Meet Astrid From the Lab

FROM ENTERTAINMENT REPORTER KIMBERLY ROOTS: For months, the TV show Fringe (now on hiatus) has been touching on subjects and ideas related to science and religion. While Olivia and Peter are off taking down “bad guys” and Walter is trying to remember what he did 20 years ago, one woman keeps the Harvard University lab running: Astrid. Though the junior FBI agent remains a mystery to fans of the sci-fi drama, her portrayer, Jasika Nicole, was happy to chat with Science & Religion Today about belief, bovines, and brain goo (hint: It is just as icky as it seems!).

SRT: When you first heard about the concept for Fringe, what were your initial thoughts? Were you on board? Wary?
JN: Well, let’s see. The first time that I heard about the show, we were not allowed to have a script. So all I knew was that J.J. Abrams’ name was attached to it. They kept saying it’s a new sci-fi show by J.J. Abrams, and that’s it. So all I had really to base everything on was his past work. So I’d seen Lost, and of course I loved it like everybody else, and I really loved Cloverfield, so I was thinking something about monsters. I was like, okay. I’m auditioning for a show about monsters that will probably have its own fan base already because it’s J.J. Abrams.
So it took a really long time to get a script. Before I did, I was totally on board because I love science fiction and I love horror films. I was hoping that there would be some kind of cross-way between those two different genres. And that’s actually what happened in the end, that it is kind of about monsters and it is really grotesque like horror films, but it’s also really rooted in science, which I think is kind of different that a lot of sci-fi shows. A lot of sci-fi shows are about aliens or something like that, and this one really bases itself in science. So I was 100 percent gung-ho before I knew what it was about. [laughs]

SRT: Let’s talk a bit about Astrid. She seems a little less messed-up than the people she works with, but that may just be because we don’t know a lot about her yet.
JN: You don’t know enough about her, I know! [laughs] People keep saying, ‘It’s so nice to have Astrid in the show because she’s kind of like the grounding between Peter and Dr. Bishop since she’s in the lab all the time.’ And that’s what people say now, but you know, I’m still finding things out about her. Every single episode when we get a script, I go, ‘Oh. So Astrid minored in computer science.’ Or ‘Astrid speaks Latin fluently. That is an excellent thing for her to do.’ Because they are really, really slow to give up information about these people. And I can’t tell if it’s because they don’t want stuff to get out or because they’re kind of building it up as they go along themselves. So it’s been a really interesting process to play a character you basically don’t know anything about.

SRT: Astrid has schooling in a lot of areas, it seems.
JN: She was a linguistics major. Well, apparently, she double-majored and minored in pretty much everything in the world. [laughs] We have this joke on set: If there’s ever a question and none of the three main characters have any idea, they look at Astrid. Like, ‘Astrid, do you know anything about this?’ And I’ll say, ‘Well, you know, back in ’87, I was touring Europe and I did this and this and this. Perhaps that will help us solve this crime,’ you know? [laughs] Which is really cool because she’s a Renaissance woman. I think that’s why the team was brought together. I think that’s why they trust Astrid with all of this information. She has different things to bring to the table than everybody else does. And I like that she’s not as silent as she was in the beginning, because she’s vocalizing — each episode that happens, she’s vocalizing. She gets a little bit more involved in it.
It’s also a really nice play about where she is in relation to everybody else. She’s a junior agent, she just started doing this, she’s probably scared out of her mind. And on top of that, you have her dealing with really obscure, weird things that she never probably learned about when she was down in Quantico. So that probably has taken her a while to get used to it.

SRT: Has religion come up in any conversations with J.J. or anyone, especially regarding Astrid’s background?
JN: No, there hasn’t. And that was brought up just in my own dealings with the character and the script. I’m trying to remember exactly which episode… I think it’s the one where Olivia goes back in the tank or something like that, and Walter asks to have a Bible. So Astrid goes and she gets him this Bible, and he starts quoting all these things from the Bible. And I thought that was a really nice part of the show that had never been dealt with before. Because they don’t really talk about religion. And you have to wonder where Dr. Bishop is in that whole world.
He’s kind of become a god-like figure, just on the basis that he’s able to create these things and he has a lot of power with the knowledge that he has. But then you have to wonder, well, where did he get his power? Where did he get his knowledge? So you don’t get a clear answer from him whether or not he has any religious-based faith. So when I’m reading, we have a scene where he’s calling out, I think I start a quote and he finishes it because he knows the Bible like the back of his hand. And so I was kind of grappling with whether or not Astrid thinks that that’s weird or if she’s kind of on board with him or where she’s coming from with that, you know? Because I think that if this were a real-case scenario, if you were to be working in this kind field, something would have to give. You would have to make a compromise somewhere.
I don’t think I have enough information about Astrid actually to fully answer your question, but hopefully maybe one day I will. I don’t know yet. She’s kind of towing the line. But like everything else, I don’t know much about her!

