Congratulations. If you're here, it's because you watched at least one episode of Netflix's new cyberpunk epic, Altered Carbon, and have approximately 30 questions. Starting with, most pressingly, what the heck is an Envoy? Takeshi Kovacs, our steely-jawed protagonist, is supposedly the last of them.
Altered Carbon begins with Takeshi Kovacs (played at that moment by Joel Kinnaman) writhing out of a body bag. After a 200-year forced hibernation, Kovacs' "cortical stack" (his consciousness) has been "resleeved" into the body of a dead cop, named Elias Ryker.
Kovacs has been awakened to solve a murder case for a very powerful, very wealthy, practically immortal man named Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy), who has lived for 360 years and counting. People like Bancroft are called Meths, a term that derives from the Biblical figure Methusulah, who lived to be 969 years old. Meths clone their bodies, and resleeve into new ones long before their bodies' life spans are used up. Compare that to the general population, who might get a new body when they age out — but often can't afford the expense.
Here's the murder case: Bancroft himself was killed, and he needs only the most powerful soldier to help figure out who killed him. Since Bancroft is so old, he remembers what the Envoys had been capable of before they were exterminated. "There are very few of us now who saw first-hand what the Envoys could do," Bancroft tells Kovacs when they first meet.
So, what could Envoys do? Envoys, who worked for the U.N. Protectorate that governed Earth and all human colonies, were super soldiers trained to be able to withstand the psychological trauma that comes from frequent reskinning (placing your consciousness into a new body). This way, Envoys could "needlecast," or beam their consciousness into a far-away sleeve, more adeptly, and thus travel through the colonies quickly. Normal people would go crazy after needlecasting too many times — so that's why this breed of desensitised, tough soldiers was developed. Over time, Envoys were wiped of feelings of guilt and empathy. They became superhuman.
After his parents died, Kovacs had been recruited by Protectorate to work as an Envoy. Eventually — after an important moment that comes in the show — he's compelled to leave the Envoys, and use his powers to join forces with a group of revolutionaries, led by Quellcrist Falconer (Renee Elise Goldsberry), who was also Kovacs' lover. Like the Envoys, these revolutionaries also employed mind-control techniques to be able to sustain frequent needlecasting. And they actually were even more powerful than the U.N. Envoys. Quell taught her soldiers to withstand psychological manipulation and torture in virtual reality.
"I had a grudging admiration for you, trained by Quell herself to be the most formidable fighting force that the galaxy had ever seen," Bancroft tells Kovacs.
Quellcrist Falconer had been philosophically opposed to the idea of eternal life, and feared it would perpetuate the kind of economic inequality that people like Laurens Bancroft would come to embody. She and her army of fighters had wanted to radically change the world. Instead, they were wiped out by Protectorate forces. Years after the massacre of his friends and lover, Kovacs awakens in the world of extreme inequality that Quell had so feared.
And now, Kovacs is working for the very embodiment of wealth inequality: The Meths.
Confusion arises in the way the show distinguishes between Quell's soldiers and the Protectorate's Envoys. It seems the word "envoy" is used interchangeably to describe both the U.N. Envoys and the revolutionaries. In the books, only the U.N. Protectorate soldiers are called envoys. Either way: When you hear the word "Envoy," think, "extremely powerful soldier who can withstand mental manipulation and frequent needlecasting." Essentially, an Altered Carbon badass.