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Takeshi Kovacs' Entire Altered Carbon Backstory Explained

Altered Carbon portrays a world hundreds of years in the future. It's a brutal place, divided sharply into haves and have-nots, where those with means never truly have to die. One's consciousness can be transferred to devices called cortical stacks, which, given the money, can be transferred endlessly into new bodies, referred to as "sleeves." One can still "die" if the cortical stack is damaged, but with the right protection ... well, there's a reason the wealthiest of this world are called "Meths," in reference to the biblical Methuselah.

Altered Carbon's protagonist Takeshi Kovacs once fought to bring down this dizzying new world order. But that was 250 years ago. Today, he is employed by those with the means to live forever. Kovacs, portrayed by different actors as his stack is "re-sleeved," is where our story begins.

Chaos, destruction, and deception follow him wherever he goes — at nearly 300 years old, he has plenty of scores to settle. We're here to untangle his many lives, missions, and mysteries. This is the story of Takeshi Kovacs.

Sleeves and stacks

To understand Kovacs and his place in the Altered Carbon universe, it's important to understand how sleeves and stacks function. Essentially, humans have found a way to digitize their consciousness. People can still die, sure, but they're no longer doomed by Father Time and the ravages of old age. They can simply hop over to a new, young body, when the old one begins to falter — if they have the cash, that is — and continue living. A person's consciousness stays intact as long as a stack does, even if it's not in a body.

These bodies, referred to as "sleeves," can be naturally human, but are often synthetic. If a sleeve is damaged, whether as a result of disease, gunshot wounds, or anything in between, a person can be put into a new sleeve — though it isn't always a painless process.

This is how and why Kovacs is portrayed by different actors: Joel Kinnaman, Anthony Mackie, and Ray Chase. He's the same person mentally, his cortical stack intact, but his sleeve changes due to damage and other off-screen occurrences. A stack isn't totally unchanged by its sleeve, however. Kovacs doesn't like tobacco, yet his Elias Ryker sleeve is addicted, so Kovacs smokes while occupying his body.

Takeshi Kovacs' birth sleeve

Takeshi Kovacs' original sleeve (referred to as his birth sleeve) is that of a boy, played by Morgan Gao. He is a native of Harlan's World, alongside his unnamed mother, abusive father, and us-against-the-world sister Reileen Kawahara. Reileen and Kovacs' father ultimately kills their mother, an event which lays the eventual groundwork for Kovacs killing his father when his father threatens Reileen.

Kovacs is taken into custody by the Colonial Tactical Assault Corps. Jaeger, a CTAC Praetorian, is impressed by Kovacs' murderous nature, and offers Kovacs the opportunity to enlist in the CTAC. He agrees, as long as one condition is met: Reileen must be taken care of. All parties agree and Kovacs leaves behind his first sleeve. At only 12 years old, his young body is placed in storage, and he is sent off to take over a different, grown-up sleeve and begin his training as a soldier.

A young soldier

Kovacs sets off for training in his new sleeve. He was "needlecasted" into his new body, a process that transmits data across massive distances, faster than the speed of light. Needlecasting makes it possible to transfer a person's consciousness to faraway locations, even different worlds, instantaneously. This is how Kovacs is deposited into his new body.

In this sleeve, Kovacs learns how to become a killing machine. He's an obedient soldier, happy to serve, and even finds a father figure in Jaeger. On the way to turning his body into a weapon and becoming one of Jaeger's brightest and most promising students, however, a mission brings Kovacs back to his homeworld and into his original sleeve, now grown to adulthood.

Tasked with wiping out a Yakuza stronghold, Kovacs meets a young woman working as an enforcer. Kovacs eventually realizes they know each other — the woman is Reileen, his sister. It is clear to him, suddenly, that Jaeger didn't keep his promise to protect Reileen ... and that he has been sent to kill her, alongside all the other Yakuza. Kovacs and Reileen proceed to join forces and kill the CTAC soldiers Kovacs arrived with.

The Envoy

After fleeing the scene, Kovacs and Reileen discuss their options. Eventually, they decide to take shelter in the mountains, where they are ambushed by the Envoy, a resistance group led by the mysterious Quellcrist Falconer. As wanted fugitives in a surveillance state, they have few options. Kovacs and Reileen decide to join the Envoy.

Kovacs, already a skilled soldier, becomes an even more efficient fighter through training with the Envoy. He also falls in love with Quellcrist. He joins her on a final mission to infect every stack in existence with a virus that will destroy them after 100 years of existence, eliminating immortality for the rich and powerful. It is revealed that she was the one who invented the stacks as a means for interstellar travel, and is horrified by how they have come to be used. The mission fails, however, when Reileen betrays the Envoy. Ignorant of his sister's deception, Kovacs sends Reileen and Quellcrist to a ship so they can escape. Horrifyingly, he sees the ship destroyed as they fly away. The Envoy goes into hiding and Kovacs becomes a local mercenary.

Harlan's World

As a local mercenary, Kovacs is confined to Harlan's World. Unable to leave due to his criminal status, he stays there for four years. Eventually, he joins forces with another mercenary, Sarah, with whom he begins a relationship. The two are eventually attacked by CTAC soldiers led by the vengeful Jaeger. While both are physically killed, Sarah's stack is destroyed and Kovacs is framed for her murder. 

