By the end of this episode of Nikita, I’m going to owe someone an apology.
Even after doing an advance review of tonight’s episode, I found myself still thinking on it last night and this morning – the first sign of a good television series. Regular readers are well aware that I’ve been sitting on the fence with this show, torn between appreciation for its effort and disappointment with the final product. However, the promos for this episode promised things I’ve been looking for all along – and with one exception, the hour delivered. I can say without reservation that I’ve come down off the proverbial fence, and on the side of Nikita.
How did that happen, you ask? Let’s get to the action and I’ll show you.
Nikita is at a playground, where she approaches Lisa, the widow of a Homeland Security agent named Victor Han, whom Nikita killed at the beginning of her career with Division six years ago. She tells Lisa that she’s going to complete Victor’s work by taking down an element of the Chinese mafia known as the Red Circle Triad, which he was investigating for its supply of slave labor to fashion houses at the time she killed him, and is there to send Lisa and her daughter Sophie off to a safehouse before she embarks upon this redemptive mission. Already we’ve bypassed the show’s standard “Division has mission, Nikita goes to thwart mission” formula. Once she’s seen the wife and child safely off, Nikita is able to slide seamlessly (as Maggie Q is herself a former model) into the role of a buyer visiting one of the fashion houses supplied labor by the Triad, where she oh so nicely (not) asks the designer where the sweatshop is.
While Nikita is making new friends, Michael is instructing the new recruits on how to dismantle a bomb attached to a car in under thirty seconds. Unsurprisingly, he makes Alex the first one to have a go at this. While under the car, Alex has a panic attack and begins screaming her head off. While Michael looks like he’s trying to figure out if he left the stove on, Thom is with it enough to grab Alex and pull her out from under the vehicle. Michael looks momentarily stunned and when he turns, Amanda is suddenly there. “You checkin’ up on me?” he asks, a little accusatory (is there tension there too?) before she tells him he’s wanted in Operations. Birkhoff has found Nikita on surveillance and shows it to Michael, pulling up a flag in the designer’s file that connects to the Triad. Michael and Percy are able to figure out in seconds that Nikita is following up on her past, something that leaves Michael perturbed. Shane West has now absolutely perfected the “I’m getting too old for this” expression (and maybe he is, as the 32-year-old may be ancient by CW programming standards).
Flash backward to six years ago, when Michael comes to activate recruit Nikita for her first mission. The two end up in a brief sparring match that he wins easily. It’s interesting to see him so quickly and efficiently get the upper hand on her when we know that by now, the student has possibly surpassed the master. Michael kind of likes her, and he also hates that he kind of likes her, as evidenced yet again by the expression on his face – the barest hint of a smile before he almost looks like he’s just been told he’s going to have teeth pulled. The more amusing part is how the flashback sequence doesn’t make either him or Nikita look six years younger, but it’s a technicality I won’t trifle with.
Back in the present day, Alex sees Michael leaving for a mission, but is thwarted by a random Division agent telling her that Amanda wants to see her. As a result, she’s not online when Nikita tries to contact her while waiting outside the sweatshop.
There’s another flashback as Amanda prepares Nikita for her first mission. What’s in Amanda’s mysterious case? Is it a big gun? Something poisonous? No, it’s a fake baby! Just like those ones you got in high school. Nikita’s dispatched to become the new nanny for the Han family. In the midst of her interview, she tries to engage them in conversation, a fact that Michael doesn’t like. Sitting in an allegedly nondescript white surveillance van across the street, he chews her out a little, obviously having a case of Male PMS (as he does for most of this episode). To be fair, if I was stuck in a surveillance van all day, I’d be cranky too. Yet this episode shows us that, if anything, Michael’s been a disgruntled employee of Division since long before Nikita’s defection. I don’t think we’ve seen him have a good day yet. I think we’ve seen Shane West crack one genuine smile (in last week’s “Kill Jill”). The man needs a hug. Or at least, some ibuprofen.
Present-day Nikita breaks into the sweatshop, liberates the workers, and makes short work of all the henchmen with anything she can get her hands on. It’s a pretty impressive fight sequence. The only person she leaves standing is the boss, whom she tells to inform his boss that she’s coming for him, before she proceeds to light the entire place on fire with some gasoline and her gun.
