Note: Do not read on if you have not seen Season 2, Episode 20 of The CW's "Nikita," entitled "Shadow Walker."
I always feel a little sorry for "Nikita" episodes that follow explosive, character-driven hours like last week's "Wrath" or Season 1's game-changing "Covenants," since even the most dynamic story would pale in comparison to the evolution we saw from our heroine on April 20.
Still, while episodes dealing with finances or computer hacking generally make my eyes glaze over, what "Shadow Walker" excelled at was emphasizing the family dynamic between Nikita, Michael, Birkhoff and Alex. In underpinning the money-driven hour with realistic character beats, writer Kristen Reidel kept the narrative engaging, shifting the normal pairings of Nikita/Michael, Nikita/Alex and Alex/Birkhoff around so that Alex could share a storyline with Michael, and Nikita and Birkhoff could have some long-overdue time together to process what happened when the hacker shot Carla and made his first kill.
Birkhoff's argument with Nikita had clearly been building for a while; when they started working together at the beginning of the season, she and Michael immediately fell into old Division habits and started ordering their recalcitrant nerd around, sometimes inadvertently treating him as their sidekick instead of their equal. For a guy who has spent years under Percy's thumb, it makes sense that encountering another power imbalance after he'd escaped Division would begin to rankle our erstwhile Shadow Walker. His guilt and trauma over accidentally killing Carla was probably a contributory factor, too -- as Nikita admitted, "the first time you kill someone stays with you for a long, long time," and judging by the way Birkhoff froze as soon as he got his hands on a gun in Ian Damascus' home, he was probably suffering with a little PTSD from the experience.
Their quiet scene in the car and later discussion back at the beach house were wonderful moments, played with warmth and depth by Maggie Q and Aaron Stanford. Similar to the last phenomenal Birkhoff-centric episode, "Fair Trade," Stanford did an outstanding job of finding the nuance in a character who, in less capable hands, could otherwise be written off as comic relief. His arrogance belies a deep-rooted insecurity, which Stanford effortlessly portrayed with nothing more than a look as he observed a group of friends laughing together in the coffee shop, emphasizing his own isolation and loneliness. It's to Stanford's credit that he can alternate between scathing banter and vulnerable introspection so convincingly in the space of one episode, and I was glad to see him once again let down his walls and admit -- even without words -- just how much he cares about his little makeshift family, and how much he desperately needs them to care about him. Having Alex offer him a check was such a simple moment, but it speaks volumes about the bonds these characters share.
If the series could end with a scene like the one that closed out this episode, I would be perfectly content -- it was a beautiful moment, especially with Nikita watching over her ragtag bunch of misfit toys with that look of contentment that's been missing for so many weeks.
As I mentioned above, it was also great to see Alex and Michael interacting for a prolonged period again, since they had a believable rapport back in Season 1, and Michael has always alternated between big brother and surrogate father figure for her. I especially appreciated Nikita needling Michael into prying for her, with Michael reluctantly trying to dig for dirt on Alex's relationship with Sean. I love that Nikita and Michael are now back in such a solid place, and that Michael was totally sincere when telling Alex that their tumultuous relationship is entirely worth all the effort and hardship they've endured.
It's a simple thing, but it's also surprisingly touching (and amusing) to see Alex behaving more like a kid when our core four are together. She lost out on so much of her childhood thanks to her father's death and subsequent prostitution and drug addiction, but in recent weeks, we've seen more of Alex's playfulness come to the surface -- whether she's drawing stick figures of Nikita and Ari, gloating over her mad hacking skills or offering Michael strategies based on movies she's seen, that gleeful, youthful edge is a beautiful thing to see from someone who's lost so much.
The only thing that didn't work for me this week was Percy's scene with the mystery man at an art gallery. I know all will be revealed in time, but vague, portentous dialogue is irritating on any show, and I don't think "Nikita" really needs to rely on those kinds of tactics to keep us engaged. I would've preferred to lose that scene in favor of more time with our loveable rogue family, and expand on Percy and his burgeoning new alliance properly next week. Still, it's a minor quibble in an episode that gave us a lot of excellent character moments, so I won't complain too loudly.
What did you think of "Shadow Walker"? Did you enjoy the character dynamics as much as I did? How do you think Percy will bankroll his evil schemes now? Weigh in below!
"Nikita" airs Fridays at 8 p.m. ET on The CW.