Alex: You were right about getting close. It hurts.
Nikita: Yes, it does. But if you felt nothing, you’d be one of them.
– 1×07 “The Recruit”
Who knew a bank robbery might be an excellent introduction to a legendary team of government agents? The writers behind the CW’s Nikita did, kicking off the pilot episode with a tense stand-off between their title character and her new mentee, and security guards who had no idea they were in the middle of a set-up. It’s an episode that, while heavy-handed in its exposition, nonetheless does the job: your average viewer meets two women who will determine the course of not just their futures but the future of the world in four exhilarating seasons.
Nikita Mears and Alex Udinov are also one of the most memorable female teams and mentorships I’ve found in television.
Mentorship is an oft-cited word in career development, but it wasn’t always about working towards a promotion or corner suite office. The word can be traced back to The Odyssey, where Odysseus trusts his son Telemachus to his old friend Mentor for guidance while Odysseus is away. Mentor is a teacher, a confidant, and an adviser to Telemachus, and his help is invaluable to both father and son as they resume rule over Ithaca at the end of the epic.
Today, mentors can be many things. For some, they are supervisors and managers who provide career guidance and support as one moves through the ranks. For others, they are colleagues and professionals who are paired with mentees in their field to offer advice, networking, and an example of at least one possible career path. Not all mentors and mentees know each other before the start of the mentorship, but they are connected via the industries they work in, similar career paths, or similar backgrounds. Belle Rose Ragins and Terri A. Scandura define a mentor as “an individual influential in the work environment who has advanced experience and knowledge and who is committed to providing upward mobility and support to careers.” Forward motion characterizes the mentor/mentee relationship–a mentor is not useful if they aren’t able to provide both knowledge and support for the future.
In Nikita , the mentor/mentee relationship plays out between Nikita Mears (Maggie Q) and Alexandra “Alex” Udinov (Lyndsy Fonseca) over the course of four seasons. Both women come from backgrounds where they suffered abuse, though Nikita was an American orphan, and Alex’s wealthy parents were killed by the rogue black-ops agency Division and she was subsequently trafficked as a sex slave. Both women are Division agents—Nikita before the start of the show, and Alex during. Both women hate Division but find purpose in what they learn from the rogue black-ops agency, continuously a point of internal and external conflict throughout the series.
Initially, neither of them are looking for a mentor/mentee relationship. Nikita rescues Alex from a violent almost-rape by Alex’s drug dealer, and she forces Alex to get clean, weaning her off drugs in isolation. Alex fights her every step of the way, culminating in a suicide attempt from which Nikita is barely able to save her. Nikita reveals that she knows who killed Alex’s parents, and that information motivates Alex to continue living to seek revenge against Division. It’s a decision that Nikita doesn’t approve of or want, and it provides a tense conflict that drives the first season of the show.
For Alex, the only constant is Nikita, and the reveal of Nikita’s culpability in the death of Alex’s parents drives an immoveable wedge between them. This reveal also happens at a point when Alex no longer needs Nikita to be a mentor—Alex has learned the essential skills to become a formidable agent, and is now more than capable of handling herself. Subsequent seasons expand their relationship by exploring the uncertainty they feel with each other without the shared goal of Division’s implosion, and how their roles shift as the world around them changes.
Stella Carter wrote about the lack of female mentors on television, springing from thoughts she’d had while watching Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy’s work relationship on 30 Rock:
In all of the films, shows, and books I can think of, the woman’s mentor is normally a male, either gay or a potential love-interest. If a woman happens to give the heroine some mentoring, it’s limited to certain advice-giving incidents, which are often questionable and sometimes destructive.
While female friendships aren’t too rare in TV, the focus on mentorship in Nikita is multi-layered. The viewer isn’t asked to simply believe that Alex and Nikita are the perfect mentor and mentee–the series takes time not just to build their relationship with each other, but all of the people and events that have influenced the way they interact with one another.
Alex and Nikita’s relationship often mirrors parts of the mentorship they’ve received from others. The first person to figure as a mentor in Nikita’s life is Carla Bennett, a prison counselor who Nikita later discovers has ties to Division. Carla’s work brings her to Nikita, a drug addict, and the older woman helps her to get clean, telling Nikita “this is a safe space.” The phrase becomes a touchstone for Nikita even during her post-Division days, proof of how deeply Carla had influenced her. In flashbacks, the viewer sees Carla and Nikita’s relationship in those early days, one in which Nikita quite obviously relied on and appreciated Carla’s support:
Nikita: When he said I got the job, I just wanted to run.
Carla: That’s because you have been told all your life that you’re not worth it. And when you’re young and you hear that over and over again, that starts to sink in. You’re so much stronger now. You’re a wildflower.
Carla is the first person to believe in Nikita unconditionally, and she also more than hints at the future she sees for Nikita, even if the younger woman can’t see it herself:
Nikita: Why are you doing this for me?
Carla: Because one day, you’re gonna do this for somebody else. That’s the way it’s supposed to work.
At Division, Michael Bishop’s influence doesn’t quite reach mentorship levels, though she does respect him immensely. While Michael and Nikita eventually end up as a couple, they start off as trainer and recruit. Their connection develops over five years of training and missions, and Michael’s support helps Nikita to pursue her quest to shut Division down completely.
