One of the claims I often noticed made when comparing the Peta Wilson La Femme Nikita to its successor, Maggie Q’s Nikita, is that it is both considerably more dark and more gray than its successor. After finishing season one of Femme, I have to agree with the first part of that assessment: while Nikita is a story that is fundamentally about the possibility of fighting impossible odds and winning without having to give up one’s soul—even if that soul has plenty of red in its ledger—the earlier show, or at least its first season, is about the futility of even trying. It makes for a work that is fascinating, yet unpleasant to watch, particularly since the writers and showrunners appear to have no idea of just how dark the story they’re telling actually is.
Both versions of the story, like all versions of the Nikita story, feature at its center a quasi-legitimate black-ops group which forces their “recruits”, including Nikita, to become spies and assassins—spyssassins—at gunpoint. Femme‘s is called Section One, and is, the show wants us to believe, mostly involved in legitimate counterintelligence—stopping terrorists, procuring WMD’s before they fall into The Wrong Hands, etcetera. Nikita‘s organization, on the other hand, is called Division, and is explicitly presented as a group which, unbeknownst to the rank and file, has been almost wholly corrupted by its director, who basically uses it as a way to accrue money and power for himself. The difference in the way the organizations are portrayed are largely a result of the two different stories each series is trying to tell: La Femme Nikita is a story about Nikita when she is inside, and therefore needs her to be doing arguably good work for Section One, while Nikita is about a Nikita who is on the outside trying to bring down Division, and therefore needs the organization to be a bad guy.
(This also explains their seeming difference in competence.)
While both Section One and Division are by their nature abusive, it is Femme that really plays up this element. Whereas Nikita portrays Division as a place which despite everything could actually become a twisted sort of home, Section One, through Femme‘s freshman season, is presented as a combination prison and cult, an oppressive, demoralizing hell run by inscrutable, uncaring, and omniscient overlords and staffed by people who don’t seem to care about the obvious immorality of the enterprise, not unlike The Village from The Prisoner. Once you wake up inside the Section walls, you have two choices, accept that your life is now spent in the service of people who might kill you for any reason, or death.
Or you fight back.
And it is here where Femme‘s premise falls of the rails, for me: while Section One capably serves as an analogue for The Village, Nikita never really becomes Number 6, and the show never adequately explains why. While Nikita fundamentally disagrees with the Section’s methods and yearns to be free, she very rarely takes any substantive action against her masters, to the point where she eventually stops feeling like a victim—even when she always is—and starts feeling like an accomplice. Episodes like “Recruit”, where she recommends that a trainee that she’s supervising be canceled (the term both series use for the summary execution of a Section / Division member), or “Voices”, in which she frames a detective for murder, and then coerces him to join the Section, explicitly make it clear that her time as a prisoner / spy has led her to become scarily comfortable with the Section culture, which scares her, but never enough for her to do anything substantive against it, which is baffling. While Nikita takes pains to establish why the title character can’t just put a bullet in Percy’s brain and why escaping Division is actually quite difficult, Femme does nothing of the sort, which means that we’re left wondering just what the holdup is. When she finally escapes the Section in the season finale, it is in no way due to her actions, but rather because she’s left with no other choice.
So in the end, it’s hard to consistently root for Nikita. Yes, she’s a victim, but she’s far from a powerless one. While self-preservation is always a valid concern, I find it impossible to reconcile the fact that she’d continuously risk her life for the Section with the fact that she very rarely did the same for herself or for victims like her.
Now, to be fair, the show does give reasons why Nikita doesn’t take a more active role in her obtaining her freedom. However, not only are they unconvincing, they highlight some of the series’ more problematic aspects.
The first argument La Femme Nikita makes for its protagonist’s passivity—albeit indirectly—is that destroying the Section would mean jeopardizing the good work it does—the Omelas argument. However, in order for this argument to be valid, the show needs to present a case for why the bad parts of the Section—the kidnapping, torture, blackmail, coercion, murder, and utter contempt for due process—are necessary in order for it to do good, or why a more legitimate organization cannot possibly take over the Section’s duties. It never does—in fact, several episodes, like “Innocent”, where Section One is forced to rely on a completely harmless man for vital information, and finds its usual tactics to be utterly ineffective, argue the opposite, that Section One is in fact often hindered by its approach. While it is quite realistic for the higher-ups to believe that its willingness to do the wrong thing and its ability to do the alleged right thing are linked (or, what is more likely, to act like they do) this doesn’t explain why our ostensible good guy Nikita seems to feel so, which makes her motivations inexplicable. It also makes defenders’ claims that Operations is layered with shades of gray feel disingenuous, because it suggests that the good the Section may do somehow washes away its evil.
