Altered Carbon is many things. It is a cyberpunk epic, and a cautionary tale about economic inequality. It is the story of traumatized siblings, and the plight of sex workers. It's a visually stunning marvel.
But above all, it is confusing. Many of the main characters in Altered Carbon are essentially immortal, so their timelines are unwieldy and difficult to keep track of. Not to mention that much of the show involves Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman) investigating past events to solve Laurens Bancroft's (James Purefoy) murder. So not only do characters live forever, much of the story's essential events take place in the past.
Fear not: We'll straighten out your confusion. Here, we'll reorganize three essential characters' timelines into chronological order, beginning with Takeshi Kovacs. Warning: There will be many spoilers about the fates of Altered Carbon's characters from here on out.
Takeshi and his sister Reileen (Dichen Lachman) are born on an off-world colony called Harlan's World, to an Eastern-European father and a Japanese mother. The siblings' father is extremely violent and abusive, especially toward their mother. He kills their mother, and Takeshi — only a boy at the time – retaliates by killing his father. Afterward, Takeshi is drafted to become an Envoy for the U.N. Protectorate, which governs Earth and its colonies. Essentially, Envoys are an elite group of soldiers who can needlecast (or project their minds into sleeves, or bodies) repeatedly, without experiencing mental deterioration.
While Takeshi (at this point played by Will Yun Lee) trains to be a government soldier, Rei passes in and out of foster homes before joining a criminal organization. One day, Takeshi's squad is assigned to take out Rei and her boss. After years of being separated, Takeshi and Rei reunite in the middle of a fight scene. They kill all of Takeshi's fellow Envoys, and run away to join Quellcrist Falconer (Renée Elise Goldsberry) and her team of revolutionaries.
Later, the revolutionaries are infiltrated by the U.N., and are infected with something called Rawling's Virus, which makes them go mad and turn on each other. Only Quell, Rei, and Takeshi survive, because they'd been away from the camp when the Rawling's Virus set in. Quell and Rei try leaving on an escape pod, but it explodes (this is Rei's doing).
This leaves Takeshi entirely on his own. He becomes a mercenary, switching from sleeve to sleeve. At the start of the first episode of Altered Carbon, Takeshi (played by Byron Mann) is taken out by the Envoys, and imprisoned — or placed "on ice." Two hundred years later, he is woken up from prison to solve Bancroft's murder. Takeshi is placed in the body of Elias Ryker, an imprisoned cop.
At the end of the series, Takeshi gives Ryker his body back, and goes off in search of Quellcrist Falconer's consciousness, which Rei had hidden years earlier.
Twist: Rei didn't die in the shuttle explosion! She had double sleeved herself, which is Altered Carbon vocabulary for the act of placing her consciousness in two bodies. In the years Takeshi is on ice, Reileen builds up a massive empire. She founds Psychasec, the organization responsible for all the devious technologies that Meths love to use. A.k.a.: Cloning bodies, the Head in the Clouds floating brothel, and virtual torture chambers.
Though Rei is very powerful, she isn't influential enough to free her brother, Takeshi, from prison. But Laurens Bancroft is powerful enough. So Rei manipulates Bancroft into taking his own life. Then, Rei encouraged Bancroft to bring back the last of the Envoys to solve his own "murder." Takeshi is back.
Unfortunately for Rei, Takeshi is still morally good and uninterested in creating a nefarious sibling duo. At the end of the series, once Rei's evil has been revealed, Takeshi kills her.
Right before he's killed, Bancroft goes to Japan in order to illegally influence members of the U.N. Court to defeat Resolution 653. As the show explains, "653 would allow victims to testify against their killers, even if they have religious coding on their stacks."
After passing this measure, Bancroft returns home to Bay City. Now, Rei has an opportunity to frame his death. Earlier, Rei had done Bancroft's wife, Miriam (Kristin Lehman), a favor — she disposed of a sex worker, Lizzie (Hayley Law), that Miriam had murdered. As payment, Rei has Miriam transfer a male aggression-enhancing drug to Bancroft via a kiss. While revved up on these drugs, Bancroft visits the Head in the Clouds brothel, and loses control: He destroys the stack (mind) and body of a sex worker, killing her permanently. Bancroft takes his own life to escape the guilt.
Mary-Lou Henchy (Lisa Chandler), the other sex worker present when Bancroft committed murder, jumps off the Head in the Clouds to escape from Bancroft and from Rei, who had orchestrated the gruesome act. Mary-Lou jumps under the impression that she will be resleeved; however, Psychasec had coded Mary-Lou as being Neo-C without her permission, which meant she couldn't be resleeved. With the imminent reversal of 653, Mary-Lou can testify against Bancroft, and receive a new body.
In the end, all the bad Meths — Bancroft, Miriam, and Rei — are punished. Takeshi is left without loved ones, but with the hope that he can reunite with his old lover, Quell. We'll have to wait for Season 2 (if season 2 even happens) to find out.