SRT: Okay, be honest. Who’s more of a diva: John Noble [who plays Walter] or the cow?
JN: Um, the cow. [laughs] Hands down, the cow.

SRT: I did see somewhere that she refuses to go up steps.
JN: Yeah, she’s crazy. And she also uses the bathroom wherever she wants to.

SRT: Oh, gross. Speaking of… there are some truly disgusting effects that are used on your show. Are they as bad up close? I’m thinking, in particular, about the melting-brain goo.
JN: [chuckles knowingly] Yeah. That was so disgusting. You know what? They actually are really gross in person, and I was not prepared for that. Because, like I said, I grew up watching horror movies. I love them and I get that there’s a way to make it look real on film. So I was kind of ready to see the behind-the-scenes action and everything. There have been so many occasions when I’ve walked on set and I’ve have my breath taken away from me because I just didn’t think it was going to look that good. And we’re not even filming and this looks horrible! Of course, they add in a lot of stuff after, in post-production, but the people we have who are working on the effects and stuff are just incredible. I just read the script for episode 16 last night. Of course I can’t give too much away; there is some really awesome and gross stuff happening, and I can’t wait to see how they pull it off. It’s supposed to be happening in real time. Usually we have a man under the table with an air pump or something that’s making these things happen above that gets caught on camera, which is awesome. [laughs] But even when you know there’s a guy underneath there, it’s still frightening. It really is.

SRT: You’ll begin shooting season two later in the year. In the back nine of season one and beyond, what would you like to see happen to Astrid?
JN: I just want to see her out of the lab. That’s my biggest want, because she’s always in the lab. There have been, I think, two times when she was out. She was at the hospital once when some guy was getting a CAT scan and then I also think she was in the FBI office once and once she was letting the pigeons fly out in the air. Which is cool, and I get that she’s really important and that’s kind of her environment. She’s the one person out of the trio who can stay stationary and other stuff can still be happening and she can kind of call in from where she is and make sure that everything’s okay. But I think that because she’s an FBI agent, that information gets lost a little bit just because she’s always in the lab. So I think eventually, after she’s kind of paid her dues as a junior FBI agent, they can put her out in the field and she’ll be able to get some hands-on work. Maybe she’ll carry a gun? I don’t know. But that’s what I would really like to see happen.

SRT: Well you know, I don’t know if you watched Alias, but J.J. Abrams had a very unassuming, African-American female character who, in season one, was just support. In season two, she turned into a kickass assassin.
JN: An assassin! Astrid should totally be the Fringe assassin! I didn’t even know that they needed one, but I think they might just now that you’ve told me that!

