Freudian Delight — The Depiction of Narcissism in Netflix’s Altered Carbon

Sigmund Freud (if you don’t already know who he is, Google is more than capable of telling you all about the Austrian pioneer of psychoanalysis) divides the basic drives of human beings into two things: Sex and aggression. In the show Altered Carbon, the same two things occur in both a crazy amount and a crazy level. One of the things I like about Altered Carbon (though this could easily be a turn-off for some people) was that it isn’t shy about showing the many sexual intercourses and nude scenes along with the various-levels of-fucked-up violent scenes throughout the course of its 10-episode season. There were many times when I was thinking to myself, “Oh, no, they wouldn’t go there,” and they went there.

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Nudity and violence are the norm.

It all ties back to one of the main existential questions that ties the show together: What would mankind be if they are stripped from their mortality?

To go back to Freud’s theory of basic human drives, the drive for sex, or for life (also called Eros after the Greek god of sexual attraction), could be divided into four basic shapes. The most basic drive, the one everyone has and starts during infancy, is narcissism. Freud defines narcissism as the “libidinal complement to the egoism of the instinct of self-preservation”. In simpler terms, narcissism is the drive for sex, love, and passion directed exclusively towards oneself.

Freud argues that a level of self-love in adulthood is healthy—which he further elaborates in his concept of secondary narcissism—but what happens if the narcissism within us grow along the possession of the status of near-immortality? Would immortality not simply magnify what we already have and twist it into something that could possibly go beyond human?

In Altered Carbon, the most glaring example of this is the character of Laurens Bancroft (played by James Purefoy), who is an all-powerful, ultra-rich man at the top of the food chain in the Altered Carbon universe. Bancroft calls on Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman) to investigate his own murder. With 48 hours missing from his memory per being killed before his data backup was completed, Bancroft believes that, although all the evidence seems to point there, he could not have possibly killed himself. “There are lines I am very careful not to cross,” he says to Kovacs. “And even if I did kill myself, I’d not have bungled it in such a fashion.”

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James Purefoy portrays Laurens Bancroft, the main subject of this article’s analysis.

Spoiler alert, he really did kill himself.

The character’s narcissism is emphasized by his conviction of his own personal code of conduct, believing that no matter what happens, he would never cross them. As revealed in the final episodes of Altered Carbon’s first season, Bancroft was encouraged by drugs and circumstances to make him go over the edge and break his own codes, RD’ing (that’s real death for you, as in destroying people’s stacks and thus rendering them impossible to be brought back) a prostitute and driving another one to suicide.

Whether or not the man’s actions, as they were, were validly identified as being his decision is debatable, but one thing is for certain. It hurt his narcissism so much that he botched his DHF’s backup sequence to make himself forget that, despite how much he holds himself in high regard, he eventually cracked. In this sense, Bancroft is reminded that he is human—not the demi-deity he thinks himself being. His suicide was, ultimately, an act of self-preservation, because he could not live with the knowledge of his own actions.

Bancroft’s trait of apparent narcissism is further portrayed by how he treats his children. The man is over 360 years old—over the years, he’s sired 21 children with his wife, Miriam, who’s quite protective of their children. Bancroft, though himself unopposed to indulgence of the weirdest kinds that only the richest could afford, choose to control his children by linking their inheritance with his own status. If he dies, his children get nothing of his unthinkable amount of wealth. In addition to that, he keeps his children in young sleeves to keep them from having the visual authority that an older sleeve would inevitably hold over others. It was almost as if he was saying that he’s the best—nobody, including his children, could or should topple him off his throne and replace him.

It seems like Bancroft is incapable of projecting the sex drive outwards—a state of maturity that’s Freud’s assigned meaning of love. Even though, at one point, he does say that loving his wife for 100 years is experienced as “something close to veneration”. This veneration, ultimately, doesn’t extend to regular schedule of sexual intercourse; Bancroft instead chooses to go to brothels to satisfy his sex drive by fucking and choking prostitutes to sleeve death. Here, Bancroft shows both expression of Eros and Thanatos in the sex drive manifestation of sadism—concepts that often overlap each other in Freudian psychology. More on Thanatos later.

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One of the high-end recreational sites that Laurens Bancroft frequents.

When confronted by Kovacs, “So you’re saying you love her too much to fuck her?”, Bancroft responds by saying, “I love her too much to let you fuck her.” Ultimately, perhaps the reason why he “loves” Miriam is because having her provides him with the pride and self-satisfaction he craves—which traces back to his narcissistic tendencies.

Furthermore, his reluctance to have sexual intercourse with his wife might speak more about his narcissism. The reason why he wouldn’t have sex with Miriam might well be because, unconsciously, he thinks himself unworthy of her, and thus wishes to commit acts of (sexual) violence on her. (“Veneration”, anyone?) One of Freud’s ego defense mechanisms, displacement, might be at play here. Displacement is an expression of a repressed thought or behavior, done when an individual carries out an unacceptable act onto someone or something that is not the real subject of that act. Instead of committing violent sex on Miriam, Bancroft unleashes that side of him onto prostitutes—who, conveniently, share similar physical attributes as his wife.

Bancroft’s narcissism is not, by all means, possessed only by the character. The Meths (short for Methuselah, the name for the crème de la crème of the Altered Carbon rich society) seem to display the same affinity for the trait, even building their homes high above earth “to avoid looking on the ground”, to quote Detective Ortega. The symbolism of the Meths’ dwelling is glaring; they hold themselves in such high regard that living on earth, breathing the same air with the less wealthy population is simply not an option. They are, quite literally, on top of the world.

There are other manifestations of the Freudian sex drive, as well as another drive called aggression. In the next posts of the series, I will be examining those aspects closer from various fictional universes.

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