Nikita

When the characters on Nikita aren't executing amazing feats of marksmanship, hand-to-hand combat, and general super-spyishness, all without ever seeming to break a sweat, they're complaining about how nothing ever goes their way and how they'll never beat the insurmountable odds stacked against them. "Sometimes," laments our heroine (Maggie Q), "I think, I can do this, and then other times, it's like, what was I thinking?" Remembering back to last year, when I used to look at those commercials for Nikita that seemed to dominate the CW's prime time lineup for months before the show premiered and think, "That looks like it ought to be a blast," I know just how she feels.

Returning to the air after a six-week vacation, Nikita barely had a moment to celebrate being reunited with her trusty sidekick, Alex the mole (Lyndsy Fonseca), who had spent the previous episode being trussed up and shot full of ibogaine by Lady Heather. This resulted in a lot of heavy-handed, psychologically revealing hallucinations and the closest thing you're ever likely to see on the CW to the finale of The Prisoner. (The choice of drug was designed to put a smile on the face of any weirdo political junkies or fans of '70s gonzo journalists who are devoted viewers of this series or, more likely, just happened to choose the right moment to be passing through a room in which the show was playing. In 1972, as recounted in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, Hunter Thompson started a rumor that Senator Ed Muskie's erratic performance on the stump was due to his jonesing for ibogaine.) 

Tonight, Alex was barely featured in the story, and the other teen titans at Division were scarcely seen at all, which, I want to make absolutely crystal clear, is not something I'm complaining about. When Nikita premiered last fall, my best guess was that young Alex had been shoehorned into the set-up because there was concern among the idiots who run the CW that their target audience would find the thirtyish Maggie Q a tad grandmotherly. I assumed that she would be allowed to hang around the edges of the plots and maybe put out to pasture at some convenient point after the show had decisively won its time slot. Instead, Alex has been allowed to claim unconscionable amounts of air time and develop a mother of a cast-iron, overcomplicated back story, involving a powerful, murdered father, abduction by human traffickers, and the news that killing is "in her blood," despite the fact that she's repeatedly shown to be so bad at it. 

It's all a lot to hang on Fonseca, a terrific-looking young woman who, as an actress, has sometimes been known to stretch herself far enough to suggest the emotional complexities of someone who's really, really mad at her boss for making her work an extra shift at the Tastee-Freez. Tonight, she was mainly called upon to hang around her spacious apartment and gingerly work her way up to locking lips with Nathan, the remarkably stupid-looking slice of beefcake who lives next door, whom she sees as an antidote from the endless rounds of lying and killing that make up her everyday routine. You may recall that when something similar happened on Dollhouse, it led to the sweet innocent thing next door suddenly getting a funny look in her eyes and snapping some deserving person's neck with her bare foot. I'm not saying that anything like that is going on here, though if it does, it'll actually be a relief to learn that Nathan is actually a super-duper trained assassin and is only pretending to be such a yutz.

But tonight's episode was mostly about Nikita, her will-they-or-won't-they? mentor and nemesis Michael, and Michael's damn issues. The most pressing of these involve the murder of his wife and daughter in 2001 at the hands of the terrorist Kasim. (Kasim is played by Haaz Sleiman, who used to play Mo-Mo on Nurse Jackie. I was just saying the other day how much I miss Mo-Mo, so I would be remiss in not thanking the CW for at least letting me see how it would look if Mo-Mo, instead of hanging out at the nurses' station gossiping about the doctors, were swearing vengeance on those who'd intercepted his drug convoy and torched all his heroin.) It was this vile deed that inspired Michael to join Division and become a robotic company killer, and that inspired Shane West to drop his voice down to his shins while giving a performance that, at its loosest and most entertaining, suggests Darth Vader's impression of Timothy Olyphant. I would never second guess the acting choices of someone who, before he was 30, had already played both Tom Sawyer and Darby Crash, but I do find it surprising that West is trying to convey bad-assedness by using the same voice that comedians on late-night talk shows are still making fun of, almost three years after Christian Bale used it in The Dark Knight

The path to Mo-Mo leads through Tasarov, the head of GOGOL, the Eastern counterpart to Division, and Nikita's resident Russian Godfather. Tasarov holds his negotiations in an empty theater where a ballet troupe is rehearsing, because the writer researched the intricacies of Russian espionage by getting too drunk to sleep one night and watching half of White Nights on Cinemax before realizing it wasn't a porno. A few explosions, ass-kickings, and trading of threats later—"You look like a person of faith," Mo-Mo tells Nikita, who replies, "I don't know about that, although I do recall praying for the day I'd find your elusive ass"; even Liam Neeson's character in Unknown would be too embarrassed to mumble that one—there are some game-changing developments. Is there any chance that there's someone reading this who hasn't either already watched the episode or who would like to hear about the game-changing developments without the bother of watching it at all? Spoiler alert, okay? It turns out that Mo-Mo was actually ordered to become a terrorist and kill Michael's wife and daughter by... wait for it... Division itself, of which he was an employee! This news hits Michael very hard, as you might expect, but it also serves him as an aphrodisiac, and before you know it, he and Nikita, well... mentor, nemesis, fuck buddy.

I don't guess Nikita is that badly done, for what it is. The Joel Surnow-created La Femme Nikita series from the '90s may not have been a  classic, but it sometimes displayed traces of a sense of humor and some playfulness about its own tackiness. Nikita, going back to the original Luc Besson movie, just treats the theme of the tortured inner life of the professional assassin with a solemnity that, considering how silly the characters and situations are, strikes me as a little unseemly. The results strike me as a missed opportunity, because the combination of the premise and Maggie Q's high-kicking awesomeness would seem to have the potential to provide a steady diet of cheap thrills. 

But Nikita is one of those shows that tries to rope the viewer in by constructing an elaborate mythology, with a fresh set of questions dangled in front of the viewer for every answer that it coughs up, and that mythology has taken precedence over the thrills. It doesn't even know which thrills it ought to be making its own: Maggie Q does get a few moments here and there where she gets to slither around the screen before taking some guy's head off with her left heel, but you get the feeling that it's the exploding orange fireballs that the production crew is proudest of, and they just look like everybody else's exploding orange fireballs. Maybe the developments of this episode will shake something loose; maybe, now that the romantic leads have been brought together, had their mission clarified, and been allowed to steam up the sheets together, the show can cut back on building its house of cards, wipe the pout off its face, and do some simple plotting that, ideally, will involve Maggie Q beating up 30 guys while dressed as a belly dancer. Or at least maybe getting laid will allow Shane West to finally clear his throat.

Stray observations:

  • This episode was directed by someone named Eagle Egilsson. So, because I have seen the 1984 Neo-drunken-realist indie Last Night at the Alamo, I can at least now boast in my CV that I am acquainted with the work of two different filmmakers named Eagle. 
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