A Review of "La Femme Nikita"

by Ben Best

As described in My Relationship with Fiction I have read or watched little fiction since my teens, compared to the average person. Two exceptional television series I have watched as an adult have been "Sex and the City" and "La Femme Nikita". "Sex and the City" interested me mainly because of the snappy, clever dialogues, the bold exposure of rarely-discussed sexual subjects and the well-developed characters who gave me a feeling of being a friend.

"La Femme Nikita" too is extremely good on sharp dialogue and strong characterization. But it is also extremely strong on plot. In fact, it has provoked me to think more about what plot actually is and how it is created. For the most part each episode is highly imaginative, with a different theme from the others — and the context or backdrop is itself quite unusual.

"La Femme Nikita" is something of a parody of corporate/bureaucratic culture. There is conspiracy amongst the staff [Nikita, Michael, Birkoff and Walter] against management [Paul ("Operations") and Madeline] — and vice-versa. Nonetheless, at some time everyone seems to betray everyone else or, conversely, makes unusual alliances. The organization they all work for is called "Section One" — a rogue American intelligence agency dedicated to fighting terrorists, but also dedicated to becoming an autonomous power (management's dedication).

As far as anyone in the outside world is concerned, all the staff & management of Section One are non-persons — legally dead. Management has the power to kill ("cancel") insubordinate or incompetent staff. All are prisoners in the sense that to attempt escape from Section One would guarantee cancellation. The characters are "free" to roam the world on missions, but body implants and satellite tracking make their whereabouts knowable (there is inconsistency about this — whether they can be tracked or not depends on the particular plot of the episode).

Management sometimes goes to unusual lengths to extinguish the love affair between Michael & Nikita in the belief that sex & love interfere with work — wanting all staff to be fully obedient automatons who know no feeling but fear of management and desire to serve. In different periods Michael & Nikita obey orders to marry people who are believed to be connected to terrorists. Michael is married for years to a daughter of a terrorist (without telling Nikita) and has a son to whom he becomes deeply attached. Nonetheless, Michael & Nikita have personal difficulties in their relationship from time-to-time unrelated to the efforts of management. In one episode Nikita says to Michael, "Do you want my opinion or my blind obedience?" At other times Nikita says that she doesn't know who she is anymore, or what she really feels. Michael goes through similar problems, sometimes related to love for his son or (on one occasion) his own desire for power.

All of the characters have a capacity for cold-blooded, brutal ruthlessness — including Nikita (the curvacious, attractive leading lady — "cherchez la femme" — although an episode often features another of the protagonists). Nonetheless, for certain sympathetic characters Nikita goes to ridiculous extremes of risking her own life to save those persons. Nikita (closely followed by Walter & Birkoff) is the least inclined to deceive of all the protagonist staff, whereas management shows no limits to a willingness to engage in deceit & manipulation. But Nikita does plenty of lying & manipulating — mostly for a good cause, but sometimes not. As a study of the logic of deceit & manipulation "La Femme Nikita" reflects the fascination that led me to write my history book Schemers in the Web: Spy versus spy, intelligence versus counterintelligence and a "wilderness of mirrors". Who or what can you trust? What is real, about others and about myself? Lost in a sea of lies...

At its best the program presents scenes of fascinating intrigue with unexpected resolutions. There are hard moral dilemmas — lies versus lives, the lives of many versus the lives of a few, and the life of one's child versus the life of one's lover. These are choices some of us would rather not think about, much less have to make. Unusual technologies are explored in unusual situations. There is much that is intelligent & delightfully unpredictable.

There is not much violence for the sake of violence. Although there is a torture chamber ("containment") which is used in nearly every episode, we usually see the results rather than the gory details. (Suggestion can be more evocative than depiction.) Enemies are often faceless non-entities who are killed with a single shot. Part of the poor credibility of the show is the way protagonists regularly go through barrages of gunfire without being hit while killing countless enemies — each with a single shot.

Although some plots can be brilliantly clever, others rely on cheap tricks for resolution, like the creation of duplicates or a character waking-up from a dream. Worse, some scenes have no purpose other than to deceive the audience — they make no sense otherwise, insofar as the characters are not deceiving each other.

Rarely is there a happy ending. If plot involves creating problems, conflict, tension and stress for the audience, the best that can be said is that the sense of stress is somewhat relieved by the resolution of the plot. But it is simply a lessening of discomfort. The stress & discomfort can get very high, so the effect of the lessening may nonetheless be considerable.

For online summaries of all the episodes of "La Femme Nikita", see: La Femme Nikita Index of Summaries. Pictures of the leading characters can be found at The Main Players of Section One. An insightful and funny parody of the program can be found at All SciFi.