(Series-wide spoilers below)
There’s a certain amount of cognitive dissonance required in order to accept La Femme Nikita’s premise on its own terms. The series wants us to believe that clandestine intelligence agency / assassination bureau Section One is necessary in order to ensure the world’s safety, and that its work somehow justifies the monstrous way the group operates. At the same time, everything the series tells us about the Section suggests that such a claim isn’t factual. It obtains its “recruits” via kidnapping and dehumanization, which belies its alleged legitimacy—surely an above-board agency would be able to obtain agents some other, less illegal, way. It lies to and manipulates its people constantly, not because of a need to keep information properly classified, but to keep them compliant. Its oversight appears to include no one connected to any government entity anywhere, or anyone who is themselves subject to oversight. And yet, in order for the series to work, one has to choose to disregard all of this, and believe that the Section lies about everything but is completely honest about its agenda.
It’s hard to understate how significant this is to the series. If the Section isn’t working for the greater good—if that claim is just another one of its countless lies—then the story simply falls apart. There’s no reason to care about Nikita’s fate, or to consider her anything other than a great big fool, in addition to an accomplice to continued abuse. And while mitigating factors exist due to her status as a prisoner and victim, those become much less mitigating once she manages to escape, scot-free, and then decides to return. Similarly, there’s no reason to wish for any of the characters to succeed. And while this element of uncertainty was always baked into the premise’s cake—there is every reason to be just as skeptical of the agency in Luc Besson’s original film—that original version manages to get away with it because Anne Parillaud’s Nikita, by and large, doesn’t care about what she does except insofar as it affects her. It is only in the TV series, where the agency and its manipulation of Nikita (Peta Wilson) became central, that its role in the world becomes truly relevant. And yet, the show proves ambivalent at best on this point, seeming uninterested in providing evidence about the good the Section allegedly does. The largely episodic and insular storytelling makes it hard to get a bead on the long-term consequences of the Section’s actions, and the vague world-building—to the point where the Section doesn’t defend any one nation, but rather “the West”—makes it impossible to determine with precision whose interests the Section is supposed to be aligned with, leaving us only with the assertions of proven manipulators with no incentive to tell the truth. How can we trust then, that the people behind Section One aren’t simply using their people for their own personal gain? So important is this question, that J.J. Abrams, intentionally or not, based half the initial premise of Alias on it.
At the same time, the question is in many ways irrelevant. Even if the Section is on the level about the effects of its activities, it is still an organization that kidnaps people and forces them to become assassins at gunpoint, abuses them into submission, and does so without reason. The show is still about abusers, their victims, and the way the latter turn into the former, and tells their story in a way that normalizes that abuse and justifies it by claiming it is for the best and trying to get us to care for the abusers and disregard the abused unless their name is Nikita. No matter what good they do, the people in Section are still Bad People. While the writers appear to understand this, to some degree—the show’s original ending, in an attempt to right Nikita’s ledger, retcons seasons’ worth of stories to assert that she had been a double agent ever since her return—but it’s too little, too late. At this point, the series has invested too much in its narrative, spent too much time downplaying the effects of the Section’s abuse and playing up Nikita’s non-consensual relationship with her immediate superior Michael (Roy Dupuis) as a romance, for any attempts to reverse course to really land. It’s easier to believe that the series intended to portray a dystopia, and that the original point of the series was to show Nikita’s slide into corruption—except that if that were the case, then the logical thing to have done would have been to at some point resolve the ambiguity and answer the question about the Section’s value in the negative, only to have Nikita not care. That the show never pulled that particular trigger is as solid as indication as any that, despite everything, it still wanted us to see Nikita as a sympathetic hero.
Why bring this up? Because of the way the second Nikita TV show, developed by Craig Silverstein for the CW, turns this narrative on its head, addressing its predecessors’ ethos in a way that makes for a surprisingly compelling story about abuse.