This is awful enough, but worse still is the way Sarah's stack was destroyed: Jaeger, incensed by Kovacs' disrespect, deliberately shoots her stack, destroying her entirely in a vengeful act of "punishment." Jaegar claims Kovacs turned on Sarah, and that he was the one to shoot her through the stack in a senseless act of violence. He is, of course, believed, and Kovacs is incarcerated in Millsport Maximum Security Prison. There, his stack is preserved and imprisoned for 250 years. His sentence has no end date — he is, essentially, cast into limbo, subject entirely to the whims of others.

The Last Envoy

Time after time, Kovacs is referred to as "the Last Envoy," which, other than being a cool title, actually holds a lot of meaning. The Envoy weren't just a special breed of soldiers led by Quellcrist Falconer. They were viewed as some of the best fighters around, if not the best. This helps to explain why everyone wants to take a crack at Kovacs: Not only are Envoys superior in combat, they have become legend.

Envoys have the ability to needlecast to different planets and vessels without being disoriented. They can also withstand sinister torture, allowing them to manipulate interrogators inside virtual reality constructs. Envoys also have heightened intuition and foresight, which is why Laurens Bancroft hires Kovacs to solve his murder.

All in all, Envoys are so rare that they're almost like mythical creatures. Kovacs is dubbed the Last Envoy, a title he lives up to as he's virtually the best fighter and most valuable weapon in the Altered Carbon universe.

The Elias Ryker sleeve

After 250 years, Kovacs' stack is resleeved in the body of Elias Ryker. Ryker is a Bay City police officer who, similar to Kovacs, has been framed and imprisoned. Kovacs, ensconced in Ryker's body, is tasked with solving the murder of Laurens Bancroft, a wealthy man over 360 years old. Bancroft did not truly die, of course, but he wants to know who killed that particular sleeve.

Kovacs is placed in this specific sleeve to torment Ryker's lover, Officer Kristin Ortega, for digging too deep when it comes to the criminal activities of the immortal elite. Bancroft, of course, is one of these Meths, obsessed with being godlike. Seriously — he even lives in a palace in the sky.

Kovacs eventually clears Ryker's name and returns the sleeve so Ryker and Ortega can be together. Kovacs also discovers his sister is still alive and that she's the one who interfered with the mission 250 years ago that seemingly got her and Quellcrist killed. Although he loves his sister and his long-standing wish is to protect her, he kills her because she's no longer the little girl he used to cherish. Before he dispatches her, however, she tells him that Quellcrist is still alive. Finding Quellcrist immediately becomes Kovacs' new goal.

The torch singer

Season two of Altered Carbon takes place 30 years after the first season and sees Kovacs in a yet another unfamiliar body, played by South Korean actress and singer Jihae Kim. Kovacs takes up this sleeve to disguise himself as he waits for a man to pay him the money he's owed. He hides in plain sight, pretending to be a cocktail singer. Unfortunately for this sleeve, Kovacs is shot and killed by bounty hunter Trepp, who delivers Kovacs' stack to a Meth for payment. The Meth offers Kovacs a job, a high-tech sleeve (played by Anthony Mackie), and the chance to reunite with Quellcrist Falconer. While Kovacs' goal is to find Quellcrist, he's now also in search of enough credits to get off-planet. Both missions collide as Quellcrist is, in fact, on the same planet as Kovacs. When it comes to Kovacs, the past never stays buried, no one is ever truly dead, and the chance to succeed is offered again and again ... at an ever-increasing cost.

A brand new, high-tech sleeve

Anthony Mackie plays Takeshi Kovacs' main sleeve in season two. Although all of Kovacs' sleeves tend to be powerful, this version has some serious upgrades: For example, his hands are magnetized, which means he can boomerang his guns, and he heals with impressive speed. This sleeve is designed for top-tier combat and made by the Protectorate.

Many events take place over the course of Kovacs' time in the sleeve played by Mackie. Chief among them are the reunions Kovacs has with Quellcrist and Jaegar. And while dead things don't stay dead for long in this universe, season two ends with Mackie-Kovacs sacrificing himself. In this instance, the Mackie sleeve and Kovacs' stack are both destroyed. However, the Kovacs character lives on as it's implied that the humanoid AI Edgar Poe backed up a version of Kovacs before his stack was destroyed. Thus ends the second season of Altered Carbon.


"Double sleeving" is the act of copying a consciousness and placing it into multiple sleeves. Though it isn't actually illegal to copy a consciousness, nor to store those copies in cortical stacks, it is illegal to house those duplicated consciousnesses within multiple sleeves. Kovacs pulls off this feat twice. It's illegal, but when has that stopped him?

In season one, we see Kovacs inhabiting two Ryker sleeves. In season two, the concept of double-sleeving is taken up a notch when Ivan Carrera, an alias for Jaeger, brings back a copy of Kovacs before he went AWOL and joins forces with Quellcrist. This Kovacs is referred to as Kovacs Prime. While Carrera brings back this version of Kovacs to take down his enemy, both Kovacs characters eventually team up, with the Mackie sleeve sacrificing himself to save the world and the other sleeve surviving the season two finale. It's a risky process that can drive a person mad, but Kovacs hasn't met that fate ... yet.