While the parallels between Nikita and Person of Interest are not as easy to identify as those between Nikita and Alias, they are in some ways arguably more substantive. Produced roughly during the same period, the two series’ takes on the espionage genre not only feature similar tones and (to a degree) aesthetics, but also similar themes and concerns. Their core foci may be different—Person of Interest is chiefly about how technology changes the world, both by making possible and normalizing the surveillance state and by altering the definition of living thing, while Nikita is about abuse and dehumanization, and the possibility of reclaiming that humanity—but both also deal with themes like identity, redemption, corruption, rebirth, and rebirth—more than enough, in other words, to make comparing and contrasting the series both interesting and rewarding—hence what I hope will become a series. This is Division of Interest, and we begin with the two couples (hush!) with whom it all begins.
(Series spoilers for both Person of Interest and Nikita below.)
(Content Notes: Suicide, suicidal ideation)
(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.