[21 February 2011]
Everywhere you look, the media is chuffed that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has stepped down (and hopefully headed to The Hague for trial) in response to Egyptian protests. Amid all the oddly self-congratulatory coverage, and with Mubarek pitched as the perfect symbol of despotic rule, the mainstream media seems happy for us to forget that the US has been a key supporter of Mubarek all along. Sure, recent Wikileaks releases of US Embassy cables note that US representatives ‘continue to promote democratic reform in Egypt’, but that ‘continued promotion’, while Egyptian citizens were being actively denied basic human rights and freedoms, probably had a little less clout than the ‘untouchable compensation’ of US $1.3 billion dollars in military financing that’s also casually mentioned in the documents.
The argument that failing to prop up Mubarek would have lead to chaos and/or fundamentalist rule is wildly speculative at best, was also Mubarek’s own justification for his position (having destroyed any viable opposition that could maintain that stability!), and clearly not the only result available, as demonstrated by the protests themselves as well as earlier analysis such as Bruce Rutherford’s 2008 Egypt After Mubarek. Uncertainty? That comes with Democracy.
It seems that global democracy, while part of the standard rhetoric of the West, is really only desirable so long as it carries with it no negative consequences, or even uncertainties, for ourselves. It’s a fair position to take, I suppose, but only if its ugliness is stated openly and bluntly. Presented as an ethical stance, it fails the basic litmus test for morality, suggesting that we should do the right thing, but only when it doesn’t carry any dangers, cost us anything, or disrupt our lives in any way.
This kind of tepid endorsement of the Egyptian uprising was played out in high-level responses to the revolution; both Tony Blair and Barack Obama took the ‘have a revolution, just don’t change anything’ stance. As theorist and commentator (and Retro Remote favourite) Slavoj Zizek points out:
‘The most shameful and dangerously opportunistic reaction was that of Tony Blair as reported on CNN: change is necessary, but it should be a stable change. Stable change in Egypt today can mean only a compromise with the Mubarak forces by means of slightly enlarging the ruling circle’ (‘Tunisia and Egypt Expose Hypocrisy of Western Liberalism’, ABC Religion and Ethics, 3 Feb 2011).
Likewise, Zizek describes Obama backing away from any real sense of change and accountability:
‘When President Obama welcomed the uprising as a legitimate expression of opinion that needs to be acknowledged by the government, the confusion was total: the crowds in Cairo and Alexandria did not want their demands to be acknowledged by the government, they denied the very legitimacy of the government’ (‘For Egypt, this is the miracle of Tahrir Square’, The Guardian, 10 Feb 2011).
‘One of the cruellest ironies of the current situation’, Zizek goes on to note, ‘is the west’s concern that the transition should proceed in a “lawful” way – as if Egypt had the rule of law until now’. Naturally, further despotic rulers continue to be endorsed by the US, even as the celebrations continue, such as Teodoro Obiang, president of Equatorial Guinea, often considered the ‘Worst Dictator in Africa’.
When it comes to TV (as it always must!), plenty of shows have started skirting around the US’ (and its allies’) willingness to outsource moral and democratic transgressions to those off-shore ethical dead-zones and rely on the benefits of morally bankrupt rules, although rarely to the point that it truly compromises or muddies the foundations of a show or its lead characters. Reactionary drivel like Law & Order replicates the arguments, but always from a safe and sensationalised distance, while shows like 24 and The Unit still propagandise about tough, steely, always-right American men being all that hold the world together, in spite of a general array of evil-doers and idiots (i.e., anyone who disagrees with them about absolutely anything).
Our TV heroes may be ‘flawed’, but these are usually trendy flaws about sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll: it’s cooler having them than not, and they’re not really shocking to anyone but our Grandmother’s Sunday School teacher’s Grandmother’s Sunday School teacher. We’re rarely presented with a hero whose comfortable and ongoing status as viewer-proxy is thrown into disarray, leaving us to seriously question their, and our, fundamental beliefs. When we are faced with strong anti-heroes (Deadwood, The Sopranos) we’re generally still expected to empathise with them on a personal level rather than interpret them seriously in the context of specific real-world philosophical and political issues.
But back in 1998, Canadian series La Femme Nikita presented a seemingly generic spy scenario that muddied the usual action-thrills by placing its hero in a Western anti-terrorism organisation that was openly ruthless, amoral, violent, pre-emptive, and as much a terrorist organisation as those it was fighting. While Nikita (played by Peta Wilson) struggled to maintain her moral grounding, her enforced role as operative and assassin meant that she was going to either end up morally compromised, or end up real dead, real quick. The usual marketing tripe of ‘sexy girls with sexy guns’ no doubt caused plenty to ignore a show that was defined more by a tough portrayal of callous and indifferent torture and an overriding tone of enclosure and moral limitation than the promised globe-trotting in black leather.
