Poe in Altered Carbon
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Credit: Netflix

How Altered Carbon Season 2 makes Poe the TARDIS to Takeshi's Doctor Who

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Feb 24, 2020, 4:15 PM EST

Netflix's Altered Carbon is all about life, death, and resurrection. Adapted from the cyberpunk novels by Richard K. Morgan, it posits a world in which humankind has cracked the code to immortality by uploading their consciousness to "stacks," implanted alien disks that can download your soul to different human bodies. It's how we've colonized the stars, and in grand sci-fi tradition, brought our propensity for war, poverty, and conflict along with us.

The body-swapping potential of the series' concept allows for bold narrative choices such as Season 2's recasting of the protagonist, centuries-old criminal-turned-reluctant detective Takeshi Kovacs, from Season 1's Joel Kinnaman to Anthony Mackie.

But not all the faces are new: One of the most exciting holdovers from the previous season is Chris Conner's foppish AI landlord Poe, whose charmingly old-fashioned personality and aesthetic (heavily derived from Edgar Allen Poe) made him a fan-favorite in the first season. The end of Season 1 saw him tragically killed at the behest of the show's villains, but as Season 2 begins, 30 years later, he's resurrected as Kovacs' full-fledged AI companion — the Sancho Panza in his quixotic quest to search the galaxy for his lost love, notorious rebel Quellcrist Falconer (Renee Elise Goldsberry, also returning from Season 1).

This time around, Poe has a bit more on his plate than being yelled at by Kovacs and maintaining his Victorian-themed AI hotel: A progressive software glitch is deteriorating his function and memory, threatening him with the kind of death typically only feared by the humans he serves. While he serves a vital function in Kovacs' journey, Poe's quest to stave off his own death — both for his master and himself — is one of the most intriguing standalone elements of the season.

In anticipation of the character's return, SYFY WIRE spoke to Conner about bringing Poe back from the dead, the new challenges his character faces, and the responsibility of carrying the torch on a show with such a comprehensively rotating cast.

How did it feel to be asked about back for Season 2? What were those conversations like?

When we were nearing the end of season one, that was gonna happen. I mean, my original contract was for multiple years, so there was an understanding that was gonna happen. And there were some ideas about how, as I died nanobots appear or you know, just trying to figure out some kind of lead into how Poe sticks around.

And then when it became clear that I was actually going to be part of Season 2, my biggest question was, "how do we make this realistic enough that we don't waste the opportunities that we have with a great death in season one and not sell the audience short? How do we continue on and have some logical way for me to continue in the world of Altered Carbon? I think the writers really pulled it off with this idea of fractured consciousness and the idea of resetting, losing a sense of self and memory.

How did you and the writers conceptualize Poe's struggle this season with his "glitching" and losing his memories?

One great thing that the writers included was this struggle of losing one's mind. At the very beginning of the season when we started to write [Poe's journey], what really interested me was how Alzheimer's and brain injuries play in the human mind, and how that relates to what Poe is going through as an AI. We talked about a wonderful British documentary called Mom and Me, and The Forgetting, a great podcast that NPR did that really influenced my take on the idea of losing one's self but still picking up the pieces. That was something I really leaned on, and I really appreciate that the writers helped me with that.

How did that affect your performance, especially when working around all the visual effects meant to manifest the glitching? How did you play that on set?

In Mom and Me, there's an older woman who had an infectious, joyous laugh as she suffered through Alzheimer's, and that reminded me a bit of King Lear as he slowly loses his mind. And there's that wonderful Samuel Beckett line: "Laughing wild amidst severest woe." And when my grandfather was dying of brain cancer and had brain surgery, he would chuckle when he lost his place or didn't know what he was doing. It's a way of providing security to the person opposite of you, right? Like, I know this is disturbing, but it's going to be okay.

You're one of the few actors who actually carry over in a regular role into Season 2, as Altered Carbon being a show of changing identities and body-swapping and identities in flux. How did it feel to enter into a new season as one of the only performers to carry over?

One of the best things about the world is that we can have an entirely new ensemble, but Poe is kind of the center post. I know people have talked about it online, and I think it's an interesting idea, that I'm more like the TARDIS in Doctor Who. You can have a different Doctor, but they're always going to back to the TARDIS, you know? And in some ways that's true.

But I really appreciate that Anthony [Mackie], as the new Takeshi, was able to go to a place where it's 30 years later, and we're more like an old married couple than in Season 1, where we're just getting to know one another and Poe's trying frantically hold on to a friend for the first time.

It's definitely a surreal experience to step onto the same set, a lot of the same crew that we had from season one, but the world itself is another world, and the writers are all new writers. In the end, the actors are all new actors and that's really entertaining and fun for someone who has an entirely playful perspective about work. And you know, I had a whole other set of friends to play with, which was awesome as an actor.

Credit: Netflix

Did you feel like a steward of the show in a certain way? Do other actors come to you for insight into how to operate in this world?

