One of the best aspects of the second season of Nikita was the increased presence of veteran actor Peter Outerbridge as villain Ari Tasarov. An episode with Ari as one of the major players is both welcome and impressive.
It opens like a bad joke: a former Russian spy walks into a bar. Then the bartender goes into the back and tells his mysterious friends that the down-and-out Russian spy is there. Cut to Michael breaking the news to the whole of Division. Nikita wants to know why Amanda isn’t with her better half. This cues another cut to the Wicked Witch herself, who’s listening to her new business partner (guest star Peter Marek) bemoan Ari’s “escape” and if it will hinder the success of their plan. “Ari is a coward. He’s only as brave as his bank accounts,” Amanda sneers. “Without his men or his money, he will crawl into the shadows and stay there.”
That is, if the shadows are a dive bar in Brooklyn, outside of which an FBI sedan, Michael and Nikita have all just arrived. This sends Ari into the back of Michael and Nikita’s SUV. “What took you so long?” he asks her. If you want to see that awesome moment again, here it is.
Ari gets a trip straight to an interrogation room, where he tells Nikita that he and Amanda have broken up and she doesn’t know that he’s turned sides. He explains that he returned from his latest errand to find out that he was a very wanted wanted man. Seems Naomi – the “black badge” agent from the previous episode – was one of his former Gogol assets and when she got splattered all over the front page, Amanda punished him by exposing him and freezing all of his assets. Talk about a nasty breakup!
Now Ari wants to stop Amanda and her new partner, if Nikita will strike a deal with him. “You have no idea what’s coming,” he warns her. Cut to Pittsburgh, where a seemingly random dude throws a grenade into a closing elevator. Ari informs Nikita that she’ll need his help – which will cost her 50 million dollars deposited into a Swiss bank account – to stop what will follow. She’s ready to brush him off until Ryan alerts her to what happened in Pittsburgh. Amanda’s new ally claims responsibility on the news in the name of the “Crimson Resistance” – proving that Ari’s intel is legit.
Back in the interrogation room, Ari reveals to Nikita that the “Crimson Resistance” are armed with the last few weapons he bought from Cyrus (the arms dealer from “Sideswipe”) – so Amanda could easily frame Division for whatever she tries to do next. It’s just another way for Amanda to try and ruin Nikita’s life. Our enraged heroine informs Ari that he’s never getting out of Division.
Alex and Owen head to Pittsburgh to see what the crime scene will tell them. This also gives Alex a chance to ask Owen if he remembers any more of his past. He’s not sure that he wants to, because he thinks he used to be a soldier named Sam and “I killed all my friends.” She encourages him not to let what Amanda did to him define who he is presently, before she gets Birkhoff to look at cell phone records as a way of pinpointing the location of the next attack.
Nikita reminds Ari that she had a chance to kill him several years earlier, but spared his life and that of his young son Stefan, but he retorts that Amanda had told him to bring his son because she knew Nikita was “a killer with a conscience” and wouldn’t take the shot. Nikita tries to get him on her side by playing on their mutual dislike of Amanda, but he doesn’t budge. To make things worse, Ryan tells Nikita and Michael that they barely have the money to pay Ari even if they wanted to – Division’s privately funded operating budget stands at 53 million dollars. Giving the Russian what he wants would essentially shut down the entire organization.
As the “Crimson Resistance” increases its attacks, Nikita snaps and decides that she’s going to break Ari, perhaps literally. Even as he bleeds, he finds the time to taunt her about her relationship with Michael, comparing it to his broken one with Amanda. “There’s no forever in this business,” he warns her, and her response is to suffocate him, at least until Michael physically intervenes. Her fiancee then has to stop her from trying to chop off Ari’s hand. Michael encourages Ari to start talking, but the Russian recognizes this as the “good cop, bad cop” technique and balks.
The next attack seems to be in Columbus, Ohio. Alex and Owen head there, while Owen bemoans how much of a “third wheel” he seems to be, unintentionally getting between Michael and Nikita, and now Alex and Sean. The two talk about the history behind their tattoos while Sean listens in over comms, Alex telling Owen that her butterfly is in memory of a girl she knew in a brothel who dreamed of flying on butterfly wings – until she tried it and fell to her death. This sad moment is truncated by the pair spotting the target: an average suburban family walking into their average home. Alex shoots the woman emerging from the minivan across the street with a huge gun, but can’t get any information out of her before she dies.
Back at Division, Nikita and Michael strategize what else they can possibly do to Ari, and Nikita finally realizes that Ari wants the exorbitant sum of money for Stefan. “I’m trying to give my son a life – a real life, away from all this,” he confesses, saying that the money is for a trust fund and a caretaker who can protect the kid from all the various folks Ari has crossed. The Russian has accepted that his life will end in a prison cell, but he wants better for his child. Nikita points out that since they can’t come up with the money to pay the caretaker, the only thing truthfully standing between Ari’s son and Amanda is her. This convinces Ari to give her the name and phone number of Amanda’s new accomplice.
“Something’s happened,” Amanda deduces when the next attack fails to happen. She and her partner revise their strategy, moving up their timetable. At least, that’s what the other guy thinks, until Amanda kills him in the middle of his own broadcast and phones the counter-terrorism authorities. She then dials Nikita to inform her that she knows Division has Ari, and that she’s going after Stefan. “Ari betrayed me,” she says. “The boy is fair game.” Ominous phone click.
Nikita goes straight to a healing Ari in Medical, and wants to know everything that he knows about Amanda and her operation. “It suddenly became very clear to me that the only thing worth fighting for is my son,” Ari says. Nikita says she understands where he’s coming from. We see her meeting Michael, who tells her that Alex and Birkhoff successfully erased all traces of Division, so it’s crisis averted for another day. He’s also picked out a venue for their wedding, and wants to set a date. She agrees – but ominously leaves some blood behind on the video board.
The best thing about “With Fire” is that it gives additional screen time to an actor who’s been such fun to watch on Nikita from his early appearances in the first season. Peter Outerbridge is fantastic – just check out his performances in the Canadian series Regenesis, where he played the protagonist. His work here is somewhat similar to his guest appearance on Flashpoint; like his character there, we see him at the end of his rope – but unlike that man, Ari still has a killer instinct in him. The result is a villain whose vulnerable side we finally get to see, but who doesn’t lose his viability as an antagonist, either. Hopefully, we’ll see more of him, either as a mercenary or as an ally, given that Outerbridge plays a pretty good hero, too.
Its other strength is that it mixes up the formula. Episodes of Nikita got increasingly formulaic last season, but “With Fire” shakes up the specifics. It’s no longer Amanda/Ari versus Michael/Nikita and Co. Now Amanda can team up with any number of new potential adversaries. Clearly, the season is building toward a showdown between Amanda and Nikita, but that’s not to say audiences can’t go through some entertaining battles before it gets there. (Next week’s promo suggests sooner rather than later.) The bigger question is if that confrontation will end like the one between Percy and Nikita – by the end of season three, the show will have gotten about as much mileage as it can out of the “rogue Amanda” concept. Yet it also wouldn’t be an easy task to find someone who can play deliciously evil as well as Melinda Clarke has. It will be interesting to see how the writers choose to resolve that dilemma.
Any episode which adds color to a series is usually a worthwhile one, because it invites viewers to question heroes, understand villains, and wonder which is which. “With Fire” is one of those episodes, and audiences will likely look back on it as the one after which many things changed.