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Revisiting Niki Sanders, one of Heroes' most underappreciated characters
The NBC superhero show Heroes marked the unofficial beginning of the superhero TV era — one could even go as far as calling it seminal. (Just bask in the glory of the Season 1 trailer and its haunting, nostalgic musical score. It still gives me chills.) Over four seasons, Heroes built out an incredibly elaborate cast of characters that formed its world, many of whom carried the special genetic marker that gave them abilities — or … spoiler! Some of them were granted synthetic abilities.
The show perhaps became most famous for the cryptic yet hopeful tagline, "Save the cheerleader, save the world!" But one Season 1 character demonstrated that not everything in the Heroes world was going to be a superhero drama in which everything worked out in the end, or in which the ethical and generous individuals were granted some kind of karmic gift. Some people were really going to die, some villains were really going to be unredeemable, and some of the realities of the world were really going to be irreconcilable.
And this character is Niki Sanders, played by Ali Larter. (In the trailer, Niki can be spotted 38 seconds in.) Many of these characters who were — or saw themselves as — "heroes" were endowed with burden, having to face the consequences of powerful abilities that they couldn't control, and Niki exemplified this. Unlike Claire, the cheerleader who pushed herself to physical limits but instantly healed, or Hiro, the cheery time and space traveler who eagerly harnessed his abilities, Niki's powers were synthetic, came from a darker place, and required serious reckoning. Originally only manifesting when she blacked out and another personality — Jessica, a violent and protective individual with enhanced strength — took over, Niki went through her own arc of shouldering responsibility far beyond what she asked for before finally learning how to access her abilities for good.
Like many characters, Niki wanted nothing to do with her abilities and simply wanted to understand why she was blacking out. Sympathizing with Niki might be easy for viewers (imagine waking up with bodies at your feet and strong evidence that you did that) — but empathizing with her plight is much more difficult. Heroes revealed Niki's backstory carefully: We learned that Niki's adoptive sister Jessica was killed by her abusive father, and in order to cope with the situation in her household, Niki developed a split personality (also known as dissociate identity disorder, or DID), effectively dissociating from the traumatic events via her alter ego. But unbeknownst to Niki, her other personality took on a version of Jessica: Someone was forced to fight to defend herself (and, by proxy, Niki). The depiction of the reasoning behind Niki's DID is also quite remarkable, as DID often forms as a defensive mechanism against trauma.
Niki was initially unable to harness her ability — enhanced strength — as Niki; only when Jessica was in control did her abilities appear. However, Jessica was incredibly destructive when anyone messed with Niki, often putting Niki in difficult situations. She began to realize something was happening when she saw her reflection speaking back to her — which turned out to be Jessica. Despite Jessica's much more violent nature, it often was out of necessity — and Niki eventually learned to harness her abilities in harmony with Jessica. Once this happened, Jessica began to fade away. This moment also allowed the audience a certain catharsis: As Niki broke through and reached a new milestone, viewers could feel that along with her. Despite her arguably "common" ability, this unique twist integrating her enhanced ability into a core part of her personality gave her an internal struggle to work through as a main character, giving her considerable depth among the show's large cast.
Obviously, Niki is plenty more than her trauma and does not deserve to be defined as such, despite the series often playing to this angle. Compared to other characters — many of whom were minors or those with more conventional 9-to-5 jobs, Niki had to provide for herself and her son as a single mother, which she did as a webcam model — for a number of unsavory men who tried to take advantage of her work — over the Internet. Her role also deserves to be uplifted in an era where platforms like OnlyFans are crucial for sex workers and performers but are misused by celebrities or seen as a cause for laughter or disdain. On the show, her job and the way she sustains herself is more or less depicted as a flaw of her character, contrasted with the more "noble," public-serving jobs of being a nurse (Peter Petrelli) or a politician (Nathan Petrelli). Seeing a blonde white woman in a central TV role is not anything particularly radical. But Niki's role and the grounded validation of her job onscreen amidst a series where flying people carry exploding people into the air to avoid the destruction of New York City is a refreshing turn of events.
Despite being a drama, Heroes never seemed to take this aspect of her character very seriously. Take a look at Vulture's Fauxbit obituary of Niki, which takes a tongue-in-cheek approach that more or less makes fun of her situation and personal struggle with multiple personalities as well as her commitment to raise her son and protect others, which ultimately led to her demise. Compare this to the (similarly faux) obituary of Nathan Petrelli, whose rhetoric and diction are drastically more sympathetic, despite his arguably much sketchier ties to malevolent parties.
She was unceremoniously killed off in Season 2 when the writers saw little potential for her character's arc and bizarrely retconned her as part of a set of identical triplets in order to bring back Ali Larter. Beyond portraying DID in a unique, empathetic light that enabled understanding of her character's complexity, Niki saved her son Micah and his surrogate caregiver, dying in a fire and sacrificing herself for others — and nothing can take that away.