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Peta Wilson in La Femme Nikita

A No-Win Scenario

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The callous world inside Section is pushed further in the following episode ‘Off Profile’ (2 August 1998), moving to emotional abuse and extreme sexual misconduct (to put it mildly) from the show’s male lead. Michael persistently pursues and seduces a new operative, pressing further even as she resists his advances (stating that she prefers the cold emotionless world of Section). He breaks down her defences and sleeps with her, then coldly dismisses the whole thing the next day, revealing that she was suspected of leaking information and he only slept with her to gain access to her personal files.


She’s cleared of being the leak, but, dejected and angry, the operative strikes back at Michael during a mission, setting him up to be killed. She’s then ‘cancelled’, the whole process revealed just to be a plan to determine if she was emotionally unstable (‘clearly she was’, we’re coldly told). Though convoluted, it’s notable that our male lead pursues a young girl, subjects her to emotional and sexual abuse, then stands aside as she’s killed for reacting emotionally.


The uneasiness is intensified as Nikita asks the Section heads if she’s being tested in the same way. Operations shrugs it off: ‘you’re one of us now’, he tells her. The show’s effectiveness lies in the fact that, without any tangible moment of change in Nikita, he seems to be right.


The following episode reaffirms Section’s callousness; a man being interrogated (tortured) refuses to give information, furious that a Section operative killed his brother. Madeline coolly sends the operative that killed him in to ‘apologise’, allowing the prisoner to kill him, trading the life of one of her own operatives for information. By the time we hit the season finale, Nikita is established as being firmly entrenched in Section. The narrative trajectory seems to show, as Mark Twain wrote in his autobiography, ‘at what trivial cost of effort a man can teach himself a lie, and learn to believe it, when he perceives, by the general drift, that it is the popular thing to do’. Nikita’s status as defiant outsider thrives on the surface, but is being firmly undermined by the show’s more subtle underlying narrative. By now, our heroes are acting worse than the villains in plenty of other shows.


Given that La Femme Nikita already disrupts many of the easy popular fantasies of secret spy organisations and global espionage, it’s interesting that it sought to go a step further in its final episode, making the morally-compromised nature of Section not only clear, but also tangible in a real-world political context. It sets La Femme Nikita up as a serious attempt at engaging with moral issues, but also, oddly, disrupts some of its power, perhaps making the machinations of the show too clear, like a magician no longer hiding how he does his tricks: the logic is clear, but the fantasy suffers.


As the finalé progresses, Nikita has been lured away by a former Section head and sent to collect evidence that Section has been supporting Saddam Hussein and other dictators around the globe. This, of course, should be no surprise for anyone who’s paying attention to that kind of thing (Mubarek is just the latest to get some attention) – but the lack of engagement with this issue in mainstream popular culture makes the bluntness admirable, even if it must ultimately come across (more and more, no doubt) as something of a naïve revelation.


With the usual spies and counter-spies climaxes, Nikita finds herself right in the middle of the moral dilemma that’s driven the show: pragmatic collusion or principled, perhaps doomed, resistance. The debate between Operations and former Section head Adrian (Sian Phillips) is only marginally less complex (if that) than the generalities of most real-world media discussion of foreign involvement by US powers: Adrian opposes the compromise of values as well as the hegemonic control and anti-democratic empire-style power it brings; Operations counters by insisting that such compromise and control is necessary to avert further global catastrophe. Operations provides calculations demonstrating his theory; Adrian finds the calculations’ support of Section’s own interests ‘convenient’. Madeline simply shrugs and makes the usual assertion that they make the world a better place.


La Femme Nikita ultimately pushes the dilemma straight at the audience. Rather than leaving this discussion of US moral bankruptcy in global affair a lingering resonance (as in the film The Formula (1980) that ‘surprises’ us with the obvious fact that corporations don’t care about human lives, and then ends limply there), Nikita has all the power and is left to make an actual choice within the debate: either she destroys Section (refusing to accepts its ruthless destruction, self-interest and moral bankruptcy, risking her life and visions of global security), or continues to let it run (accepting that such compromises are necessary for global security and securing her own status).


This is tougher than it may seem. It’s not simply the dilemma itself, but the positioning of an ongoing mainstream character within it: a character who still needs to hold audiences for another season or three. A fantasy character is forced make a decision that resonates directly with real-world politics – one that may conflict with the beliefs of many fans – and not a decision that’s merely abstracted or idealised. In front of a potentially polarised audience, Nikita essentially has to finally choose between Fox News and the PBS Newshour once and for all.


Nikita’s decision – to stick with Section (and turn a blind eye to the US’ support for Saddam Hussein) – won’t necessarily be, or remain, a popular one with viewers. But, even if it goes against the political grain [idealistic Retro Remote would rather have seen Nikita pull the plug on Section and be ‘cancelled’ (in more ways than one)], it nevertheless suggests a mature narrative step for a show that wants to progress beyond its simple ‘outsider vs nasty people’ origins, and one that makes sense in the larger narrative context of Nikita’s continued grounding in Section as one of its own government terrorists, forcing her to finally face the limitations of her fantasy defiance.


It’s also prevented from being a total propagandising sell-out by the fact that we’re immediately reminded that Section is just as amoral as always. Nikita knows (and it’s confirmed) that her display of power will probably see her killed – just not immediately to avoid turning her into martyr. She’ll just have her mission frequency increased, so that she’s bound to be knocked off sooner or later. Nikita’s made a decision that undermines her role as a fantasy projection of moral defiance, but we’re still made to understand that she’s ultimately supported the bad guys in doing so. The no-win scenario, where our unavoidable connection to our own ideological stability clashes with our sense of resistance and moral duty to the rest of the world, is one than none of us can ever emerge from as cleanly as we’d like.


La Femme Nikita would eventually revert to the usual generic story progressions (the final season ties nicely with the similarly themed British show Callan with the appearance of Edward Woodward, but also pulls out the hokey Alis-style family shtick to tie everything together); but, at its best, Nikita created a dour and miserable world of moral compromise and moral stasis that works as a strong antidote for the trivial nonsense that most spy shows present (Retro Remote hasn’t seen the recent remake Nikita yet and doesn’t anticipate it matching La Femme Nikita‘s level of gloom and moral compromise).


Presumably, La Femme Nikita‘s miserable and corrupted world of global US-sanctioned torture didn’t quite fit the image that creators Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran were really after – they went on to glamorise torture and jingoistic claptrap in the repugnant 24 (Surnow later ending up, unsurprisingly, with Fox News). Stripped of the direct engagement with the powerlessness of fantasy resistance and the irresolvable dilemmas of moral complicity that we find in La Femme Nikita, 24 isn’t just propaganda, it’s bad and dull-witted TV. I guess Nikita’s not the only one who sold out.


Kit MacFarlane has a PhD in English Literature, Film and Popular Culture, and teaches film and media as a freelance academic. He writes cultural criticism, commentary and relentless tirades, and has published regular cultural and higher education commentary in Australian media. He writes monthly-ish column Retro Remote at PopMatters. A full list of his writing can be found on his very ugly webpage. Why not follow him on Twitter? Off-the-clock, he shouts at the TV incessantly.


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