Amanda and Alex are having a therapy session. That’s right, Amanda doesn’t only dress operatives and interrogate people, she’s also a therapist, and she wants to know what’s bugging Alex. Of course, Alex being Alex, she insists that she just hates Division because it reminds her of her past. She wants to leave, but Amanda has drugged her and she passes out before she gets more than a few steps away. For once, finally, we get the chance to see Melinda Clarke play something resembling evil, rather than just having it alluded to.
On the streets, Michael has not yet learned not to talk with his mouth full, as he’s arrived outside the HQ of the Triad, where Birkhoff is providing him with inside information (such as the fact that this mafia den also doubles as a trendy nightclub!). He’s still in one of the same four suits he owns, but at least this time he’s wearing a tie. He’s able to translate the Chinese he hears in the real-time video and he and Birkhoff find out that Nikita put a tracker on the sweatshop boss to lead her back to their lair. At least he eats something. How many times do you see that happen on action shows? Never. (Jack Bauer, I’m looking at you.)
Flashback yet again, and it’s D-Day for recruit Nikita. Michael tells her to take Sophie for a walk after Lisa leaves to go to the market. She barely gets down the street when the nondescript surveillance van springs open and a few Division thugs stream out. Michael demands that she give him Sophie, and she balks, not knowing what’s going on. That guy that looks like Joey Greco is back, and tries to scrub the whole mission, telling Michael to control his asset. Michael grabs Nikita and warns her that if Division scrubs the mission, she, the baby and everyone else will die. “You don’t have a choice,” he tells her, which convinces her to relinquish the baby in favor of the bomb-baby that we saw in the previous flashback. She follows Michael’s instructions to arm the bomb and leave, and doesn’t even get across the street before the house blows up.
With that in her mind, Nikita is parked across from the Triad’s HQ, and she spots plenty of suspicious-looking guys…and then Michael, who’s had a wardrobe change back into that same blue shirt he wears all the time (seriously, does he only own four outfits? I will take this man shopping). She wonders why Alex hasn’t told her that Michael is there. That’s because Alex is all tied up – literally – in a straightjacket thanks to Amanda, who tells her the electronic lock won’t disable until she calms her heart rate down. Now that’s something that could be called “cruel and unusual.” This leaves Nikita alone, posing as a photographer outside the now-nightclub, while Michael is looking for her in the crowd, absolutely not thrilled to be there. They manage to just miss each other.
Nikita slips inside past the clubgoers into the HQ’s inner sanctum, and makes short work of the guy there,who’s talking to his boss on a webcam. That’s when she discovers that the Triad’s boss is none other than the late Victor Han. Well, that certainly throws an unexpected wrench into the situation. They have a chat about his not being dead, and he reveals that he made a deal with Percy (not unlike the war criminal in “2.o”) to fake his death. Since the life insurance provided for his family, he feels no guilt over this, nor over setting more henchmen on her. She just traces his location to Hong Kong so they can meet face-to-face, and shoots the webcam before trying to make an escape – which brings her face-to-face with Michael. When she tells him Victor is alive, he looks equally as bewildered. His mouth is literally hanging open for a moment. Very quickly, his shocked brain processes this information and draws the conclusions. It’s the most unsettled we’ve ever seen him.
He goes straight to Percy, demanding Victor’s location. Percy figures out that he got this information from Nikita, and tells him that he loves the fact that Michael never asks questions. Percy explains his side of the story: the government came to him knowing that Victor was dirty, and asking them to do something about it. Michael asks why they didn’t just kill Victor, and Percy says he didn’t want blowback from the Triads. When Michael insinuates that Percy may have also taken money from the Triad, Percy tells him to get on a plane to Hong Kong. It’s the first real bone of contention between the two men instead of just “you’re overreacting to this situation.” Nikita’s already in Hong Kong on Victor’s trail, but she gets tased and dragged away.
Alex is still tied up and on the floor, while Amanda forces her to confront her fears. She tells Amanda a story about how she was thirteen and her parents died in a car accident, but we know it’s a lie because she’s talking about water while we’re still seeing her nearly surrounded by fire. Her half-truth works well enough, as the lock disengages and Amanda tells her how she reminds her of Nikita. Oh, the irony.