Episode 14: Immerse in the Multiverse

FROM ENTERTAINMENT REPORTER KIMBERLY ROOTS: Remember when inmate Robert Jones killed his lawyer in a German prison, then stood in the corner and a bright light transported him to Massachusetts? Just in case you don’t, this episode begins with that. Two weeks later, Olivia is discussing the matter with the Bishops at Walter’s lab, and Walter reiterates that the machine he invented—the one that Mitchell Loeb was using to break into a bank in an earlier episode—can transport people through space and time. But he warns that the “disray,” as he calls it, requires time in a compression chamber afterward and leaves the teleportee with some serious, unpleasant side effects. “So you’re saying that Jones, in theory, could’ve zapped himself out of prison?” Olivia asks. Walter says yes.
In a warehouse somewhere, a man helps Jones out of a compression chamber and he asks for a cup of tea. While he sips it with shaking hands, he is assured that the lab has been outfitted to his specifications and that the list he asked for is complete. Elsewhere, the owner of a magazine shop banters with a customer as another customer—wearing latex gloves, it should be noted—picks up a newspaper and leaves a two dollars, walking away quickly. The shop owner, Tom, picks up the money and barely has time to remark on the rare bill before he starts screaming: His eyes seal themselves shut, followed soon after by his mouth. The skin just grows up over everything, creating a rather horrifying mask. General panic ensues.
Charlie and Phillip Broyles learn that Jones had a slush fund. But for what? That’s what Olivia wants to know when Loeb is shipped in on an Army jeep to meet her at a nondescript parking lot. He’s wearing an orange jumpsuit, handcuffs, and leg chains, and he looks less than pleased to see her. She says she knows he helped Jones escape and that they kidnapped her that same night, then threatens him with a transfer order to a state prison if he doesn’t cooperate. Jones, he says, is inconsequential, just “part of the army.” Then he warns her that “what is written will come to pass.” Hmm. Olivia’s cell phone rings and Broyles orders her to meet him and the Bishops at Boston General Hospital.
The magazine shop owner is laid out in an exam room, and Walter theorizes that an altered lipid caused a sealing of all orifices. Olivia jumps to the conclusion that Jones is behind the incident, based on what Loeb implied. Broyles isn’t convinced. She takes Peter aside and tells him that ZFT, one of the sects that’s previously been established as making malarkey for the rest of the world, stands for Zerstorung durch Fortschritte der Technologie, or “Destruction by Advancement of Technology.” And it takes its name from an unpublished, anonymous manuscript that was destroyed 10 years before. She asks Peter to work his backroom connections to find a copy.
Meanwhile, at the FBI, Charlie tells Broyles that they’ve traced Jones to a warehouse in Allston, Massachusetts. But it doesn’t matter because the man himself walks into the building’s lobby and turns himself in, saying he’ll only talk to Olivia … who, at the moment, is helping to raid the warehouse. Everyone’s gone, but she notes the compression chamber and Jones’ sketch of her. As they’re about to leave, another agent finds a two dollar bill in a drawer and soon winds up totally sealed up. Olivia performs an emergency tracheotomy, which helps for a moment. But then the skin just crawls up and over the trach, and the agent suffocates to death.
Now that they know he’s not messing around, the FBI grants Jones’ request to speak to Olivia. She also brings a bunch of things he’s asked for: a wristwatch, a ball point pen, a walkie-talkie, etc. He takes them apart to build another contraption, one to disable the recording equipment that’s capturing the interrogation. Now with a bit of privacy, he gets to the point: A key found on him when he was arrested leads to a lock box at a Salem, Massachusetts, amusement park. He needs her to go there and find what he’s left for her. “I need you to pass a test,” he says, while coughing and twitching a bit. If she doesn’t go, he continues, there’s a bomb that will kill everyone in its vicinity.
Olivia drives to Salem and recovers the box. Back at the lab, Walter reads from the manifesto that Peter recovered: “We think we understand reality, but our universe is one of many.” Olivia returns to the lab and reveals that the box holds a series of tests. Jones’ instructions are for her to take the first test and report back to him. Walter notes that the instructions for the tests and the manifesto use similar language. Olivia can’t pass the first test—shutting off all of the bulbs on a light board with her mind—and goes to see Jones, calling him on his mind games. He hits her with a big one when he says she was kidnapped to confirm that she had once been treated with cortexiphan, hence the spinal tap. As they’re arguing, he collapses and is soon wheeled into Walter’s lab. Olivia, on the other hand, goes to Massive Dynamic headquarters when she finds out the company makes cortexiphan, and Nina Sharp tells her about William Bell’s trials of the drug, which was tested on young children to limit the shrinking of their minds. The trials were unsuccessful, and they were disbanded in 1983.
Peter rigs the board to make it look like Olivia can shut off the lights, and she does so while Jones watches. He sends her to the address where the bomb is, but when she, Peter, Charlie, and a team of agents arrive, it’s clear that Jones knew she was faking: The bomb is hooked up to a larger light board, and the only way to disarm it is to shut off all the bulbs with her mind. She concentrates very hard and slowly, the lights blink off one by one, with the last shutting down two seconds before detonation. Peter is amazed, and Olivia doesn’t know how she did it.
She goes to see Jones at the hospital some time later, and he’s literally burst through the wall and escaped to the street outside. “You passed” is written on a nearby wall. Later, Sharp calls Olivia and gives her some news: There was a second cortexiphan trial in Jacksonville, Florida, at a military base. Olivia inwardly freaks: She grew up on a navy base in that same city.
At the lab, Walter again reads the manifesto, which makes even more references to the multiverse. He notices that all of the “y”s in the typewritten manuscript are elevated off the main line. He gets a horrible look on his face and unearths a typewriter from somewhere in the lab. He types the word “ability,” and sure enough: The “y” is up higher than the other characters. Walter wrote the manuscript?!?
THE BOTTOM LINE: Discussions of the multiverse, though fleeting, are all over this episode. ZFT seems to think that the pattern of weird occurrences is leading up to an us-versus-them fight, though who will be on each side is unclear. Also of note: When Olivia tells Robert Jones she can’t disarm the bomb, he tells her she can because he has something she doesn’t yet have: faith.
[Editor’s note: Fringe is taking a short break and will return in April.]