Despite intense efforts on Division psychologist Amanda Collins’ part to mold Nikita in her image, Nikita never quite took to her the way she did to Michael. Nikita’s rejection and rebellion became the main point of contention between the two women, leading to almost every single conflict from the first day of Nikita’s stay in Division. It was Amanda’s inability to fully crack Nikita that played a role in Amanda’s treatment of Alex–Amanda herself speaks of the similarities between them that interested her.
On Alex’s part, it is her father, Nikolai Udinov, that the viewer sees most often as a pre-Nikita influence. While Nikolai is dead at the start of the show, there are several flashbacks within the series that provide a look at Alex’s early teen years. Nikolai was partial to walks in the woods around the Udinov mansion, taking his daughter with him and teaching her survival skills. He instills a deep sense of independence in Alex, reminding her over and over again that the only person she can rely on is herself, as well as a fierce devotion to her family. Her growing disinterest in taking over Zetrov, the family business, isn’t obvious to Nikolai, but his words stay with her as she wrests control of Zetrov away from Sergei Semak, the man responsible for the attack on her family.
While the first season focuses on Alex and Nikita’s often-violent mission to dismantle Division by placing Alex as a mole on the inside, the dynamics between them are no less a mentorship, albeit an unconventional one. In Mentoring at Work: Developmental Relationships in Organizational Life, Kathy E. Kram describes the advantages of seeing mentorship as a “two-dimensional” concept, wherein the mentor provides both career and psychosocial guidance:
…the greater the number of functions provided by the mentor, the more beneficial the relationship will be to the protégé.
At the start of their mentorship, Alex is an unpredictable young woman who lashes out violently, the consequence of her family’s deaths, and her being sold into slavery. Nikita is more controlled, but driven by righteous anger towards Division. She doesn’t particularly like the idea of making Alex a mole, but is hard pressed to argue against the reasons Alex comes up with to convince her, all geared towards using Division’s own weaknesses against it.
As is advised for mentorships, they communicate regularly–via a shell program installed by Nikita on the Division network–and follow each other’s progress. Alex is able to provide Nikita with information as well as tactical support as Nikita takes apart Division’s various missions on the outside. Nikita assists Alex in a less obvious way: she is there for Alex as the younger woman is trained and sent out into the field. They meet up once Alex has graduated as an agent, and Nikita continues to protect her during missions, trying to prevent Alex from having to kill anyone for any reason.
Several characters comment on the bond between Nikita and Alex over the course of the show, even when both women are on opposite sides. Early in season 2, former Navy SEAL Sean Pierce informs his mother Senator Madeline Pierce that he knows how to get to Nikita:
Sean: Specifically the people she cares about.
Madeline Pierce: Michael?
Madeline: Her former mole?
Sean: There’s still a bond between them. Trust me.
– 2×08 “London Calling”
Percival “Percy” Rose, Division’s Director, uses Alex’s trust in Nikita against her, revealing Nikita’s role in the Udinov attack and effectively severing their relationship. Amanda attempts several times to use Alex as both bait for Nikita, and a bargaining chip to get what she wants from Nikita.
Both women seem aware that they work best together, even during the points in the series when they work for opposite sides. In season 2, Nikita and Alex find themselves face-to-face in Alex’s family mansion in Russia, fighting towards different goals.
Alex: If they follow us–
Nikita: They won’t. I’ll disable their cars. It’s a trick Michael taught me. If you can delay your enemy for even a few minutes–
Alex: It might be enough to save the day. You taught me that.
– 2×09 “Pale Fire”
In a season 3 episode, they are able to rescue and return a kidnapped young girl, Liza Abbott, to her family. When Liza asks if they’ve ever rescued anyone as young as her before, Nikita and Alex exchange a look, remembering their own history–that “there was one other girl.” Nikita tells Liza that Alex will take her home to Liza’s parents, and when Alex asks why, Nikita says simply, “I got the last one.” Even as Alex has begun to build a life for herself, Nikita continues to shore her up and provide touchpoints to remind Alex of everything that Alex is capable of doing. It’s easy to see how both women have begun to move away from needing each other to get a job done, but that there is a mutual respect between them that has only grown stronger.
Georgia Chao writes of the post-mentorship point thus:
In the final redefinition phase, a new relationship begins to form where it may either terminate or evolve into a peer-like friendship characterized by mutual support and informal contact.
Nikita and Alex are forged together by their experiences before, during and after Division. While it would have been easy and predictable for the writers to pit them against each other in shallow ways after the first season, they chose to go another route. The sense of friendship, respect, and admiration that both women feel for each other is hearkened back to again and again. Each mission that Nikita goes on that Alex is not a part of feels just slightly off. Each time Alex walks out by herself, it seems strange if Nikita isn’t there to watch over her. And yet, both characters are undeniably strong and capable, their skills enhanced by the presence of the other, their most positive characteristics strengthened by each other.
There is never any doubt that they answered a question in each other that they might not have realized was there to ask, and it is clear that their mentorship, and later friendship grounds them in every choice they make. It’s this quality that makes Nikita difficult to forget, four years after the series finale, and the reason why I and many other viewers return and rewatch.