Still, the fact that Nikita doesn’t take a more active role against the Section doesn’t necessarily ruin the series. If it can’t be The Prisoner, La Femme Nikita could very well work as a spy-themed The Handmaid’s Tale, the story of a woman who passively resists an institution that would like nothing more than to grind her down, and for whom success means managing to keep her soul. However, there’s more than enough evidence to show that this is not what the creators had in mind. We’re supposed to root for Michael, you see.
Michael, played by Roy Dupuis, is Nikita’s handler and superior in the field, as well as the series deuteragonist and main love interest. As must inevitably happen, he and Nikita have unresolved sexual tension, and their relationship forms the emotional core of the season. This is a damn shame, because their relationship is not at all healthy or worth rooting for.
Like most characters in the series not called Nikita, Michael appears to wholeheartedly believe in the Section’s mission, and believes that the lives they save justify the lives they take. It is Michael who acts as Nikita’s watchdog and stops her whenever she’s out of line, by whatever means possible. Michael is also the main reason why Nikita chooses to stay in the Section, a point explicitly made in the episode “Escape”, where his advances towards her are what makes Nikita decide not to join a fellow agent in his escape attempt.
Now, it is clear that Michael cares, to a degree, for Nikita: the moments when he chooses to defy the Section—in ways that from what we’ve seen involve no sort of sacrifice from his part—all occur when Nikita’s life is at stake. However, his concern is constantly portrayed as an abuser’s concern for their victim: Michael wants her alive and compliant, never actually happy. In “Escape”, his advances towards Nikita are done entirely to emotionally compromise her and prevent her from going through with the escape plan, which he later alleges was fatally flawed and doomed to failure. If he is telling the truth, then there is no reason for him to not simply tell Nikita what the situation actually is; if he is lying and the plan was solid, then he’s just straight up emotionally torturing Nikita for kicks. In “Brainwash”, he breaks into Nikita’s apartment so that he can insist that Nikita, currently an emotional wreck, take part in a mission. Like the rest of the Section, he seems to believe that a traumatized agent is the best agent.
Now, it’d be one thing if what little Michael does comprised the entirety of what he could do, but the series consistently shows that this is not the case. Whereas Nikita’s Michael, played by Shane West, would consistently do his best to make his recruits lives more bearable, and even to escape when possible, Dupuis’ Michael consistently shows that he doesn’t give a damn. When ordered to oversee a suicide mission that involves Nikita and a handful of other agents—none of whom know that they are being sent to their deaths—Michael, who could have saved them all, only steps in to protect Nikita, leaving the others to their fate.
So in the end, we have a guy who is, from all appearances, a willing participant in torture, kidnapping, and murder, who is perfectly at ease with killing his comrades, and emotionally abuses the person we’re supposed to believe he loves. Were La Femme Nikita airing a few years later, we’d be calling him Edward Cullen, and yet the show wants us to want him to stay alive and well and together with Nikita.
And so, the relationship between La Femme Nikita‘s Nikita and Michael feels less like a love story for the ages and more like a “victim falls for his abuser” narrative—which again, would be fine, if the series were to acknowledge that this is what it is. And yet, it doesn’t: when Nikita is finally free of the Section, and by implication, Michael, the show plays it as a bittersweet moment for reasons that make me question the showrunners’ moral compass.
And so, we’re left with a series with two nonsensical premises, pre-Buffy writing, negligible world-building, barely serviceable action, and a cast with precisely one (unreliably) sympathetic character. So what makes the show so darn fascinating?
Part of is precisely because it’s a pre-Buffy, pre-The Sopranos, pre-Alias show, which means it has yet to incorporate many of the tropes those shows normalized. There is no real overarching narrative to the season; while there is some continuity, the events of one episode do not directly lead to another, and Nikita’s escape in the season finale does not come across because of events in previous episodes. The recurring cast is tiny, leaving the one-shot guest stars to expand the world beyond the regulars, which feels incredibly weird, now, and for someone who was twelve when the season first began airing, it’s super-interesting.
La Femme Nikita is also a pre-9/11 show, and it shows: the writers clearly don’t believe anyone would ever be interested in geopolitics, so the baddies of the week are mostly designed to be as generic as possible–terrorist group X belongs to generic Eastern European country, whose agenda somehow threatens “the West”. It also means that most of the baddies are white, which in turns serves to highlight just how white this show is. While neither of these things are exactly good, they make the show far more interesting
The show’s real trump card, however, is its sense of style. Faced with a low budget and mid-nineties special effects, the showrunners decided to go for broke on tone, atmosphere, and music. And it works: the series feels unlike anything I remember seeing on TV–certainly different from anything that happened on Nikita.
Still, I don’t think I care to watch any more of the series. From what I’ve heard, La Femme Nikita takes some rather ridiculous turns (including one which I actually like but is apparently retconned in without an adequate explanation) and not in a fun way, and so it doesn’t seem like it will do anything this first season didn’t already do. And that’s a shame. As interesting as the show is, I was hoping for something that would be just as obsession-worthy as Nikita, but completely different: instead I’m left wishing that it were more like it.