Prior to 2010, one of the more notable things about the various retellings of Nikita is how closely they hewed to the original film. The largely pointless 1993 American remake Point of No Return replicates the original’s beats with no ideas of its own except to sand off the characters’ edges. While La Femme Nikita makes important changes to the narrative—its Nikita is not actually a killer before she is made into one by the Section, and displays none of the original’s antisocial, violent behavior, marking her unambiguously as a victim—its pilot is essentially an abridged retelling of the film, with the remaining sequences adapted in subsequent episodes. Over time, this repetition has given the story and its various beats an element of iconicity: Nikita’s story isn’t simply the story of a woman turned assassin, but the story of a woman who is arrested and convicted for the murder of a policeman; wakes up in a room where her handler tells her of her funeral and gives her a non-choice; begins her training with the organization’s personnel, including a computer expert, a quartermaster, and a woman who schools her on femininity; finishes her training; is taken to a restaurant for what she believes is a celebration but is actually her final test; completes the mission; attempts to use the established exfil route only to find that it is blocked; escapes via the kitchen, starting a fire and escaping via a garbage chute; is taken to her new apartment and given a cover identity; dresses up as a maid for her first official mission; gets a civilian boyfriend; is asked during a “vacation” to assassinate someone with a sniper rifle hidden in her hotel room bathroom, a mission she completes while her oblivious boyfriend talks to her from outside. Therefore, when Nikita presents a story that completely skips Nikita’s time in the organization and picks up three years after her escape, it’s unprecedented. It’s a new story in a franchise which is more-than-usually averse to those.
Not that Nikita’s plot can precisely be called new. While its story avoids the territory trod by its predecessors, it does so by following in the footsteps of another series, the aforementioned Alias, to an uncanny degree. Adopting that series’ premise of “what if the spy agency was lying about being an anti-terrorism group” wholesale, the series frames the organization, now called Division, as Nikita’s core enemy, and its destruction, and the rescue of the people it has tricked into working for it, as her chief goals. Further solidifying the parallels, Nikita (Maggie Q) attempts to carry her vendetta out by means of Alex (Lyndsy Fonseca), a younger woman trained by Nikita to infiltrate Division and serve as her woman on the inside, and who is in many ways the Sydney Bristow to Nikita’s SpyDaddy. It is through Alex that Nikita goes through the expected scenes—the meeting with Michael (angry otter Shane West) the training sequences the meeting with Amanda (Melinda Clarke), graduation. These don’t all go the way they traditionally do, but then, that’s part of the point.
While Nikita’s setup mirrors past shows’, Alex is an entirely new element. Suddenly Nikita has a Robin to her Batman, and specifically a Dick Grayson; seeing herself in the fellow survivor, abuse victim and recovering addict, Nikita attempts to take her in and protect her, until Alex decides that it’d be best for them both if she entered Division. Nikita decides to train Alex, not so that Alex can become like her, but so that she can go through Division without doing so. Alex, then, represents an opportunity for Nikita to transmute the terrible gift Division gave her into something good.
That terrible gift is at the center of the new Nikita: Division, hearkening back to the original film, is considerably less hellish than La Femme Nikita’s Section One, and is a place that actually delivers on its promise of self-improvement, for a price. While it made Nikita into an assassin—she was already a killer—and made her unable to rejoin society under her own name, it also gave her the discipline and self-esteem necessary to stay clean and stand on her own two feet, and this, in turn, adds a layer of complexity to her struggle. Yes, Division is evil. Not everything it does has ill effects. It is for this reason why I have little respect for those who claim the series did away with its predecessor’s complexity in making Division the enemy. Yes, this version is less dark, but the additional light allows for more defined shadows. Where the abuse La Femme Nikita’s existed on the surface—say what you will about the Section, but it always wore its hellishness on its sleeve (except when it didn’t)—Nikita’s is more effective in large part because it is designed to feel like nurturing. Consequently, this allows arguments like those of Division mental health specialist / mother figure Amanda (Melinda Clarke) to carry weight its counterpart never had.
Amanda: What are you doing here Nikita? I didn’t kill Daniel. I didn’t kill Ryan.
Nikita: (Sarcastically) Oh, I’m so grateful!
Amanda: You should be on your knees! I saved your life! When you came to me you were nothing—a foster kid tossed by the system. But I made you better. I made you amazing! And what did you do to repay me? You broke my heart.
Nikita: You think you gave me some kind of gift? You took a messed-up girl and you made her a broken woman. You told me I was beautiful and you told me that I was special.
Amanda: You were.