I do know the world rather well, being a fan of sci-fi in a certain way. And I think I do have a sense of ownership of the show in a weird way, because I care so much about making a product that feels grounded and real and still entertaining, and I think is important in a time where we have a dreading sense of dystopian society around us. It's gratifying to have people come up and ask me questions about that.

But at the same time, that's the wonderful thing about dealing with such talented people. Allison Schapker, who's our new showrunner, she just dove right into that and made it her own. And Anthony, while he's a different sleeve, I mean, the badassness of Takeshi Kovacs is s still there. And you couldn't get two more different stars than Joel Kinnaman and Anthony Mackie, but both were willing to be flat-out rock stars when it came to performance. That was incredibly gratifying and fun to help facilitate.

And your dynamic with Takeshi is really different this season; you described it like an old married couple, but there are elements where it's almost a master-pet scenario. You have this puppy-dog loyalty to him no matter how badly he mistreats you. What was it like finding that more secure relationship with Takeshi after Season 1?

That goes directly to that idea of the old married couple, actually; that dismissiveness and harshness that he might show towards me is really about trying to make sure that we stay alive. Because I am choosing selfishly at times in his eyes, as opposed to being focused on the prize, which for him is a completely different prize than Poe wants. So the evolution of the relationship is fascinating.

And then also, on top of all of that, you have a third wheel we've been looking for for so long — the love, the eternal flame of his life. When I actually finally see [Quell] and interact with her, it's a greater understanding of what he's been wanting and going through the whole time.

And yet, Poe gets to go off on his own a lot more. You relinquish ownership of the AI hotel, which you've mentioned in interviews you got to use as an extension of your character. What was it like severing that part of your character?

That's directly related to that idea of trying to hold on to your sanity, and at some point, you have to cut off parts of you to facilitate change. What does that mean? What kind of sacrifices? Is there something about giving something that is my domain to someone I find fascinating, being more intimate with that being by letting them have control over it? It's incredibly intimate and really fascinating. Dina [Shihabi], who plays Dig 301, was so lovely in embracing that idea of where our relationship as characters was headed and where it eventually ends up.

Poe gets to have more independence this season and even gets to go off on his own storylines. How did that feel as an actor to take ownership of the story a bit more?

It's an incredible treat, but at the same time, there's no doubt that Takeshi Kovacs is the center of the story. So in some ways, I'm apprehensive, and I definitely hope the audience goes on the journey with me. I'm not nearly part of the world of Altered Carbon as compared to Takeshi, but in a practical way it does facilitate storytelling to get from point A to point Z in the season, and it's rewarding as an actor to play such a big part in having such a fleshed-out, middle part of the story.

Also, I will say that the four directors that we had this year were really communicative and focused on trying to facilitate Alison's vision of the show and provide a clear through-line, whether it be the story of Takeshi or the story of Poe, and I really appreciate the idea that they actually talk to one another. A lot of times you end up on television shows, and the director doesn't know the last director that was there. There was a sense of unity in the storytelling, and I think that comes across in the show.

Credit: Netflix

Speaking of unity in storytelling, how did Alison Schapker's approach and sensibilities as a showrunner differ from [Season 1 showrunner] Laeta Kalogridis?

We still had some major consistency, because we still had [production designer] Carey Meyer designing our world, even though it's a different planet this season, and Alison gets to tell such a different story compared to Laeta's dark noir, cyberpunk, slightly cryptic first season. We have more of a love story in season two; whether it's my story with Dig, or Kovacs looking for the love of his life, it's a pretty fascinating juxtaposition between two seasons of television.

Granted, Alison comes from a pretty diverse background as far as a writer, writing on Lost and being on Shonda Rhimes shows, you can't get more different as far as network television goes. And then to be taken from network TV and put on one of the Netflix series is an amazing chance for her, and I think she relished in it. Laeta, she's a dynamic sci-fi film writer. Having two such talented people and getting to live in the world with such different strokes of genius was a privilege.

What's it like doing a show with two different female showrunners and such a diverse cast?

It's refreshing; up until now I never had a female showrunner, and that just speaks to the increased diversity we have on the show.

We have M.J. Bassett directing Episodes 3 and 4 of Season 2. She's a trans woman and is one of the greatest directors I've ever had a chance to work with. And Salli Richardson, a black female director, doing the last two episodes of Season 2. It's a rare case of getting a chance to work in such a diverse workplace and a true testament to Laeta's original vision and Alison's continuation of it.

How does it affect the atmosphere on set?

It definitely fostered a greater understanding and perspective of the human struggle. If you watch TV from the '80s or the '90s, you end up getting bogged down in an older, cis, white male view of the world. And as our culture expands as it has, that ends up feeling less inclusive and interesting as compared to having perspectives from, say, two strong black women as leads of our show, and a strong black male lead of our show.

It just makes everything more visceral, interesting and vital. I so appreciate the opportunity to be part of a show that's greater for its inclusiveness; it's where the industry needs to go.