113. "Gambit"

(#14) Section One captures Gregor Kessler, an elusive master terrorist, and it's up to Madeline to get the prisoner to provide Section with the intel it needs to recover a stolen shipment of Cobalt 60 -- no easy task with a man like Kessler.
lfnforever briefing
In an episode that was nominated for a Gemini Award (the Canadian version of an Emmy) Madeline must match wits with  master terrorist Gregor Kessler in order to recover a stolen canister of Cobalt 60, which Kessler threatens to use to poison a major city's water supply. Kessler is a particularly wily master-of-disguise, not to mention a cold-blooded killer -- both attributes are illustrated in the opening scenes when Kessler manages to steal the Cobalt 60 from right under Section's nose. Even that, however, doesn't prepare us for Kessler's murder of his own daughter, Annie, who has been brought in by Section to use as leverage against him; Kessler bites her in the jugular vein, and she bleeds to death. In the end, Madeline sacrifices an abeyance operative named Shellen to arrange Kessler's escape, knowing that he will offer to exchange the Cobalt 60 for an opportunity to kill her. Harris Yulin is effective as Kessler, who is really a made-for-TV version of Hannibal Lecter. Nikita plays a secondary role; this episode is designed to expand on the Madeline character, even providing us with insights into her tormented past, which includes the guilt she feels for causing the death of her sister -- an incident that will be revisited in a future episode. And it's clear at this stage of the game that Madeline and Nikita are growing closer; the final scene suggests a budding friendship, which is ironic considering how the relationship will end. What makes "Gambit" souch a wickedly delightful episode is that nothing is what it seems --  Madeline's brutal interrogation in the opening scene isn't real; Kessler uses a disguise and a briefcase switch to steal the Cobalt 60; and Michael is disguised as Madeline to recapture Kessler. This is our first look at a variation on the infamous White Room -- this one has an adjacent viewing chamber, among other unique features. Seen in several subsequent episodes, it will be known as the Gambit Room.

best dialogue
MADELINE (referring to Annie): "Is she dead?"
NIKITA: "Not yet. But she won't make it through the night. So we were wrong. She didn't mean anything to Kessler."
M: "On the contrary. He cared enough to kill her. It was an act of mercy, Nikita. He was protecting her."
N: "Protecting her? From who?"
M: "From us."
Written by Michael Loceff
Directed by Jon Cassar
Original airdate: June 29, 1997 (USA)
nd (France); December 12, 1997 (UK)

guest stars
Harris Yulin (Kessler)
Lindsey Connell (Annie)
Todd William Schroeder (Shellen)
Allan Murley (Hayes)
John Ho (Janitor)
Lisa Richardson (Hacker)
Hamish Robertson (Man at Elegra)

Original score by Sean Callery

The R.C. Harris Water Filtration Plant on Toronto's Queen Street East served as the facade of the University of Norway, Oslo, where Michae and Nikita abduct Annie.

Czech title: "Prvni krok"
French title: "Le piege"
German title: "Schachmatt"
Spanish title: "Gambito"
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Dawn Connolly's commentary on this episode
"Gambit" is a great cat-and-mouse episode that pits Madeline, a master profiler and ruthless interrogator, against Kessler, a master of disguise, a madman, and a terrorist who has eluded captured for 30 years. The show works well, balancing action and Section story lines with new character developments. Michael Loceff's clever script and Jon Cassar's imaginative directing (the episode was nominated for a Gemini Award) bring the wonderful Alberta Watson into the spotlight and illuminates Madeline's background.
The whole episode reads like a 101 course in master strategy. It begins with a visual sleight of hand in the teaser as we see Madeline doing what she does so well: conducting a ruthless interrogation. The twist, of course, is that all this is a VR simulation. Surprisingly, Madeline has to mentally prepare herself for the challenges of entering the minds of her enemies, ferreting out their weaknesses and exploiting them. She appears to do all this at a cost.
In the mission brainstorming session we see the deductive processes that lead her to Kessler. Later, we watch Madeline dispassionately order and observe the death of an operative as Kessler makes his "escape," and we also see how Madeline uses Kessler's methods to bring him down. That Kessler knows Madeline, that he has either profiled her or gained access to her file again casts doubt upon the theory that Section One is "the most covert anti-terrorist group in the world."
David Thompson's editing again elevates the caliber of the storytelling as he lets the camera "discover" the death of the security man, Hayes, and that of the abeyance operative in Kessler's interrogation room. With the stark lighting of Kessler's scenes in and out of Section, the video screen close-ups of his ransom message, the slow-motion camera work, and the reuse of the green and purple palette in lighting Kessler's lair, Director Jon Cassar and director of photography Michael McMurray expand and establish the visual repertoire and style of the series. At times the story and the visuals drift a little too close to Silence of the Lambs, but Harris Yulin's Kessler proves a worthy adversary and the actor is delicious as he eyes the throat of his adversary behind his Hannibal Lecter-style muzzle.
Nikita is in the background of the episode. But note the "bookend" scenes in which Madeline confesses her self-doubts to Nikita. As have others, Madeline feels secure exposing a vulnerability and confessing a weakness to Nikita. The final tag thus presents one of the more intriguing open endings of the season; we don't know if Nikita is being suggested as a younger Madeline, if the ice queen just feels the need to connect, or if this is all part of a larger plan to mold Nikita in her image.
La Femme Peta, pp 124-126

Ted Edwards' "behind the scenes" look at this episode
Prior to "Gambit," much of the first season of La Femme Nikita was devoted to Nikita's struggle to get her life back, with secondary explorations devoted to the character of Michael. This episode was the start of a concerted effort to add a little bit of flesh and blood to the other characters, thus preventing their aloofness from going from cool and hip to cliched.
As USA Network President Rod Perth noted in the middle of season one, "I think the show has to retain its essential kind-of-cool attitude, but it has to also be accessible to a broad audience. It can't be so cool, like a piece of Miles Davis music, which would result in a very limited audience. It has to be broader than that."
Obviously, the first character to get this "treatment" was Madeline, who in all the previous shows seemed completely unflappable. Nothing seemed to get to her. In this instance, though, she was thrown off balance in a stunning verbal spar with Kessler (and anyone impressed with Harris Yulin in this episode, should check out his equally effective performance in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "Duet"....
La Femme Nikita X-Posed, pp 74-75

Joel Surnow's POV

We wanted to do a Madeline show. We wanted to bring somebody in to match wits with Madeline that would start to reveal things about her. It sort of became a little bit like Silence of the Lambs along the way, but we didn't set out to do that. It sort of takes on some of those shades. The guy was almost mystical. He knew things about her that he dropped in very cryptic ways that we don't know how he knew, but we just know this is a guy who's been in the terrorist community and been at it brilliantly for 30 years. It's like getting Carlos the Jackal in his prime. We just came up with a back story for Madeline that she was sort of a bad seed as a child, with a little bit of wiggle room that maybe she killed her sister, maybe she didn't. The point of this show was to give Alberta an episode and to (a) let us see what the show is like when Nikita is not in the foreground -- and I think it was very successful -- and (b) it started to show the strength of our cast is such that we could do stories about the other characters so we didn't have to dwell on Michael and Nikita in every episode, which, quite frankly, gets tiring if you're just going to hit that relationship each week. We started to expand and do a few new colors.

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