Nikita: You lied! You took me from one hellhole and you put me in another. And then you dressed me up all pretty and served me up to them, just like my foster mother did. I broke your heart? You broke mine.
(Episode 2.18: “Power”)
This right here is the difference between both shows. One can easily make the case that Amanda loved Nikita as much as LFN’s Michael loved Nikita; with the exception of the explicit physical attraction, they express their feelings the same way. And yet, where La Femme Nikita saw that love as a mitigating factor, Nikita sees it as an aggravating one. Where the first show was patriarchal, constantly affirming that male authority figures knew best, Nikita is a choice that leaves that up to individuals. Perhaps why the characters in the latter series manage to seem happier, in general.
Worth noting is that Amanda’s abuse of Nikita is a reflection of the abuse she herself suffered at the hands of her father, who tortured her every day as part of the “important work” of creating a better soldier and thus gave her her own version of the terrible gift: the suffering would instill in her an interest in the human brain she would pursue for the rest of her life, combined with a casual disregard for “first do no harm”, both which made her a genius pioneer in her field. Years later, she uses her own version of those techniques on Nikita, and still later on Alex, who everyone sees as her natural successor. Together, the three women form Nikita’s very solid thematic core: theirs is a story of abuse, and how one can either perpetuate it, or work to heal it.
A side bonus to all this new focus on the three women is that Michael is turned into something of a secondary character. He’s still around and hella important—he, Nikita and Alex are the only characters to appear in every episode—but he’s not the only source of relationship drama available to the series, which allows the writers to do something different with him. With Division not being a 24/7 garbage nightmare, the character is allowed to loosen up and become its version of Tami Taylor, the character who gets to be genuinely concerned for the people under him and works to meet their interests. In other words, he’s not a take on La Femme Nikita’s Michael, but a take on its version of Nikita, or at least the person that version of Nikita wished she could be, and this makes his impulse to protect Nikita ring truer than his counterpart’s; he doesn’t do it just because he feels something for her, but because he sees it as the right thing to do.
Perhaps more important, though, is a shift in the power dynamics between the characters. La Femme Nikita’s Michael, in a sharp deviation with the character who inspired him, was consistently placed in a position of dominance. He was a better agent than Nikita (he was regarded as unquestionably the Section’s most skilled agent as late as the show’s final season) had more power and independence, and would best Nikita in any of their encounters. This, in turn, made the romance between him and Nikita a dubiously consensual one: consent isn’t valid when saying no could mean cancellation, and you can’t claim to be protecting someone when “protection” means “leave her in a hellhole where she’ll have to fight the same battle all over again the next day”. And so, their romance never felt like one—a fatal detail, given that it formed the show’s core.
Nikita again turns all of these dynamics on their head. While Michael is the more experienced agent, Nikita is the more talented one. It is Nikita who has freedom and autonomy, while Michael remains in a job which he knows is compromising his soul but can’t easily leave, for his sake and the sake of those under him. What’s more, the two are always at ease around each other: they don’t always tell each other the truth—although it’s worth noting that Michael is consistently the less tight-lipped of the two—but they know where each other stands. This means that when the two characters get together, seventeen episodes (!!!) into the series, they manage to have what is, somewhat shockingly, one of the more functional relationships on TV. While not entirely melodrama-free, they also get through things that would have broken up 98% of other television couples, and they do so thanks to a very feminist willingness to communicate often—very often—about their feelings and concerns. Where the older show made the two characters’ relationship one that was very much about glances and touches and lingering—which, make no mistake, worked like gangbusters if one was inclined to support the pairing—the relationship in Nikita is very much about conversation and banter. Where there is non-verbal interplay, it is more playful—smirks and smiles and moments of visual comedy. They’re less like Bella Swann and Edward Cullen and more like Batman and Catwoman.
