I don’t like to use the word "underrated" when talking about television shows. There's a lot of television—in fact, most of it—that doesn’t get covered by web sites like this one and that doesn’t get any substantive awards love. In that conceptualization, almost everything is underrated. And with the ever-frustrating Nielsen system, most shows are also literally under-rated. But we live in a time when all shows—even those not covered regularly by critics or popular according to an antiquated ratings system—can enjoy rabid fandoms in their teeny-tiny corners of the internet.
Nikita is not underrated. It is under-viewed by audiences who would almost certainly love it if they weren't scared off by The CW brand, and the show is maybe a little undervalued by the critical community. But above almost all things, Nikita is a show that knows its own identity. That identity might not be greatly appealing to a wide swath of viewers, but the show has a consistent rhythm, style, tone, and characterization that is satisfying and yet, can also be a little stale.
What I’ve always admired about Nikita is its ability to present the façade of change without changing much at all. The writers know how to move on from big storylines before they overstay their welcome, a skill they showed off way back in the first half of Season 1. The show’s second season was a bit of a mess at times, but by the end of it, Nikita wanted us to see that EVERYTHING HAD CHANGED. Of course, it hadn’t because this is procedural television—so Evil Percy is gone, but Evil Amanda is still on the loose, doing the same exact things Percy did last year. Nikita, Michael, Alex, and now Owen are all working for Ryan to clean up and then put down Division, but they’re still dealing with rogue Division agents (amazingly named the Dirty Thirty).
I say all this not to knock the show, because I think it's what makes the show very watchable. At its core, Nikita is a procedural spy series where Maggie Q beats people up and looks good doing it, week in and week out. Yet, the writers have done just enough every season to shift the perspective and re-configure character relationships ever so slightly so that while individual episodes can bore (especially when they get stuck in the “shootout at an abandoned industrial park that wastes 13,000 bullets” set piece rut), the larger stories are always moving forward.
The big success of this season has been the show’s ability to take a big deep breath and consider what all the running, scheming, shooting, and killing means for these characters. After so many years of trying to take down Division, how does Nikita feel about working with them? Does she really believe this version of a big repressive force is any different than all the versions that came before? And is a stable, “real” life possible? These aren’t particularly novel questions to be asking, but they fit the show’s world very well because so much of the first two seasons were built on quickly moving plot that there were rarely opportunities to stop and breathe—for the characters or for us.
This week’s episode found the show right in the middle of some compelling interpersonal conflicts between major characters, most of whom are dealing with one tragedy or another. Nikita and Michael are still trying to rediscover their rhythm in the aftermath of an accident that forced Nikita to cut off Michael’s right hand to save his life, and the darkest and broodiest of the show’s dark and broody men, Owen, is now around to make Michael feel inadequate. Alex is pushing to recover from her relapse into addiction so she can return to the field, while her jilted lover Sean struggles to balance his concern that Division is a supremely dangerous and toxic environment (duh) with his desire to put the night moves on Alex.
Again, simple conflicts, executed in a straightforward fashion, with the occasional hard-to-swallow moment (we’ll come back to that in a second). What “Survival Instincts” proves is that although individual members of Nikita’s ensemble aren’t Emmy-worthy, they all work together really well and have a great grasp on their characters. I understand the reasons why a small group of people love this show and these people. The show has found a way to really establish bonds between all of the lead characters despite the dysfunctional world they exist in, even the tech support dweeb Birkhoff and outsider/big-time killer Owen. So, by the time this episode asked us to buy that Owen, the man who killed Nikita’s previous fiancé, cares for her just as much as Michael does, Devon Sawa and Q made it work. It’s in the nature of the show that characters will lie to one another, but Owen tried to have honest conversations with both Michael and Nikita about what makes their relationship work and how he’s not there to disrupt, only to support.
The same can be said for this episode’s (and really this season’s) treatment of Nikita and Michael’s relationship. Before his injury, the show kept pushing them to answer some of the questions I mentioned earlier. Nikita’s our hero, but her tendency to doggedly pursue certain people or injustices makes her blind to the lines between right and wrong. She thought that this new Division would be better, but time and again this season, including in last night’s episode, she's run up against a member of the Dirty Thirty who simply can’t be reasoned with; so, she’s killing again, just as Percy sent Division to kill her. The distinctions aren’t so clear.
This all rubs up against Nikita’s admittedly warped and idealist notion that she and Michael can be happy in a traditional fashion. They’ve both already lost spouses because of this life, and although they get a kick out of what they do, Nikita’s pursuit of Amanda indirectly led to Michael losing his hand. Yeah, she saved his life, but the fact that she chopped off the appendage in an instant doesn’t quite sit well with Michael. So, he’s unwilling to go back into the field and even more unwilling to talk out his problems with his future wife.
Alex’s recovery is much less compelling, but the show hasn’t quite known what to do with Lyndsy Fonseca for a while now. It’s nice for Nikita to remind us of the dark places these characters get pulled out of to work for Division, but when Alex was injured, she was still going on missions, and when she’s supposed to be in recovery, she’s still playing a big part in missions. Little has changed, which feels like a problem if this is a story about getting back on the horse.
What an episode like “Survival Instincts” illustrates is that in its third season, Nikita has wrangled and refined its different storytelling approaches. The season’s emphasis on interpersonal conflict helps make that part of the show the best it has been since the middle of Season 1, the Dirty Thirty thread means that even weekly standalone cases have a larger purpose, and the larger arc isn’t nearly as convoluted as it tended to be last year. The show isn’t as quite as twisty as it was in Season 1, or ambitious as it was in Season 2, but at this point, Nikita has found its strengths and is highlighting them in the proper ways.
– Okay, so let’s talk about Michael’s hand. If you saw the preview for next week, it looks like they’re going to try to RE-GROW it. There have been a few moments this season where the show stepped little too far away from reality (the most notable being the dumb Mission: Impossible-style skin mask in “The Sword’s Edge”) for my liking. Nikita has always been ridiculous (I mean, have you seen the number of bullets people waste?), but these sort of things undercut its established rules. And I hope they don’t turn the hand into a MacGuffin; it’s an interesting, somewhat bold choice to cripple your co-lead. Stick with it, show.
– Although none of these characters are technically new, the show’s gotten a lot more crowded in Season 3, with Sawa and Noah Bean both joining up as regulars. It’s certainly different to go from the first and second season’s emphasis on Nikita or Nikita and Michael to this six- or seven-person operation.
– I appreciated this episode’s half-cooked Law & Order-like scenes with Owen and Nikita out in the field, mediocre raincoats and pantsuits and all.