315. "Hand to Hand"

 (#58) Nikita and Michael's target is a supplier to terrorist groups, but to get to him they must infiltrate an exclusive men's club in Eastern Europe where the women are forced to fight to the death for the amusement of the clientele.
lfnforever briefing
A mission to assassinate a wealthy supplier of terrorists while he's enjoying himself in an exclusive men-only club in Kazakhstan produces an episode particularly heavy with symbolism. The club is an unusual one -- part-brothel, part-Coliseum, where women are forced to entertain the male clientele not only in the bedroom but in The Pit, locked in mortal combat. Nikita's job is merely to mark the target, with Michael, at his most stoic, being the angel of death who garrottes the target with about as much emotion as one would display while swatting a mosquito. But of course Nikita decides she must do more -- she must rescue all the women trapped in this living hell. First, though, she must survive combat with the champion, Aurora. They fight in a pool of water, clad in red and blue diaphanous gowns, reminiscent of the beta fighting fish that seem to be everywhere -- a symbolism that is a bit too obvious and over-utilized. The comparisons between this bizarre club and Section are too transparent to require exposition by the actors. Meanwhile, in Section, another kind of combat is going on; Oversight's Renee is invading Madeline's turf and setting her sights on Operations. The latter is unpleasantly smug and arrogant as he uses Renee to engender jealousy in Madeline; one wonders why Operations is so prone to preaching about the dangers of interpersonnel relationships, a la Michael and Nikita, when he acts the way he does in this entry. But the kind of "office politics" we see here will become much more prevalent as the series progresses. Credit must go to the brilliant Rocco Matteo, who outdoes himself with the set for the Kazakhstan club -- it's dark, gothic look is perfect for the medieval goings-on there, and provides a nice contrast to the post-modern, high-tech background prevalent in the series.

best dialogue
NIKITA: "How do you do it? How do you stay sane? Whats' the secret?"
WALTER: "Knowing when to lie and when to tell the truth."
N: "To them?"
W: "To yourself. At night you go to bed knowing that you live in hell. That's the truth."
N: "And the lie?"
W: "You wake up in the morning thinking this day may change everything. You'll escape. You'll fall in love. They'll close the place up and send everyone home."
N: "Then that night you have to face the truth again."
W: "Yeah. But in the meantime you've accomplished something that's truly remarkable. You made it through another day."
Written by Ed Horowitz
Directed by T.J. Scott
Original airdate: June 20, 1999
September 27, 2001 (France); July 2, 2002 (UK)

guest stars
Kristen Booth (Sondra)
Brioni Farrell (Renee)
David Ferry (Anagar)
Marjean Holden (Aurora)

"The Third Gate of Dreams," Makyo
"Death By Moonlight," Rhea's Obsession


Czech title: "Boj na zivot a na smrt"
French title: "Main dans la main"
German title: "Gewissenfragen"
Italian title: "Realto in sogno"
Spanish title: "Mano a mano"

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Dawn Connolly's commentary on this episode
Fighting fish, fighting chicks, fighting chick executives. What more could a fan want?
Nikita has been honing her intuition as her premonitory dream would suggest. Too bad her intuition doesn't tell her to listen to Madeline more carefully: it is often what Madeline does not say that is most revealing. The opening shot of Nikita floating in a pool with arms outstretched, beams radiating from her head, and liturgical choral music underscoring the scene overtly draws on Christian imagery. This episode comments on the ruthless nature of Nikita's work, her life, her survival skills, and her efforts to rescue the innocent. This time she is speaking for those without a voice. The women here are "invisible" and disposable and somehow don't count as victims. They are so invisible that Section doesn't even bother to collect data on the fights (their duration, location, and survival rate are all incidental to a bored Birkoff). The antagonist, Aurora, played by the exotic Marjean Holden, even remains nameless until the very last scene.
Ed Horowitz's ironic and self-conscious commentary is stylishly directed by T.J. Scott. Matteo's sumptuous sets, photographed by Jim Westinbrink, are filled with jeweled glass, rich fabrics, water, and fish. With the fish bowls catching the light, Aurora and Nikita, dressed in the same red and blue, circle each other under the watchful eye of Michael like the battling fish. As beautiful as the imagery of the fish is, it is overused. Still, the inter-cutting of images during the water battle does contribute beautifully to the claustrophobic chaos of this scene.
The similarity between Section and the brothel -- in which the women fight to survive just in order to fight again -- is also clear enough without Nikita drawing the parallel. But comparisons are inevitable. Section One's cold, techie environment belies its archaic values and inhuman treatment of operatives and prisoners alike. Here in the brothel, the medieval environment with its pit and shock-control chokers directly reflects these same attitudes towards an expendable and disposable labor supply. While Aurora and Nikita slug it out for real and ostensibly to the death, Madeline and Renee (played by Eugene Glazer's wife Brioni Farrell) fight their battle "in the boardroom." Madeline's use of protocol violations to rid herself of Renee may be less visceral and even pretty bloodless, but the stakes are high enough. Whether it be jealousy or territorial imperative (Renee even intrudes upon the sacred breakfast ritual) the real tug of war is between Operations and Madeline and over who will control the relationship -- a question that seems moot by the end of the episode as Operations blackmails Madeline into a secually compromising situation.
Nikita and Michael's exchange is restrained and played very low-key. Michael's report to Nikita seems almost rote, with Michael possibly at his most still and motionless. His deference to Nikita's insistence that she stay and help the captive women and the quiet shorthand these two are developing contrasts significantly with Madeline and Operations' more volatile relationship. For Nikita and Aurora, the issue is complicity vs. survival: Aurora does what she has to in order to survive and Nikita (her other self) shows her the way of mercy. And, just in case we missed it the first time, the last shot bookends the opening sequence as Nikita lies back on her couch with a halo of blond hair spread out about her head as she discusses the  miracle of surviving another day in Section (read hell).
La Femme Peta, pp 227-229