Quellcrist Falconer, played by Tony-winner Renée Elise Goldsberry, is being held prisoner. As Quell is interrogated, her captors attempt to shoot at her in an extreme test of both mind and body at the same time. In a flash, the Altered Carbon hero grabs two knives out of her battlegear, flings them into the air, and knocks her aggressors’ weapons to the ground. Seconds later, she slides across a cave and picks up a battle axe, using it to render another would-be assassin unconscious. Quell then turns to a fourth shooter, blocks his bullets with the axe, and finally hurls it at his head, knocking him out cold.
When her show of force — found in the sixth episode of the Netflix show’s second season, “Bury Me Dead” — is done, Quell goes back to calmly answering the question at hand.
If Altered Carbon 2.0, which premiered February 27, were a basic action flick, Quell would probably be wearing a lot less clothing and waving a gun around just to prove she is “tough.” But Quell isn’t trying to live up to some man’s standard of power. The truth-testing process she is currently undergoing is one she created hundreds of years earlier (only in Altered Carbon can someone’s consciousness and body reappear centuries later and still be in fighting shape).
As a new decade dawns on Netflix, Altered Carbon — a series created, directed, stunt-coordinated, led, and now written by various women in its second season — raises one mission statement for the streamer: no one needs the tired, showy moniker of “strong female character” when not one woman in Altered Carbon ever assumed she wasn’t strong in the first place.
“One of the things I’m really proud of with Altered Carbon season 2 is that it’s a given that women are actors in their own destiny from top to bottom,” writer Alison Schapker — who took over showrunning duties from creator Laeta Kalogridis — told Refinery29 on a phone call. “They have their own motivations, and are not on the fringes in any way. They’re driving the whole narrative forward.”
The spirit of Schapker’s words were alive and well on- and off-camera during a June 2019 set visit to Altered’s Vancouver set. Although the presence of the series’ new action hero Anthony Mackie — filling the role of envoy Takeshi Kovacs after season 1 star Joel Kinaman’s exit — loomed large, the series’ women led every sector of production. Actress/director Salli Richardson-Whitfield was in the middle of helming the final two episodes of the season. Veteran stunt coordinator Melissa R. Stubbs was in charge of the fight scenes. Shots were filled with the cast’s women — like Goldsberry, Power’s Lela Loren, Netflix-Marvel alum Simone Missick, and Missick’s on-screen wife Sharon Taylor — and their competing, thorny motivations.
“My character is Trepp, she is a bounty hunter. She is a wife and a mother,” Missick explained of her new character in between filming. “She will hunt down anybody that she needs to to to make money to take care of [her] family. She’ll find anybody for the right price.”
The ease of Missick’s descriptors of her character — mother, wife, fearless bounty hunter — are impossible to ignore after decades of watching motherhood and grit placed at opposite personality poles for women characters (remember Wonderwoman’s feminist utopia of Themyscira, an island almost entirely populated by unstoppable women warriors who purposefully shunned parenthood?).
Taylor, who plays Trepp’s spouse Myka is equally proud of all the roles her character plays in her own life, as a partner, mother, former career woman, and now bartender. “Being a badass woman doesn't mean that you have to be able to punch someone, or kick someone, or throw down in a fight,” Taylor said. “What's interesting about Myka is that she gets to be tough because she's a mother and she protects her son, she loves her partner... She's strong emotionally.”
Stunt coordinator Stubbs calls Quell the “ultimate woman.” OG Kavacs, The Good Doctor’s Will Yun Lee refers to her as “the strongest character in our show.” Quell re-enters the Altered Carbon universe hundreds of years after her supposed death before the events of season 1 when she is accidentally awakened in a soap opera-level-twisty series of events. When Quell is revived, she is still the most agile fighter in the galaxy, as the former leader of the anti-imperialist freedom fighters the envoys. However, faced with a brand-new world, Quell must grapple with society’s idea of her, her own understanding of her history, and the blind love of the man who has obsessed about her over centuries, Kovacs.
“He saw her as this wonderful thing and we want everybody that we love to see us through that magical lens, but in reality we all have our own struggles,” Quell’s portrayer, Goldsberry, said on set. “Quell is a woman who is just so aware of her responsibility in this world, and she doesn’t allow herself a whole lot of time to be just a woman.”
Thanks to Quell’s newfound second lease on life, she spends much of season 2 demanding Kovacs give her the space to explore what womanhood actually means to her now. “That’s another thing that’s really wonderful about being a principal character in this genre and not a supporting character,” Goldsberry begins. “We actually get to see the struggle [for Quell]. Because sometimes, if you’re just supporting the man in the show, you don’t really see as clearly what a woman is going through. That journey is what this season is all about for Quell.”
Despite his technical status as Altered Carbon’s protagonist, Anthony Mackie isn’t jealous of all the care the women around him received — or all that surprised. “I feel like in the Black community, we’ve always had films with Black women whoopin’ ass. We’ve always had the dignified, strong Black woman. It’s nothing new,” he pointed out during a break, name-checking Pam Grier movies like Jackie Brown and Coffy. “Seeing these Black women kick ass wasn’t a surprise. That’s what Black women do. That’s what they’ve been doing literally since we’ve been involved in film. If it’s a surprise to you, the bigger surprise should be the limitation on the way you see the world.”
Although Mackie’s own character, Kovacs, could easily be a hypermasculine fighting machine, the actor believes the involvement of all the women in Altered Carbon has saved his character from such a pitfall. “It helps that there’s a certain compassion that he has, that has been brought to it because there are so many female writers on this show,” Mackie said thoughtfully before he returned to filming. “I think they’ve written him with a very clear understanding of the male ego and masculinity. So with all of us working together, we’ve met at this medium ground. They’ve written him to be sensitive, and I’ve brought the machismo.”
Considering the fact that Kovacs spends Altered Carbon season 2’s eight episodes continuously chasing, protecting, and listening to his “north star” Quell, as showrunner Schapker describes her, Mackie has a point.
Yet, the Altered Carbon cast knows they haven’t solved feminist TV forever or that no piece of action pop culture will ever feel the pull of sidelining or fetishizing its women characters again. After all, there are still movies coming out where the sole woman in a group of adventurers is wearing a crop top and short shorts.
“You always have to fight for that. I see that and I recognize that more and more every day that as much as things improve and they get better, the more they stay the same,” Missick said on set. “You will always have someone trying to tell women who they should be. How they can use their bodies. How they can speak in public. How they should dress and walk and take nude selfies. There will never be a time where we don’t have to fight for representation of women.”
That is a fact that will most likely ring true until a Black woman supersoldier/scientist with a legendary protective style is the face of a universe-wide rebellion.