102. "Charity"

(#4) Nikita's mission to steal the data files of a money launderer is complicated when she learns he runs shelters for troubled youth -- and further complicated when she finds out he is a slaver using those shelters to acquire human merchandise.
lfnforever briefing
The full extent to which Section will manipulate its own operatives is on display in this episode, as Operations and Michael keep Nikita in the dark about the true purpose of her mission so she'll be convincing in her role. As for gadgets, Nikita uses a vidcam disguised as a watch to scan Chandler's PC screen. In an early scene we see that Nikita has a pet, a cat that Michael tells her to get rid of, but which we see again in the final scene as a symbol of Nikita's defiance (although we never see it again). We also learn that Michael has a key to Nikita's apartment. Perhaps it's to be expected, since this was only the second episode filmed, but att times the principals seem "out of character" as the actors continue to refine their roles -- Birkoff is a little too hip while both Operations and Michael display a bit too much emotion. (It was Roy Dupuis who thought Michael should seem a cold and ruthless automaton -- a hard outer shell the character uses to mask his feelings and survive; at this point in time he was, apparently, still battling producers and directors to have his way.) In fact, the scene in which Nikita receives a call from Chandler, with the other principals loitering about Communications, is almost embarrassing to watch, so off-the-mark are they all; Operations grins as Birkoff and Nikita exchange wisecracks, and Michael even cracks a smile.
In several scenes, Peta Wilson's characterization turns Nikita into a rather unsympathetic spoiled brat. That worked for Anne Parillaud in the original film because Parillaud's Nikita was endowed with an ageless, feral, wise-beyond-her-years undertone -- just what one would expect from someone who has survived on the streets. Her juvenile delinquency is just an act. But Wilson can't pull that off (though she'll do better in "Mother"); fortunately, we won't see the pouty primadonna rendition again. The producers also acknowledge that the Chandler character was an atypical LFN villain. Yet, give credit to Simon McCorkindale, whose Chandler is suave one minute, sinister the next. He was positively chilling in his villainy, particularly in the scene in which he explains to a captured Nikita what will become of her once ahe's been sold.

best dialogue
MICHAEL: "I do what I have to do. We all do. It's not what I would choose for myself, or for us."
NIKITA: "Us? Will you answer a question for me?"
M: "If I can."
N: (pointing her gun at him) "Why shouldn't I kill you, hmm? Why shouldn't I just pull the trigger?"
M: "I can't think of a single reason."
Written by Robert Cochran
Directed by Kari Skogland
Original airdate: February 3, 1997 (USA)
June 7, 1998 (France); October 3, 1997 (UK)

guest stars
Simon McCorkindale (Alec Chandler)
Michael Filpowich (Kosten)
Mackenzie Gray (Skyler)
Gerry Mendicino (George Hardin)
Wayne Ward (Kenny)
Ian White (Servant)
Peter Van Wart (Jack)
Stefan Brogren (Guard)
Adriana Galic (Woman)
Harve Sokoloff (Colleague)

"Watch Me Fail," SIANspheric
"In Your Life," Clove
"All Dressed Up In San Francisco," Philosopher Kings
"Jersey Girl," Holly Cole Trio
"All Of The Important Things I've Done," Tristan Psionic

The "red balloon" scene was shot at The Esplanade and Scott Street, while Chandler's yacht, the Captain Matthew Flinders, was docked at Harbourfront, location of the Queens Quay subway terminal where Nikita loses the man Chandler has sent to shadow her.

Czech title: "Doborcinnost"
French title: "Une ouevre de charite"
German title: "Der Wohltater"
Italian title: "Carita"
Portuguese title: "Caridade"
 Spanish title: "Caridad"
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Dawn Connolly's commentary on this episode
"Charity" takes a hackneyed, predictable story line and gives it its own Nikita twist. Unfortunately, there are several unworthy moments. Nikita's "roll and rescue" is not enough to cover a gratuitous peek up Nikita's skirts. Peta Wilson has one of her self-described "hit the mark and bark" moments during her confrontation with Chandler, but the writer has left her with little choice: "You sell children. You're scum!" Yikes. Earlier, during Skyler's interrogation, the actress is struggling to pin down her character, yet she is able to evoke Nikita's inexperience by drawing on some of her own.
We can now add little children to lost kittens on Nikita's list of attractions. However, director Kari Skogland rescues a potentially saccharine moment with some unusual camerawork and dreamlike music that makes us believe we are getting a glimpse of Nikita on a mental holiday from Section. Arguably, it is this unguarded moment that catches Chandler's attention more than Section's cutesy setup.
Humorous moments include a sugared-out Birkoff killing time with a joystick and computer game. Nikita's verbal sparring with Birkoff also hints at the "little brother-big sister" relationship they will develop. And Madeline's instruction to Michael about the red evening jacket is a sly wink to the audience about Michael's signature monochromatic look. Dupuis gets playful as Michael plays at drunkenness aboard Chandler's yacht.
Nikita and Walter begin the first in a long series of flirtations. Beyond the sexual innuendo and teasing, the strength of the Nikita-Walter connection is its humanity. Walter repeatedly serves as a touchstone for Nikita and a caring voice within Section. In a business populated by younger people in physically demanding jobs with a reduced life expectancy, Walter is a rarity: older, wiser, and more humane than most. How has he done it, how has he survived, and why is he there?
Notable is the rare (take a picture 'cause it'll last longer) smile from Michael occasioned by Nikita's confidence in her own ability to interest Chandler. Presumably, the potential for a connection between the two agents has not gone unnoticed over the course of Nikita's training. Several moments in this episode suggest that the mission is as much a test for Michael as it is for Nikita: the scene in Madeline's office, Operation's comment on Nikita's growing affection for Chandler, Michael's impatience and discomfort while he eavesdrops during Nikita's and Chandler's dance, his appearance in Nikita's apartment, waiting like a jealous lover. That the relationship is and will be more problematic than office politics can explain away is firmly established in the final act. Nikita pulls a gun on Michael, and his submission -- the kiss on her hand and the suggestive stroking of the gun's barrel -- defines the fascinating and dysfunctional central relationship of the series. The connections between violence and sex, self-hatred and manipulation finally find expression in near sado-masochism by Season Two's opening story arc. Dupuis and Wilson create electricity between their characters. Wilson gives the scene even more power as Nikita smells and tastes the skin Michael has just touched (a gesture that is reprised at the close of "Hard Landing").
Section is hoist by its own petard, so to speak. Nikita, we are learning, is humane in her impulses and motivations. She acts independently to right perceived wrongs. Operations keeps her in the dark so that she'll "operate more effectively." Ignorant of Section's plans for Chandler, she nonetheless exacts her own form of justice. Still, by the end of the hour it's clear this episode has been less an opportunity for titillation than it has been a cold lesson for Nikita in Section's trademark cruelty and manipulation of its operatives' weaknesses.
La Femme Peta, pp 93-96