Given how well Nikita does with romance, it’s perhaps not surprising that it also does very well with other sorts of relationships television often falters with—namely, platonic relationships between canonically shippable characters. Throughout its four seasons, Nikita surrounds its main character with lots (and lots and lots) of dudes, many of which are to some degree or another attracted to Nikita. Where a lot of shows would use these characters to create Unresolved Sexual Tension and thus complicate the various friendships and romances, here we actually see Nikita form incredibly deep and emotionally affecting bonds with people like computer hacker Seymour Birkoff (Aaron Stanford) and C.I.A. analyst Ryan Fletcher (Noah Bean), bonds which clearly involve an element of love, but not romance. Even when both characters end up kissing Nikita, everyone clearly knows where they all stand, and the moments pass with none of the awkwardness that would follow in a different show. Then there’s Owen Elliot (Devon Sawa), a Division agent tasked with protecting one of the six black boxes—hard drives containing evidence of every mission undertaken by Division, and which keep its Director, Percy (Xander Berkeley), safe to manipulate and blackmail without fear of retaliation—and the first person to switch to Nikita’s side. Of the show’s cast members, he’s the one most often positioned as a romantic rival for Nikita’s affection, but even then, it’s clear that such a perception has nothing to do with the way he and Nikita act around each other—neither ever expresses any interest in pursuing something—and everything to do with the way sexism trains people to believe that mutual concern cannot exist between hetero pairings without there being sexual interest behind it.
And finally, there is, once again, Alex. Lyndsy Fonseca earned quite a bit of buzz a couple of years ago for her turn as Angie Martinelli in Agent Carter, and particularly for her sparky friendship with protagonist Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). Shades of that relationship can be seen in Nikita, which is at its most adorable when the two characters are together. Were Nikita and Michael’s relationship not so well depicted, it would have been the easiest thing in the world to ship the two women, problematic undertones (having to do with, again, the way the relationship is a reflection of the past abusive relationship between Nikita and Amanda) be damned. As is, however, we still have a relationship that is mutually supportive and warm, and which makes them both better, happier people. Their relationship makes the show, and the creators understand this perfectly, expertly mixing plenty of sticks—they spend a lot of time apart—with very large carrots, the latter which include glorious once-a-season sequences where Nikita and Alex work together to fuck shit up, which are always a highlight.
Of course, the reason this all works is because Nikita the character loves easily, and this inspires the people who follow her—assassins, one and all, but damn if you don’t want to root for them, in a way that suggests, again, that Division wasn’t all a lie: in the end, it did create some truly amazing people. Not only are they a well-oiled machine—not unexpected, given how they share lots of formative experiences—they also have lots of chemistry, and the show manages to get something worthwhile out of pretty much every pairing it explores.
If Nikita were only notable because of its characters and their interactions, then that by itself would have been enough to make it notable. However, what truly made it stand out among similar shows like Alias, Person of Interest, or its predecessor was its storytelling, and particularly the way it could tell a complex story with many constantly moving pieces, and yet never got lost among them.
Consider Nikita’s initial goal of getting rid of Division and Percy. It’s the sort of open-ended target that could take five episodes to solve, or five seasons, most likely the latter. More importantly, though, it is the sort of quest that, if not defined right, could result in a story where the ending could easily feel unearned, with the characters making no visible progress until the endgame, during which there is suddenly very quick, arbitrary-feeling success. Person of Interest, despite a generally excellent sense of progression, did this with its Samaritan arc, where much emphasis was placed on Team Machine’s ever-decreasing chances of survival until the final few episodes, when suddenly Samaritan can be defeated by a computer virus that had apparently always existed. While Alias’ resolution to its initial premise works to a large degree because of the way it comes about when no one expects it, it is also the sort of story development which makes the surrounding story feel lesser, once one thinks about it. Yes, a story that ends too early is better than one that ends too late, but still, when we’re sold a complex-time consuming goal, having it be solved in one episode entirely due to factors introduced in that episode feels a lot like cheating.
Which brings us to the brilliance of the black boxes. There’s six of them (plus one held by Percy), spread around the globe, and protected by Guardians like Owen, and until they’re destroyed or captured, Percy cannot be eliminated. They’re essentially horcruxes—the show admits as such—and while such an element feels more Zelda than James Bond, it adds a sense of structure that is invaluable to the story, giving every part of it weight. When Percy finally gets dealt with, the timing feels right; it feels like the natural culmination of everything that has been happening up until that moment.
Nikita uses this structure frequently—there’s six black boxes; six members of Oversight, the government people who secretly and illegally fund Division; thirty members of the group called, um, the Dirty Thirty. It’s not hard to see why they like it, though: it gives the good guys something concrete to go after, but more importantly, it gives the bad guys clear losing conditions.
