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Why The Altered Carbon Sword Fight Means More Than You Think

Altered Carbon has bravely and brazenly taken up the banner of cyberpunk tropes and cybernoir aesthetics, reworking them into something that fans have graciously devoured. In a future where the wealthy (known as "Meths" on the Netflix series) can be resleeved into new bodies (clones, essentially), criminal underworlds collide against religious dogmatists in a hail of gunfire, shattered glass, and, of course, nudity and blood. 

All of these elements come together towards the end of season 1, on episode 8, "Clash by Night." On this episode (spoilers!), Bay City Detective Kristen Ortega (Marta Higerada) hunts down Reileen Kawahara (Dichen Lachman), a perpetually reborn Meth and sister to Takeshi Kovacs, with whom Ortega shares a rather complex history. Ortega makes her way into a chamber honeycombed by sleeping clones of Reileen, where all cylinders fly in what was bound to be an instantly infamous piece of combat. Dubbed "the naked sword fight scene" by many online, it's pretty much exactly what the moniker suggests — plus guns, glass, and blood.

But there's even more to the moment than that. Fans of old-school movies and TV shows were quick to notice to a callout in the scene to one of the most well-known sword-and-sorcery shows of the 1990s: Highlander. This isn't mere fan service, however. It's a deliberate and pointed signpost to hidden questions lingering at the core of Altered Carbon's lore.

Let's dive deeper into the significance of this very deliberate nod to the MacLeods of Highlander – whether they be Connor, Duncan, or any other.

To the victor go the spoils

When Detective Kristen Ortega creeps into the chamber housing all of Reileen Kawahara's clones (sleeves), she knows everything is creepily quiet. She goes in by herself, rubs the fogged glass of a nearby sleeve's sleeping chamber, and recognizes the face inside. The facility's attendant closes the door behind Ortega, trapping her inside. Ortega calls for backup, but to no effect, and curses her fate.  

That's when the first clone busts out of her (very breakable) glass-covered sleeping chamber and stabs Ortega in the gut with a shattered piece of glass. Ortega fights for her life and takes Reileen out with a series of gunshots. She stands over Reileen's corpse, clutching her bleeding side when another clone breaks free and goes for our San Franciscan detective. In a series of duels, like a gladiatorial gauntlet, Ortega dispatches each clone, one at a time. Some combatants taunt her — or walk creepily, slowly, almost drone-like — until they break into a flurry of attacks. Some of them die rather easily to Ortega's aim (one dies to a headshot even before it hits the ground). 

It's only when the last version of Reileen grabs her sword from the wall, disarms Ortega, and goes at San Francisco's finest in a melee showdown of blows, parries, and skin that Reileen refers to herself as "I" — citing how much money the lost clones will cost her. With a sword that looks exactly like the one from the Highlander series in hand, this final clone dies as well. 

Given what we know about Highlander, the message is simple: This sleeve is the true incarnation of Reileen. 

The connection between Altered Carbon and Highlander

Highlander took off in the 1990s through a series of films and a TV show that featured immortals scattered across time and the globe. They live, breathe, and work right alongside humans without anyone knowing. Of course, the immortals themselves know who else is masquerading as a paltry mortal. They're driven by instinct and code to hunt each other down and fight to the death in one-on-one combat. An immortal can only die when they are beheaded (in an act called The Quickening), and so each immortal carries around a signature sword in the off-hand case that they need to, you know, behead a rival. When an immortal is beheaded, their life force goes into their killer, and one by one, the number of immortals on the planet dwindle. It's a form of reincarnation, much like cloning. Or as Altered Carbon calls it: resleeving.

In the end, as Highlander famously says, there can be only one.

The sword Reileen picks up during Altered Carbon's naked sword scene appears to be a replica of the one that belongs to Duncan MacLeod (Adrian Paul) on the Highlander TV show. Duncan happens to be the ultimate, last immortal of the Highlander universe, which makes the connection between Highlander and Reileen's sword-wielding clone clear: This clone is the one, true Reileen. Non-coincidentally, it's the only one that goes for sword very casually waiting on the wall. 

This tells us a lot about the lore of the world of Altered Carbon. The singular consciousness of a Meth can bounce from clone to clone, but somewhere within a batch of clones, it has to come to a final resting spot. 

The Altered Carbon sword fight scene proves the mind and the body aren't the same

Consciousness transfer isn't a new idea in science fiction, and has even been tackled by giants like Star Trek. When a transporter beams someone from place to place, it's actually making a copy of the original person, exactly as they were, memories and all. (Hence Dr. McCoy's grumbling about having to use them — he fears that he's actually dying and being reborn with each transport.)

A question lingering at the heart of Altered Carbon is one of consciousness and self-awareness. If a mind can simply be mapped from one body (sleeve) to the next, then where does the original person reside? Can a resleeved individual actually be called the same person, or is it a mere copy? And what if multiple copies are made? Where does the soul reside — if it doesn't live in the physical brain and can be copied willy-nilly from one place to the other like a JPG of your last vacation to Cancun? 

These kinds of seemingly metaphysical questions reflect the greater theme of Altered Carbon: Where has the soul of humanity gone in a future of so much disrepair and degradation? Such thoughts are given space to breathe by the performances and dedication of actors, production teams, and tightly choreographed fight scenes. The nitty-gritty details of the naked sword scene, in particular, and what the actors involved had to endure, are hard to ignore.

Training the body to prepare the mind for Altered Carbon's sword fight scene

Speaking with Entertainment Weekly in February 2018, Reileen actress Dichen Lachman shared how excited she was about the opportunity to get in shape and train for her fully-nude sequence: "I assumed if I was ever going to be naked on screen it would be in a different way, like in a sex scene, or being manipulated. But in this scene, Reileen was fighting. And she was fighting another woman, and that got me excited too." It was this inversion of convention, and its inherent female empowerment, that Lachman her to discuss the scene with her family and come to see that it was the right decision for her to undertake.

Still, it's no easy task for an actor to train for such a scene while also dedicating herself to being fully nude on camera. Lachman took inspiration from her character's resolve, and used the time spent preparing for the scene to overcome her fears about shooting it. "By the time we got to do it I'd been training about four or five months and felt confident," she told EW. "I still had insecurities but the character helped me move through that — because Reileen doesn't have any insecurity in that sense."

Even though the scene ended in the apparent death of Lachman's character, the impact of her dedication lives on in countless online discussions, fan theories, and memes.