classic episode
la femme nikita: "open heart"

2.09 / Original air date 5 April, 1998

Written by: Elliot Stern

Directed by: René Bonnière

From the moment this dark, super-spy series with the blonde glamazon and her mysterious, mullet-haired lover debuted, it was almost inevitable that the writers would sooner or later give Nikita a mission where she had to seduce another woman.

The fact that the woman in question was perennial scifi/fantasy guest star Gina Torres (she of the enormous beestung lips that put Angelina Jolie's smackers to shame) just gave them more to play with. Torres is a versatile actor who'll do just about anything, and she has an indefinable sensuality that more than one television director has taken advantage of. Watch her work in Firefly, or interactions with Jennifer Garner in Alias and opposite Lucy Lawless in Xena to see exactly what I mean.

For anyone who doesn't know, La Femme Nikita was the TV adaptation of the 1990 Luc Besson French language classic of the same name, masterminded for the small screen by Joel Surnow (creator of 24). It was one of an endless stream of cult sci-fi/fantasy hits filmed and cast in Canada. In fact, if you watch carefully you can recognise re-used sets from LFN in various episodes of Mutant X. LFN really started the whole female spy formula that was later perfected for Alias. The comparisons between the two shows end there though, they are vastly different creatures and I would never suggest otherwise.

When cancelled after the fourth season, there was enormous fan pressure from LFN fans for the studio to, at the very least, wrap up existing storylines. The producers funded an additional 8-episodes to take the character of Nikita to her logical conclusion. It was the perfect ending. After everything that Nikita endured in her time in Section One it was excellent to see them not back away from the inevitable. She had to eventually be consumed by the powers she resisted, although in keeping with the strength of the character she continued to do things on her own terms. Personally, I was just glad that she wasn't killed off in the end.

Along with TV heroines from such shows as Xena: Warrior Princess, Dark Angel, Alias and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Nikita is another of those tortured women with a difficult destiny. Unlike the others however, she was made to suffer and suffer and suffer some more to a degree unparalleled in genre television. As a rule, even in the darkest TV shows there is often comic relief and romantic interludes enjoyed by the characters to allow them (and the audience) to blow off steam. Not so with LFN. This was week after week of unrelenting darkness, treachery, despair and death.

I think it takes a strong constitution to like this show. Despite clinging desperately to her own sense of morality, Nikita has no time or energy for tears. She's dangerous, aggressively sexy, achingly vulnerable, and every time she lets her guard down even the people who love her make her pay for it. The LFN writers were downright sadistic at times. Its enough to make me wonder about the psychology of the people who enjoy this show, and why they like it (me included).

The only reason Nikita isn't "cancelled" (killed) by her superiors is because everyone recognises her value as a survivor. While she lives she might be impulsive and impertinent, but for too long (and to their eventual detriment) the powers see her as an essentially harmless operative who gets the job done. After all, everyone high up in Section One just assumes that if they put her in the field often enough one day her luck will run out and the Nikita problem will take care of itself. It never does.

But back to the lesbians. Personally I don't think the episode "Open Heart" is the first or the only indication that Nikita swings both ways, but her obsession with fellow operative Michael makes it difficult to really explore Nikita's sexuality to any great degree.

In the earlier seasons of LFN, the terrorist organisation called Red Cell are the bad guys. In this episode, Nikita must infiltrate a women's prison in order to stage a prison break with a Red Cell operative named Jenna. A bomb has been implanted into a Red Cell assassin and Jenna is the only one who knows the suicide bomber's identity. To save the lives of hundreds of people, Nikita must gain Jenna's trust, all the while intending to betray her.

When Nikita saves Jenna's life in prison a friendship is formed and an attraction grows. Nikita reciprocates just enough to gain Jenna's trust. The two women kiss, although briefly, and it is obvious that whatever darker motives either of the women have, the kiss affects them more deeply than either of them could have expected. Jenna even tells Nikita that she loves her.

The two women finally make their escape, where Jenna is immediately captured and interrogated by Section. Despite their best efforts, Section are unable to get the identity of the bomber from her. They send in Nikita to try and distract Jenna's absolute concentration. It seems to work. Jenna asks Nikita if she felt anything when they were together. Nikita seems to admit the truth, that she truly felt desire for Jenna.

What I liked about the storyline is that not only do the two women play with each other's emotions, they play with ours as well. It's always intense when Nikita develops feelings for someone. In her cocoon-like existence in Section, Nikita's real emotions are rarely let out to play, and here the experiment has curious results. For the first time in ages she seems shocked by something that she's feeling, that she's experiencing something new. When the inevitable happens, Nikita seems truly devastated.

The whole thing could have been a sham. Jenna might have been a lesbian, she might not. She might have been in love with Nikita, she might have been acting. But watching the episode is a real mind-bender, and each time I see it I change my mind as to how Jenna and Nikita are really feeling. That says a lot for the writers and the actors. To top it all off, here was finally a one-off lesbian story that didn't leave me with a bad taste in my mouth. It wasn't played for sensationalism, it was played with real emotion, which set a new standard for the genre.

Postscript: I like it when there's some pattern to naming TV episodes (The L Word episodes all start with the letter "L" for example.) The easiest way to figure out which season an episode of LFN is from is to look at the title. All first season episodes have one word titles, all second season eps have two word titles, and so on.

Got a comment? Write to me at nancyamazon@gmail.com