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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AKA Really Frickin’ Awesome — A Perspective on Marvel’s Jessica Jones

November 20, 2015 marked the day yet another Marvel TV series to invade Netflix. Released at precisely 12:01 AM PST, several countries in the world sprinted into a binge-watch session. The few trailers released prior by Marvel wasn’t enough to satisfy the fans’ need for another darker twist of a Marvel Cinematic Universe piece—and this time, it’s headlined by Jessica Jones.

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Who is Jessica Jones?

It’s not a question you have to be able to answer before you sit down and watch Jessica Jones. The tagline of the series, It’s time the world knew her name, pretty much says it all. Picking up on Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos’ classic MAX title, Alias, as the basis for its story, Jessica Jones does not tell an origin story as Daredevil previously does in its show. Instead, Jessica Jones begins at a point in the timeline where the titular character, Jessica Jones, has given up on superheroing and decides to start a new business as a private investigator after a recent incident—but soon, a figure from her dark past catches up with her turns the gears of the season-long plot.

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“Jessica…”

I wouldn’t go too much into spoilers here, so I’m going to stop right there.

Jessica Jones may very well be the answer every Marvel fan has been dying to have for those who say that Marvel shows are for children. While you could still watch Daredevil with an eleven-year old kid and supervision by an adult—trust me, I know; I’ve tried and it worked—Jessica Jones’ age restriction regulations are none that easy-breezy to work around. It deals with a lot of very mature themes, including but not limited to rape, suicide, PTSD, torture, and a load of sex scenes. You’ve been warned—don’t watch this with a kid anywhere near you.

I personally don’t mind the mature themes. I think it adds to the juxtaposition of the series, tackling matters no Marvel big screen adaptations could have done otherwise. While we had glimpses of very dark themes most prominently in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, in Jessica Jones, everything is a lot more vivid and graphically depicted. One of the most central things about the Marvel shows on Netflix is that they want to get as low and grounded as possible, bringing out the most humane of problems into the screen. With Jessica Jones, it’s no holds barred—it’s a full package of comedy relief, humane drama, complexity of characters, the occasional superstrength spices here and there, and dope action scenes.

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Occasional superstrength…and so much more.

One thing about Jessica Jones I can’t forget to mention is the opening credits. Worked on by David Mack (check out our previous interview with him here) with a noir, jazzy tune of an opening title track by the show’s composer, Sean Callery, it really sets up the mood before you step into the world of Jessica Jones. Throughout the thirteen episodes, not once did I skip the opening titles to get to the real episode, just to get that mood going.

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My personal favorite part from the opening credits, art by David Mack.

Going into episode 1, I really felt that humane quality oozing out of every scene. I immediately knew that Jessica Jones isn’t just another superhero show—in fact, it rarely deals with the superhero/superstrength aspect of the character but as an identity trait. You could talk about Jessica’s superstrength as you would about her hair color. It’s something the character has, but it doesn’t define her as a character. There are a lot of layers of the character and the world surrounding her that the show really delivered to explore.

Krysten Ritter (Breaking Bad, Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23) headlines the show as Jessica Jones, and I must say, after bingeing all thirteen episodes in under 24 hours, her performance really caught my eye. Dare I say she is the perfect actress for the role (much like I would say Charlie Cox is for the role of Matt Murdock), and I really can’t see anyone else portraying Jessica Jones as well as she does. Jessica Jones has a lot of layers to portray, which means a lot of highs and lows that comes with the role, and Ritter really shines in each of the episodes.

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Krysten Ritter portrays the titular character.

Another highlight of the already magnificent array of actors is, of course, David Tennant. I know him well from his tenure as the Doctor in Doctor Who (2005-2009) and as DI Alec Brady in Broadchurch (2013-present) and I have grown into quite a big fan of his works. And Tennant doesn’t disappoint. In Jessica Jones, he portrays the character of Kilgrave, the main villain of the show this season. In the comics, Zebediah Killgrave is a purple-skinned, mind-controlling man, appropriately called Purple Man, but as many of the other characters featured in the show, the character has been reinvented to better fit the show’s more contemporary adaptation—one of the most obvious things being he doesn’t have purple skin as he does in the comics. His portrayal of the superficially psychotic, often a slight bit sympathetic, more often creepy Kilgrave hit a really high note as one of the best performances in the show, which is a lot to say given how talented the actors in the whole of the cast are.

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David Tennant portrays Kilgrave, the main villain of the season.

The rest of the niches are filled with names like Carrie-Anne Moss (The Matrix) as Jeri Hogarth, Rachael Taylor (Transformers, Charlie’s Angels) as Patricia “Trish” Walker a.k.a. Hellcat from the comics, Erin Moriarty as Hope Shlottman, Wil Traval as Will Simpson, Eka Darville as Malcolm Ducasse, and Mike Colter (The Good Wife, Halo) as Luke Cage, whose own Netflix show is already deep underway.

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Mike Colter as Luke Cage.

All-in-all, Jessica Jones is a thoroughly juicy experience to enjoy. I would have gone straight through the season in one night if I could, as many others did right after its release. And they have good reasons to do that. The plotlines weaved in every single Jessica Jones episode are immensely tight and dynamic—they really keep you on your toes throughout the episodes, but especially at each ending. Don’t be surprised if you go, “Oh, I’ll just watch one more episode,” and end up watching a whole batch of them instead.

A show’s plots have great connections to its characters, and Jessica Jones is no exception to that. The intrigue entwined in the tapestry belongs not only to the main character, but the whole of the supporting cast. Characters like Hope Shlottman, Jeri Hogarth, and Malcolm Ducasse have some very piquant storylines going on that just adds to the sheer goodness of the show.

There are so many good things you could find in Jessica Jones, and this article will end up being a whole 10,000-word essay before I get to the end of them all. But let me tell you this: If you enjoy a more adult take on comic book characters, Jessica Jones will take you through one hell of a ride. Even if you’re just a casual fan or even if you know nothing of Jessica Jones prior to watching the show, it will still blow your mind away along each episode you go through. So get the episodes piled up, sit down when you have the time, and binge-watch the whole thing from start to finish and I guarantee you, you will not be disappointed.

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See you on the other side.