Altered Carbon's Reileen Kawahara may be a lot of things – an orphan, a once-cherished little sister, a former Yakuza enforcer, a less-than-enthusiastic Envoy recruit, an art and antiquities dealer, a snake charmer, an interrogation clinic propitiator, a ninja fighter, an EMT, a flesh peddler, a killer, and a champion grudge-holder.
But is she also a villain?
Actress Dichen Lachman says no, not if you understand why Rei did what she did. "She's not a bad person," Lachman insisted when she sat down with SYFY WIRE. "She made bad choices. Very bad choices."
To help Lachman make her point, let's back up a bit to look at the considerable effort the television show has made to flesh out Reileen. In the original book by Richard Morgan, Takeshi Kovacs has no sister. Prior to her recommending Kovacs to Bancroft, their backstory is just that she hired him for criminal tasks in New Beijing, and it wasn't a pleasant experience. (Her philosophy was that since no one really dies anymore, the only punishment she could provide to underlings was suffering).
Kovacs didn't especially care for Kawahara, and she didn't care about him – she only thought she could control him. The show turns Reileen into Takeshi's sibling, and it humanizes both of them. Recommending Kovacs to Bancroft isn't just another business transaction, but her chance at a family reunion. "Ultimately, she does love him," Lachman said. "She's been willing to do whatever it takes to give him what he wants, to make him happy, because she loves him that much."
The intensity of their brother-sister bond is demonstrated in childhood, when Takeshi saves Reileen from their abusive father. But killing their dad gets him recruited by the Protectorate, and strands Reileen without a protector. She's bought by the Yakuza and forced to work for them, and it isn't until she runs into Takeshi years later that she breaks free, reinstating what seems to be an inviolable bond. But their relationship is severely tested when Takeshi signs up with the Envoys, and Reileen tags along. What Quellcrist Falconer is selling, she's not entirely buying, but she stays for Tak — until the moment when Quell asks them to die for the cause. When Reileen can't talk Tak out of it, she sells out the Envoys, even though it means their death warrants.
"Her motivation was true, though," Lachman said. "It wasn't superficial. She really believed they were going on a suicide mission for absolutely no good reason."
Quell wants every human to have a limit on their lifetimes – 100 years, tops. Reileen disagrees. ("I want us to see a million tomorrows," she tells Tak.) Quell's reasoning is that death should be the great equalizer to prevent the wealthy from having too much power. And since she invented the stacks which make longer life, or even immortality, possible, she feels it's her call to give or rescind that contribution to humanity. But she's not putting it up for a vote, Lachman pointed out. "If that technology is in place, and everyone is doing it, you should have the choice," Lachman argued. "No one should get in the way of anyone having the choice and the ability to do that. And she didn't want her brother to sacrifice his life and hers, potentially, for something she thought should be a choice. If you think about it, is that a bad thing?"
Reileen sees her betrayal of the Envoys as saving her brother from himself, a way to get him back on her team. ("No outsiders getting in your head," she tells him.) But even if you take her at face value, that all her murderous empire-building was to ensure a future for the two of them, she didn't understand a couple of key points. Rei was perhaps too comfortable wearing many sleeves of different ages, genders, and races – a white child, a white woman, a black man – and it didn't seem to register to her that her brother, who fought against sleeving, might not like being re-sleeved in a body he didn't identify with. (In the Protectorate and on the lam, he still chose Asian bodies.)
Also, her brother's romantic relationships shouldn't interfere with their familial relationship. The two aren't mutually exclusive, and Rei's obsession with being the only person who can truly love Tak is a tad … incestuous. Rei reframes it when she's in the sleeve of a child at the Bay City Museum's Battle of Stronghold exhibit like she's still upset that someone "stole" her best friend, but hasn't she gotten enough revenge by killing her and helping rewrite history? Why keep holding that grudge against Quell, some 250 years later? "As much as she despised her, she backed Quell up!" Lachman pointed out. "She knew her brother really loved Quell. And she knew that if she didn't back Quell up, she really would have lost him forever."
Resleeving as often as Rei does, it's possible that she's suffered some of the personality defragmentation that the show so often warns about. When she's wearing Clarissa Severin's sleeve, she talks about the rapist and murderer who was downloaded into a snake, which made him go insane. Sleeving limits exist for a reason -- not that Rei would listen, given that she thinks that the rules don't apply to Meths like her. But her reactions to threats real and perceived are too violent, too severe, too damaged – which seems like she was in serious need of psychosurgery! Even so, Lachman would like us to see the real Rei, the one who just wanted a brother's love.
"There are so many things that happened in her life to inform what she became," Lachman said. "To see that is crucial. It's so easy to see the villain as just the villain, as someone who does terrible things. But behind that, they have humanity. Reileen's final moments, when she explains what she did for her brother, I feel like you really learn who she is in that moment."