Nikita may have argued in early episodes about doing the right thing when asked to do the wrong thing, but her real character trajectory was more insidious, slipping episode-by-episode into her role as killer, finding her home in the ruthless Section One, and finding that her day-to-day struggles weren’t such a struggle anymore. Nikita never quite dropped her image of defiant outsider, but that just made it all the stronger when the moral vacuum of Section One stopped viewing her with suspicion and calmly declared her one of its own. Viewers may have clung to the outsider image, but, somewhere along the line, imperceptibly, Nikita sold out.
By the end of season two, La Femme Nikita made its underpinning moral dilemma clear, positioning its hero directly in an ethical conflict that wasn’t about to be neatly resolved, and forcing her to pick a side – more notably, it placed this moral dilemma firmly within the real-world context of international relations, tying Section One (never directly identified with any country, but clearly a US-centric organisation) to Western government power propping up Saddam Hussein in order to maintain control over the Middle East.
Though the fact itself may not be a shock (and the same issues, of course, apply to Mubarek and Obiang), thrusting a fantasy hero firmly into the middle of real-world politics makes it a brave and difficult gambit – but does it work?
The slow lead-in to this oddly blunt season finalé picked up noticeably a few episodes earlier in ‘Inside Out’ (26 July 1998), which featured a fairly well-worn story of an unstoppable virus let loose in an enclosed space filled with our regular characters. The relationship that had been building, and dissolving, between Nikita and Section operative Michael (Roy Dupuis) (probably the weakest element of the show, if only for its obviousness) has by this time been pushed to the background – the ‘will they, won’t they’ teasing these shows usually thrive on heavily downplayed as season two drew to a close.
Michael and Nikita work effectively together, but remain emotionally distant and cold – Nikita still seems unsure just how much of a soul he has left after years in Section. Instead of Michael and Nikita, ‘Inside Out’ forces us into the usually distant emotional lives of other Section operatives – the threat of death (of course) bringing it all out into the open. While all that mush is going on, Michael and Nikita rush to provide an antidote for the virus outbreak.
What makes this fairly straightforward story interesting is the subtle shifting of sympathies that is made clear by the end of the episode: Nikita is now desperately trying to find an antidote to save Section, the same ruthless organisation that enslaved her and that she’s spent most of her time trying to get away from (if not outright destroy). This newfound bond between Nikita and Section, and the sappy moments between those trapped in Section awaiting death, would just be a lot of melodramatic nonsense if it wasn’t still made so endlessly clear just how morally bankrupt Section really is.
While awaiting a cure and witnessing the personal kissy-stuff, we still get plenty of reminders of their completely immoral and terrorist-like behaviour. Section heads Madeline (Alberta Watson) and Operations (Eugene Robert Glazer) spend the episode having a bit of a romantic tiff, but it’s sparked by a petty argument over interrogation techniques during routine torture: Madeline wants to try for more information, Operations thinks they have enough. To end the argument, he simply kills the prisoner (not only vicious, but also quite rude). It’s presented as neither cute nor necessary. Later, an infected operative is denied painkillers so that he’ll make a better subject for vaccine testing. When the crisis is all over, Madeline and Operations return to the dreary day-to-day business of cutting the dead wood from Section, emotionlessly ‘cancelling’(ie. killing) a number of the lives that were just saved.
Madeline and Operations’ brief burst of emotion in a scene in which they discuss their past as younger operatives seems only to serve as a reminder that similarly torn Michael and Nikita are bound for the same cold and morally compromised destination. If they’re not there already: Michael and Nikita secure an antidote by kidnapping the scientist who, to save his kidnapped wife and child from being killed a rival terrorist group, created the virus in the first place. He agrees to help when Michael promises to rescue his family and, it seems, does so. The episode ends with the scientist, now captive in Section, asking what will happen to him. ‘You’ll be killed or you will work for us’, Michael replies flatly. The scientist at least takes some comfort in the safety of his family.
Later, Michael explains to Nikita that the rescue was faked and his family will likely be killed anyway; even if he works for them, the scientist will never be released. It’s a nice ending for a group of people we just spent an episode hoping to save, and a harshly direct vision that sets La Femme Nikita apart from so many spy and heroic fantasies, where violent global action is somehow always philosophically-clear and casualty-free. By now Nikita is past questioning her environment – unwilling but seemingly powerless to intervene, we’re left to question the extent of her complicity.
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.