In Hong Kong, Nikita comes to and is being brought out for a meeting with Victor, who says he’s had a chat with Percy and figured out that she has gone rogue. He claims that everything she knew was just a cover and he wants to know what she’s told, not to mention he has a thing for her. He kisses her (ew), only to find out she’s wearing lipstick with peanut oil – and he’s allergic to peanuts. A struggle between his men and Nikita ensues. She goes to grab Victor and get out, but doesn’t see the henchman drawing down on her. She’s dead – or she would be if someone else hadn’t sniped the guy. That someone is none other than Michael. He’s saved Nikita’s life! Almost more impressively, he’s finally gotten a wardrobe change and that earpiece out of his ear! I don’t know which I’m more surprised by, but I am definitely surprised – and impressed. I’ve seen this episode three times now, and every time when Michael is revealed, I can’t help but cheer.
Percy sees on the news that Victor has been left bound and gagged on the steps of the local police department. He’s already elbow deep in trying to do damage control. Finally, Xander Berkeley’s infamous eyeroll goes to good use. Nikita, meanwhile, meets Lisa again and tells her the truth, for better or for worse – and gets Lisa’s forgiveness. That’s good, but nothing compared to what happens next. Alex has finally figured out how to pass the bomb exercise, and Michael has to admit that Amanda did her job. Ominously, however, Amanda says that she’s not done with Alex; she knows the recruit is hiding something. We know that, but what’s surprising is she also hides something from Nikita; when they chat, she doesn’t tell the other woman about what happened. Nor does Nikita mention Michael saving her life. If they’re going to start keeping secrets from each other, that could get dangerous.
There’s another flashback as Nikita asks Michael why he’s so loyal to Percy. The two start arguing and then physically fighting. In the heat of the moment, Michael admits that he owes Percy his life, not unlike how Nikita now owes Michael hers. In the present day, Michael is taking out a good deal of frustration on a punching bag in the Division gym, while Percy looks on. Is he starting to realize that his right-hand man may not be as committed as he once was?
What an episode. Not only does it give us the backstory and therefore character depth that we’ve been hungering for (except, perhaps not surprisingly, an answer to the ‘what’s Michael and Nikita’s real relationship?’ question), but it breaks the show’s standard formula to provide the most surprising plot so far. Even the parts of the show that are formulaic – Michael’s confrontations with Nikita and with Percy – are given a whole new spin because of either what was revealed about the characters’ pasts, or the actions they take within the hour. The flashbacks here are more effective than they were in “2.0,” because they actually tell a narrative story, that while we may know the ending, makes it no less sad to watch. There’s new questions to consider: how close is Amanda going to get to figuring out Alex? Is there tension between her and Michael as well now that he has his doubts about Division? Most importantly, is Percy now going to become suspicious of Michael?
Which brings me to that apology I owe to Shane West.
I didn’t say the most flattering things about his acting when he first stepped into the role of Michael. I said that he didn’t have the gravity and he was trying too hard. After seeing this episode, I owe him a definite apology, because I’ve misjudged him and what he’s capable of. Over the course of the last few weeks, I’ve seen his work in ER, Once & Again, and a handful of movies, and I understand his acting a whole lot better than I did when I looked at the pilot. I appreciate how he can communicate so much without a line of dialogue, as we saw in “2.0.” I get the dry humor that he tries on occasion to inject into a character that didn’t have hardly any in the original incarnation. Slowly but steadily, I’ve seen the direction that Shane is trying to take this character, and I can say that I’m fully behind him in doing so. His conflicted, almost permanently disgruntled Michael is a joy to watch (even if the man seriously needs more than four suits), and the show’s secret weapon (as secret as a second-billed star can be, anyway) in that we don’t know where he’s headed, or which side he’ll end up on. We’re watching a guy whose black-and-white world is turning grey, and the inner conflict that’s generated because of that. Michael has become the most compelling character to watch, and the one that I’m honestly pulling for, because now I understand and empathize with him. I get him, and that makes me embrace him.
