Kings, Queens, Knights, Pawns
Over the past few months, La Femme Nikita has become my favorite hour of television every week. Oh, the arc's not as well-written as The X-Files, it's not as stylish as Buffy nor as consistent as Earth: Final Conflict, and it's impossible to compare to the space operas in terms of scope or even realism. It merely has the two coolest women currently on TV.
Odd as it may seem to have a season finale in late August, that's what USA chose to do with La Femme Nikita...a rather brilliant strategy considering that new episodes of the series had reruns for ratings competition, and will come back only after the hype for this fall's new series has passed. All summer they've been balancing James Bond-style politics with one of the best soap operas on TV, leading to this week's stunning conclusion, "End Game." Maybe because it's on a cable network or maybe because the show's produced in Canada, Nikita takes risks few other series would dare. In the season opener, the scandal was nudity; in the closer, it was an attempt to justify the positive aspects of the continued empowerment of Saddam Hussein. No matter what one thinks of this show's values, it's never boring.
Despite the tech, terrorists, and shootouts, La Femme Nikita works best as a relationship show, so let's look at it on that level first. At its center are two couples. Operations and Madeline control the workings of the anti-terrorist organization and the protection of its interests; Michael and Nikita, whom the elder pair seem to be grooming to take over their roles, are operatives who live and breathe their work. Operations (whose given name is Paul and we've never heard a last name) runs Section One. While he has to answer to something called Oversight, which occasionally sends in observers and meddling evil admirals, Operations seems to have absolute power to kill anyone or blow up anything he wants. Madeline's official job description has to do with psychoanalyzing and psyching out terrorist threats, but in practice, her role is bondage and discipline - which often includes killing people who have worked with her. Give her a whip, and she could play Catwoman.
Nikita, of course, is the falsely-accused former prisoner who was taken from her cell and recruited by Section One under threats of "cancellation" - that's Section-speak for execution - if she ever fails to cooperate. Nikita has been naughty on several occasions before this season finale, but Michael, her trainer and mentor, has bailed her out during the times when she couldn't save herself. Michael and Nikita were lovers briefly but have engaged in a perverse sort of power dance this season. Ditto Operations and Madeline, who were apparently passionately involved some time ago - a state Operations would like to revive, despite Madeline's objections. Thus, Operations and Michael are similar in both their ruthlessness and their single apparent weakness: they are both willing to take risks for the women they love which could destroy everything they care about, from their own lives to the agency itself.
Michael has seemed to become increasingly like Operations this season and to be taken into the section head's confidence more and more, so I was surprised by his twice offering to let Nikita escape during the finale, "End Game." Michael let her go once, at the end of last season, when it was the only way to save her life, but he spent the next several months working to get her back into his life and his work. Since then, he and Nikita have lied to one another and betrayed each other on both a personal and professional level, so in some ways, "End Game" was heartwarming: maybe Michael cares about Nikita as much as Operations apparently cares about Madeline, not only more than his own life but beyond power or even honor.
Then again, maybe neither of these guys can tell love from power. Either way, it's a volatile combination, and quite sexy. These aren't likeable people, not even Nikita; she's gotten far too comfortable shooting people, shooting through the innocent to get to the guilty, closing her eyes to Madeline's methods of torture and murder. It's important to keep the characters vulnerable on a personal level, or viewers aren't going to relate to them, and then the twisted, fragmented international conspiracies might not be enough to keep the show compelling.
The biggest shock of the finale on a character level was Nikita's concession that the aims of Section One really do justify the means. Forced to choose between Operations (who by his own admission has been supporting dictators like Saddam in order to control the spread of terrorism) and Section founder Adrian (who believes that Operations' power is completely out of hand), Nikita sided with her boss. She accepted Operations' justification for murdering innocents along with freely elected officials of foreign countries as a necessary evil for protecting the world from the possible spread of chemical weapons and nuclear proliferation. It's hard to believe that this argument got to her, even with Michael prompting her to believe Section has done more good than harm. In many ways, Nikita is turning into Michael: she's now willing to lie even to her lover for what she believes in.
Is Michael turning into Operations? It's too soon to say, though I'm inclined to believe so. Since we learned at the end of "End Game" that Nikita was working for Operations all along where Adrian was concerned, we have to believe that Michael had personal reasons to want to contact the founder of Section which had nothing to do with Operations' orders. He seems next in line to inherit legitimately, but if he has a coup in mind, what kind of power does he intend to wield? Michael's a romantic figure with a rebellious past as a student protestor, but he can also be ruthless and cold. I'm not sure Nikita would be doing the world a favor giving Michael any more power than he has.
Madeline, who's just too cool for words, is the biggest wild card of all. She doesn't seem to want absolute power - or if she does, she's apparently content to exercise it through Operations, though their messy personal relationship may complicate that. It's hard to tell whether Madeline's reluctance to have an ongoing sexual relationship with the head honcho stems from her disdain for sex with him or because she likes it rather too much for her own good - after all, this is a woman who describes desire as the ultimate weakness. Her relationship with Nikita is similarly convoluted. It's hard to tell whether Madeline protects the younger woman because she has genuine admiration for Nikita or because she wants to use Nikita for her own dark purposes.
I hesitate to make predictions about next season. I've heard rumors, some plausible (that we're going to find out Michael has a wife and kids outside of Section), some less so (that we're going to find out computer whiz Berkoff is really the love child of Operations and Madeline). In "End Game," Madeline suggested to Operations that the safest way to keep Nikita quiet is to send her out on dangerous missions until she inevitably gets bumped off, but that's not a state of affairs Michael is likely to tolerate. And it's pretty clear that Madeline doesn't want to lose Nikita: she's just protecting the girl from Operations' current wrath. I think the power struggle within Section is going to have to take precedence over any outside terrorist activities, and that means the personal relationships are going to have to sort themselves out, one way or another.
I don't suppose I'm going to get my fantasy wherein the two women toss out the guys and run Section together, but it sure would make for an interesting storyline. My hunch is that Michael is going to discover he needs Nikita professionally as well as personally, but by the time he realizes it, he's going to have violated her trust in some fundamental way which makes her unwilling to work with him. And it wouldn't surprise me if Operations' ego were unable to put up with ongoing rejection from Madeline, which might make him seek out Nikita as a possible replacement, with Madeline privately using Nikita to resist their overseer.
If Nikita is going to remain in Section - a choice she has made twice now of her own free will - we had better get some better justification for it than Saddam Hussein...or true love.