidable fighting force the galaxy has ever known,” as Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy) put it. But in his new role as private eye, Takeshi gets to use all those Envoy abilities to solve crimes and survive getting jumped by bad guys. He might not have won his war, but Takeshi’s Envoy abilities are still pretty damn useful.

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