Shane, if you ever read this, I apologize for being wrong about you. Hopefully someday soon I’ll get the ability to tell that to you myself, but until then, just know that I was wrong, I admit I was wrong, and I’m fully behind you now.
Before anyone starts taking that too far, I stand behind what I’ve said about the show so far. It isn’t resembling La Femme Nikita or either of the films at all, which still irks me, and it’s still not going to be something as ambitious as that series. It’s still a CW spy show. Yet Nikita has won me over because it’s finally stuck in my head. It’s finally made me cheer for Michael and Nikita, and want to know what happens to them next. I finally have a passion for this show, regardless of its flaws, and like most things in life, some shortcomings can be overlooked as long as you enjoy the ride. (Even 24 got preposterous at times.)
“Rough Trade” is the episode that Nikita fans have been waiting for, and that should silence some of the doubts that other portions of the audience might have. It certainly got rid of a few of mine. The one criticism is that we had to wait until episode four to get this far, but I’m not sure we would have understood this hour as well if we hadn’t seen at least “2.0” first. We see a lot in “2.0” that makes “Rough Trade” make sense, whether it’s the war criminal’s brokered relationship with Percy (which is no doubt similar to the one Victor had with him) or Michael starting to see things he really doesn’t like. Unfortunately, I wonder how many people gave up quickly on this show and tuned out before they could see this episode. I know I was on the brink, and now I find myself on the other side of the line, finally and without reservation wondering what happens from here.
This is, unquestionably, the best episode of Nikita yet, and a real example of how good this show can be. The question will be if the show can continue to turn out episodes as good now that it’s passed. Here’s hoping “The Guardian” is just as good. I’ll see you in a week to find out.
Am I the only one who thinks the person with the gun in boots in Alex's flashback is going to turn out to be Nikita? Would that be possible given their ages?
I actually had that thought myself! But like you, I'm not sure how that would work continuity-wise. The information we got in "2.0" doesn't really tell us much about how Nikita came to be watching Alex, so it's possible…but it also feels off to me at the same time. Nikita's 27, so depending on how old Alex is, it might not be plausible.
La Femme Nikita took probably half a season to get off and running, and so I guess I should extend that courtesy to this version. However, Shane West is badly miscast. He looks like such a wuss pawing at that punching bag at the end. Roy Dupuis looked like he could own anyone and the icey detachment in his eyes was chilling to say the least. I don't get it. This has CW tampering all over it. Also, how many times is Michael going to show up and not shoot Nikita? This formula is getting old fast.
I think the writing of this show is just off. Percy needs to be more developed fast. Operations was menacing in the original. I think this actor can pull it off, he just has no material to work with. All we get is a 'damn, lost another good client there' at the end. The character is so 2D it hurts. The guy is so blase about everything, it seems like no big deal that Nikita thwarted another money maker for him. Operations was such a threat, everyone would risk certain death and years of running to get out. Not feeling it here. Just one good scene could turn that around, but that could have been done in the pilot.
This is the wrong network for this show. I think a super gritty FX version would be awesome! I think the CW executive teeny clamp will forever keep this show down to a level of mediocrity. Hopefully, I'm wrong. – DoubleA
Having seen more of his work, I'll have to disagree with you on Shane. I think we can't really compare him to Roy anymore because his character is going in a vastly different direction from Roy's incarnation of Michael. I think he's pulling that character off, not necessarily the Michael that we remember or would assume he would play.
As far as Percy/Operations, though, I completely agree with you because he IS playing the same role we expect – and he's not doing it. Xander Berkeley is a great actor himself (from 24, Terminator 2, Gattaca, and on and on)…but he's the guy you come to when you want sarcastic pain in the ass, not really menace. I've never really been scared by him. That, and he doesn't have much room to inject menace in the scenes he has. It's the same problem I have with Melinda Clarke. Madeline had no soul, but Amanda is just…there. This is the first episode where we see her do something that could be described as evil.
The CW influence is definitely felt in this show, and that can be concerning for people like me who enjoy their spy shows to be dark and twisty and serious. We'll never get that from this. But I have come to appreciate that they've given me characters I can finally care about, which makes me want to go on this ride, even if it's not the one I originally wanted to go on.