Also importantly, this focus on concrete numbers lets us know exactly where everyone stands in the game at any given time, a piece of transparency which is absolutely vital to the series’ narrative ethos. Whereas La Femme Nikita trained the viewer to doubt everything, and Alias tied itself in knots with its twists and reversals, Nikita’s instinct is to play fair with its audience. While it does twists, it doesn’t do mysteries: it’s always clear why people are doing things, and questions raised tend to be answered an episode or two after they’re raised, if not sooner.
What the series does do, however, is give us a bunch of pieces, which, while not terribly elaborate, are both distinct and versatile, giving the show the ability to use a lot of them at once without ever bogging the story down in detail. This means, for example, that the series can shift goalposts and status quo with unequaled ease, to the point where Wham episodes come around roughly every five episodes. This is perhaps most notable in the show’s second season, whose first half features a conflict featuring no less than five concrete factions—team Nikita, Division, team Percy, Oversight, and Gogol, Division’s Russian equivalent—with several more sub-groups and alliances, and whose makeups could shift on an almost episode-by-episode basis, while never becoming hard to follow or allowing the audience to forget where everybody is on the board.
Normally, that sort of pacing and openness carries the risk of essentially ending the story or leaving it with no place to go too soon, and some could argue that this happens to the series (I disagree). Fortunately, the writers are skilled in mining its own past for new ideas, in a way that makes the series feel incredibly coherent all the way through. When the story ends, after four seasons (in an extremely fortunate manner, too: the series was technically cancelled after the third season, but given one last six-episode to tie up the story) it feels precisely as long as it needs to be, and tells the story it needs to tell: the story of a woman who rebuilds her life after years of abuse and dehumanization.
Two details help the series in smaller but significant ways. First, the show features a somewhat more realistic, nuanced view of the world than this genre tends to feature. Where La Femme Nikita was too insular to give us more than a glimpse of the state of its post-Cold War and pre-9/11 world, and Alias believed that the thing that united every country was their shared affinity for nightclubs, Nikita’s is a world where the biggest prize is an energy company, human trafficking is rampant, and government finds itself at the mercy of corporations. While still very much spy-fi, with all the super-science that entails, it is grounded in a world that feels, well, grounded. It’s more Casino Royale than Moonraker, and this is especially noticeable in the way the series deals with money. When Percy begins turning Division into a guns-for-hire group, it is partly to make up for budget cuts. When Nikita and Michael go on the run, they’re forced to steal from illegal casinos for funds, and Michael at one moment notes that they have to decide between buying bullets or food. It’s a realistic note that adds a lot to the show and makes it easy to keep characters motivated in ways that make sense and don’t require much elaboration.
The second detail, on the other hand, pertains to something that should be taken for granted, but often can’t, and that is the series’ ability to make the various characters seem as capable as they are purported to be. Nikita is meant to be good at everything, and she feels that way; ditto Alex. Birkoff, despite specializing in computer engineering, is also a capable hand-to-hand combatant, as he would be, given that he is supposed to have gone through Division’s comprehensive training before specializing. When Nikita scores a series of consecutive victories against Division, it’s not because Division isn’t capable, but because it is dealing with an unknown unknown in the form of Alex, whose existence they suspect but can’t confirm because Nikita and Alex have taken proactive measures to throw them off the track. When Amanda successfully wages asymmetrical warfare against Nikita, she is successful not because Nikita is doing anything wrong, but because their positions carry inherent and specific advantages and disadvantages, which Amanda knows how to exploit. What’s more, while the series makes it clear that Amanda is making strategic mistakes, this does not take away her ability to make tactically sound decisions. The same extends to our more mundane characters, like the F.B.I., C.I.A., and Army, which can be formidable and dangerous when they wish to be. And like I said, this should not be a surprise; however, given that Alias featured a C.I.A. woefully incapable of keeping hold of anything or anyone in their possession or custody, and La Femme Nikita insisted that the Section was formidable despite its tendency to play with dynamite, it’s downright shocking to see characters being consistently competent.
