My Femme Nikita
“I was falsely accused of a hideous crime and sentenced in life in prison. One night I was taken from my cell to a place called Section One, the most covert anti-terrorist group on the planet. Their ends are just, but their means are ruthless. If I don’t play by their rules… I die.”
These haunting words, spoken by Nikita (Peta Wilson), open each episode of La Femme Nikita, setting the stage for the USA Network’s exceptional spy-drama. Driven equally by a sense of helplessness and outrage, Nikita is an unusual character for television, a reluctant but effective killer, at once brutal and graceful, lonely and hopeful. She’s one of the many reasons that I and many others have become fans of the series. La Femme Nikita‘s additional enticements include a combination of familiar and futuristic (if at times unrealistic) settings, an outstanding cast, a potent soundtrack, and, a set of recurrent and interrelated themes, revolving around questions of identity and trust.
The series has its source in Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita, a stylish, dark, and brooding French film about an insolent street vagrant recruited by a ruthless underground agency to serve as one of their several assassins: Anne Parillaud plays Nikita, the young woman caught in an unspeakably violent world. A 1983 U.S. remake, Point of No Return, seems pointless: star Bridget Fonda is miscast, John Badham’s direction is lackluster, and the ending unsatisfactory. However, a constant element in all three incarnations is Nikita’s illicit romance with her primary Section One instructor, who subsequently becomes torn between his duty and his passion.
This love story seems central to the series’ success. Premiering in 1997, TV’s LFN attracted a small but dedicated audience with the first few episodes, and has since become an important part of USA’s schedule. This has nothing to do with the Nielsen ratings, mind you, but concerns its increasingly international following, fans who watch the show attentively, discuss and research it obsessively on the web, and savor its solid writing and strong cast. I have yet to notice a weak link in the core group of six, all of whom have indie film or offbeat TV experience, in the U.S. and Canada: Wilson (Loser and the upcoming Mercy) as Nikita; Ray DuPuis (J’en Suis, Being At Home With Claude) as Michael, her teacher and lover; Matthew Ferguson (Lilies, Love and Human Remains) as Birkoff; Don Francks (Johnny Mnemonic) as Walter; Eugene Robert Glazer (The Five Heartbeats) as Operations; and Alberta Watson (The Sweet Hereafter, Spanking the Monkey) as Madeline.
The plot revolves around Nikita, “recruited” by Section One when, as she reminds us each week in her opening monologue, she was facing life in prison. The agency faked her death and erased her identity, then trained her as a missions operative and killer. Although Nikita’s every material need is met by Section One’s considerable resources, she remembers her former life as relatively independent, as shown in repeated flashbacks to her rough street life. By contrast, scenes of her present existence emphasize her sense of being watched and monitored at all times. Section One operates under tight codes of security and secrecy, forcing its assassins to be loyal and obedient. LFN characterizes Section One as greedy and ruthless, but, like any corporation, worried about its image, at least as this is manifested in its “workers.” The Section One directors see any display of emotion as a sign of weakness, and any reference to the past as a threat to their deeply undercover missions.
One of these workers is Michael. Also Nikita’s lover, mentor, and operations commander, he is the only operative with high-level security clearance, that is, access to invaluable information no one else knows. Section One’s leaders distrust Michael, because he knows too much and because he has plainly fallen in love with Nikita. They also distrust him because he one of their top operatives and may one day replace them. And with Michael’s increasing access to information (such as the exact location of Section One, which not even the audience knows this season), he has become less tractable: he’s often more interested in helping Nikita than in completing his assignments. In response, Madeline and Operations last season considered “canceling” Michael, to prevent him from leaking Section One’s secrets.
Michael and Nikita’s relationship has remained a complex one from the series’ inception. Until last season, it was never quite clear just how much they cared for each other. In the first season, we were led to believe Michael was using Nikita as a pawn in Section One’s manipulations. During the next two seasons, he seemed slightly less manipulative, and their relationship matured in response to hostility from Section One. Even when ordered to stop, neither Michael nor Nikita were able to do so. Madeline and Operations’ obsessive even melodramatic interest with the romance, even amid all of the murder and political intrigue, led to the fourth season premiere, two hours full of intrigue and deception, culminating with the revelation of a key figure’s background.
Episode One, entitled “Getting Out Of Reverse,” focuses on neuro-engineering. Section One demands complete compliance from its agents, molding them into emotionless assassins. Nikita, however, remains too strong-willed and passionate to be the agency’s robot, especially where her feelings for Michael are concerned. So, the directors enlist a scientist who has developed new, more efficient methods of brainwashing, to assure Nikita’s acquiescence. “Getting Out of Reverse” then poses the following question: after the treatment, will Nikita remain Nikita, or will she succumb to Section One’s plan to make her a flawless, amoral mercenary, rather than the “good actress” she had been up until this point? LFN‘s three major themes the instability of identity, fear of deception, and the star-crossed romance come together when, after her treatment, Nikita tells Michael, “I don’t love you anymore.” Viewers are left wondering. Does she mean it? Or is she performing for Section One, knowing that she’s being monitored at every moment?
The second episode of the two-part season premiere, entitled “There Are No Missions,” picks up on these themes. Fans who have been watching from LFN‘s beginning will know what I mean when I say that the episode reveals that the first neuro-engineering test subject is the “true mother” of Section One. That is, the show reveals that it has, itself, been deceiving the audience over a question of identity. (Not to mention that the identities of both this “true mother” and Nikita are in danger, for a side effect of the neuro-engineering process is a total loss of memory.) Both of these episodes showcase the series’ ongoing concentration on three main themes, again concentrating on deception, identity, and romance (Nikita seems poised to “cancel” Michael, though he holds out hope that her deep love for him will overcome her new programming). And both have the full-on visual and emotional impacts of any big screen drama or thriller, though filtered of vulgar language and extreme violence. LFN uses an almost Hitchcockian restraint, implying rather than showing violent excesses, leaving at least a little bit of characterization and action to the viewer’s imagination.
I have often pondered what makes LFN work, what makes me watch it so religiously, aside from the titillation of the forbidden romance. I think it is this restraint, the fact that the show doesn’t spell everything out for its viewers, that it respects our intelligence and ability to discern the meanings of Nikita’s or Operations’ subtle glances, body language, and twisted smiles. The show resists the typical TV drama’s tendency to explain too much in dialogue or assert easy moral lessons. Actually, most of LFN‘s episodes close with questions rather than resolutions and feature little dialogue, offering instead stylized visual compositions and evocative soundtrack. Indeed, one of the series’ strongest elements is its music, including the eerie theme song by Mark Snow and score by Sean Callery. (A tie-in soundtrack cd, released in 1998, features artists like Mono, Curve, Enigma, and Morphine.)
For many viewers, LFN offers a brief respite from daily routine. In some cases it has become its own routine, even a ritual. The series is surely escapist, quixotic, even, on occasion, campy. But at the same time, its persistent attention to quotidian concerns common uncertainties concerning identity and faith continues to seduce and thrill viewers, perhaps even making us look twice at our own relationships.