Ted Edwards' "behind the scenes" look at this episode
During an online interview, story editor Michael Loceff detailed the writing process for the series, noting that La Femme Nikita is "privileged" to have what he considers one of the best acting ensembles working in dramatic television. As Loceff explained it, when he's on-set he has conversations with each of the primary actors, while Joel Surnow is in contact with them on a daily basis. Each actor, he said, has a plethora of ideas in terms of where their characters originate and what direction they're headed.
"The actors frequently have questions about the scripts," he noted. "No one is more sensitive to their character's behavior than they, and they approach these scripts with a high degree of professionalism and scrutiny. Often these interactions result in line changes, other times they will walk away with a better understanding of what is on the page. As a writer, I look at where each actor has taken my scenes in the past and use this as a source of new ideas -- things I wouldn't have thought of if I hadn't seen Matthew read a Birkoff line in just that way, or Alberta make a choice that surprised me and which turned out better than I had envisioned. In this way the actors guide us in writing future scripts, and in making the characters develop in ways that are very much due to the cast we have, and not some abstract characters."
Reportedly, "Charity" taught the production team an important lesson: Even guest characters have to be presented in a certain way or they are not effective. Joel Surnow told one online audience member that Simon McCorkindale's character should not have been dressed in ascots, even if, in reality, it was right for such a character. "In our show," he said, "people have to look like Section characters and talk like Section characters, even if they're not in the Section. There's a uniformity in style that eclipses reality. We were a little reality-driven in that show. When you do a stylized show, that's always the hardest thing to grasp."
La Femme Nikita X-posed, pp 54-55

Joel Surnow's POV

Big disappointment for me. First of all, it was really over stylized when we first looked at it. By the time I was done cutting out the things I didn't like in the show, it was about seven minutes short and we had to rewrite and reshoot almost twenty percent of [it]. There were some really wonderful moments in it, and some wonderful scenes, and Simon McCorkindale is a wonderful actor, but I think I if I would have cast a younger, kind of hipper-looking guy it would have been more believable for Nikita to fall in love with him. There was never a reality to their love story. We dressed him wrong, we put him in ascots. I'll tell you what that show taught us: the reality of these characters are not as important as the reality of the show. So even [though] the reality of Chandler, that character, was someone who would wear ascots, and was kind of playing a blue-blood guy, in our show people have to look like Section characters, talk like Section characters, even if they're not in Section. There has to be a uniformity of style that eclipses reality. We were a little reality-driven in that show. When you do a stylized show, that's always the hardest thing to kind of grasp. You have to say, "He's this kind of guy, but through the lense of Section One and La Femme Nikita."

I was actually amazed when the show was all said and done how decently it played. It gave me great faith in our ability to crank out a show where the story wasn't working perfectly yet. That was a real Wiseguy episode: you fall in love with a guy who you're supposed to be undercover with. That seemed to be a natural, but we aren't Wiseguy and we didn't explore that deeply enough. I think in an eight-episode arc you can make that work, but unless there's some immediate chemistry between the people it doesn't work. And the chemistry in our show is really Peta and Roy, so you never really played it out the full way you would on Wiseguy.

In the end, though, there were some wonderful story elements: they kept Nikita in the dark about what this guy was doing, they let her fall in love with a man who they knew was a child slave trader because if they told her she couldn't have convincingly fallen in love with him. I thought that was a great story element and said a lot about what our show was that season and what Section was doing to her, and it, again, gave her a tremendous amount of empathy. On that level it was successful, but there were a lot of problems behind the scenes.

La Femme Nikita Episode Guide
Edward Gross, Retrovision # 6 (1999)