Nikita isn’t perfect. For a series whose story is the relationship between three women, and features a woman of color as its protagonist, it features a serious lack of diversity. Only four of its regular cast are women, compared with seven men, and after its first season, the former never outnumber the latter. Among those eleven regulars, only two are people of color, and only one is around for more than a season. The supporting cast is similarly skewed, and while the series has a high mortality rate in general, it’s hard not to notice that by the time it ends, surviving prominent characters of color can be counted on one hand. Equally as noticeable is the fact that the series is extremely heteronormative, with absolutely zero characters who present as anything other than straight—a worse record, even, than the original series’.— While subtext can definitively be found—see the above conversation between Nikita and Amanda—nothing is done with it, even when it would have made the characters stronger. That Alex is not canonically queer is easily the show’s second biggest misstep.
Particularly disappointing is the fact that, despite being set in a universe where nobody disputes a woman’s ability to kick ass, a lot of the people doing ass-kicking are still men. While Division’s pool of nameless recruits approaches something like gender balance, that balance is lost once they become nameless agents, with guards and Alpha Teams—the standard Division mooks, and the ones most likely to see action—being uniformly male, with women being relegated to desks. It is only when female agents become essential to the plot that we see them, which is disappointing. While it’s possible that this may be partly because of a disparity between available stuntmen vs. available stuntwomen—a scene where Nikita faces against Division recruits suggests this is the case, as the only woman in the scene who we see actually fighting Nikita is Jaden (Tiffany Hines), a member of the regular cast—this still doesn’t explain the inconsistency: there are still stuntwomen in the industry the show could have hired.
Similarly, it’s disappointing to see that there are no disabled people around Division, which is quite unrealistic, given the amount of hurt the average field agent goes through. Unless we’re to assume they are perpetually off-screen, the only possible in-show explanation is that those agents are summarily canceled, which would have been perfectly believable for Section One but doesn’t fit the Division M.O. There’s an excellent (read: open-and-shut) case to be made for the idea that writing which does not take diversity into account is often bad writing, and this is a notable example of that: in neglecting this element of its world-building, the series becomes badly positioned when it decides to disable one of its regular characters. While the story has loads of potential, it never quite works.
Still, it is worth noting that Nikita does some things especially well. While people of color are not well-represented, Nikita herself, as the show’s star, gets developed with care, consistency and nuance women of color on TV are rarely granted. She gets constantly validated by the narrative and other characters. While she helps out a lot of people—she’s a hero, after all—she often needs help, and is given it, with no suggestion that this lessens her. She has several potential love interests, and even more people who love her. She never lacks for focus. She gets to be a person. Also notable is the fact that, while rape and sexual abuse are key to the series—a vital element to Alex’s story is the fact that she spent years as a sex slave, and what little we learn of Nikita’s past suggests a history of sexual abuse—
the show itself trusts the audience to understand these things without including potentially triggering scenes of rape or attempted rape [ETA: Never mind; I just rewatched episode 2]. More superficially, the series has some of the best action scenes in TV. Thanks to Maggie Q, whose wheelhouse is action and stunt-work and is above all a capital-P Professional, the series really sells Nikita and the people in her world as super-capable fighters, with a lot of gasp-worthy fighting.
Nikita aired from 2010 to 2013, smack dab in the middle of the Obama presidency, and although he doesn’t figure in the story—the plot eventually involves the President’s office in ways which don’t permit him to occupy it—this feels like the right story for his White House (and, given the show’s “stronger together” ethos, the current Hillary Clinton campaign). Like Obama, Nikita and her loved ones seek change, while understanding that in the face of implacable opposition, compromise—tactical and moral—is often the only option: all too often, victory means accepting the possible over the ideal. And like Obama, this realism does not diminish the show’s fundamental optimism: while La Femme Nikita was a story about being broken down, Nikita is a story that is fundamentally about the possibility of changing and becoming better. In the end, Nikita and her people are not super-heroes: they cannot stop all the bad guys just because they are skilled and their mission is righteous, just as they cannot turn back time and undo all the deaths they’re directly or indirectly responsible for. And yet, this doesn’t mean that victory or inner peace aren’t impossible: it’s hard, and it’s painful, but with patience, hard work, and a willingness to make other people better it is possible. One can do great harm and still get a shot a decency. Perfection or purity are not necessary: trying is.