Episode 13: A Viral Way to Alter DNA

FROM ENTERTAINMENT REPORTER KIMBERLY ROOTS: We open on a plane, where a passenger writes in a journal. We see the phrases “advanced technology,” “avoids capture,” and “seems dangerous” before his nose begins to bleed onto the page. He hightails it to the lavatory, where he swabs his mouth and drops the sample into a vial of clear liquid that instantly turns red. This, apparently, is a bad sign, because he accosts a flight attendant and demands that she restrain him right away. Sedatives, tasers—he wants them all at the ready: Something really horrible is about to go down. The flight crew treats him like he’s insane as he informs them he’s going to lock himself in the bathroom, and they shouldn’t open the door for any reason. Once inside, his teeth fall out and his back breaks into a mat of big purplish spikes. He’s screaming and causing a ruckus as the alarmed passengers wonder what’s going on. It grows quiet, and as the stewards are wondering what to do, a giant spiny creature bursts from the bathroom, creating general terror. The porcupine-plagued plane crashes and burns. Man, what does “the pattern” have against air travel?
At Olivia’s apartment, Ella plays with her aunt’s makeup and jewelry, including the engagement ring found in John’s effects after his death. Rachel pries about “partner John”— apparently Olivia kept her relationship secret even from family — and Olivia testily responds that “Everything between us was a lie.” Soon after, she meets Phillip Broyles and the Bishops at the crash scene. Their task force is taking command because of the presence of the giant porcupine’s charred corpse. Charlie brings over the passenger manifest and as Olivia flips through, she recognizes one of the men on board. She has a flash of memory, but it actually belongs to Jack, courtesy of their mind-meld. The guy’s name is Marshall Bowman, she tells Charlie, who looks perplexed.
At the lab, Walter, Peter, and Astrid slice and dice the airplane monster. Walter notices something hard inside the man’s palm; when it’s cut out, it’s a small plastic disc like the one taken out of dead DEA agent Evalina Mendoza’s hand. Meanwhile, Charlie and Olivia find out more about Marshall. He took care of high-end clients for a credit company, and perusal of his client list prompts Olivia’s Jack-memories again: She recognizes client Daniel Hicks as a man involved in Bowman’s shady business.
Back at the lab, Peter lets her know that the giant prickly beast was, indeed, Marshall Bowman, infected with a designer virus and carrying the disc under his skin. Hicks is brought in for questioning and is pretty standoffish until Olivia shows him pictures of Marshall’s remains. Just then, Hicks’ nose starts to bleed. “We must have been dosed,” he gasps, falling to the ground, but Olivia won’t allow him to be sedated until he coughs up the name of who dosed him. “Conrad!” he cries.
Walter works on an antidote while Hicks is strapped to a table in the lab, dozing in a drug coma. Olivia asks Broyles to dig up John to see if there was a disc in his hand, too, but he admits that John’s body didn’t go to the NSA. “Where did it go?” Olivia demands. Cut to Massive Dynamic. Nina Sharp escorts the pair into the lab where John’s body has been hooked up to electrodes since the pilot episode. She assures Olivia, who looks completely gobsmacked, that John is dead. He’s been kept alive in part because the palm discs go bad after their host bodies die; the little bits of info Massive Dynamic has been able to glean points to John being part of a bioterror cell. Based on information from an FBI snitch, Conrad has set up a meeting to sell his virus. Needing answers, Olivia drives back to the lab and calls Peter to have him prep the tank: She’s going back in.
In her mind, Olivia goes to the motel where she and John had their trysts, just in time to see her and him come through the door and fall on the bed, kissing. When Memory Olivia gets up to use the bathroom, it’s clear that Memory John sees the real Olivia. She grabs his gun and tells him she knows about his bioterror plot, throwing in that Bowman is dead and Hicks is sick. She even shoots him, but then they fade to another memory …
They’re in an alley and he points to a car that drives by. “That’s Conrad,” he says, then points to a nearby rooftop, where yet another Memory John is decked out in sniper gear. “It was my most important mission, and I failed. I let that monster get away. I didn’t know it was him,” he says sadly, adding that no one knows what Conrad looks like, making him that much harder to catch. Bowman and Hicks, he adds, are NSA agents on a black ops mission to stop Conrad—as was he. She doesn’t believe him, but it doesn’t matter: Her vital signs start going crazy, so Walter and Peter pull her from the tank.
The NSA, of course, has no record of anything John said. After the FBI nabs Conrad’s scheduled buyer, Olivia and Peter go to the meeting in his place. Hicks listens in, but the virus takes hold just as Conrad arrives at the meeting and orders Olivia and Peter killed. Thank goodness Charlie busts in with his entire team to capture Conrad and save the day. Back at headquarters, Broyles tells Olivia that the FBI still considers John a traitor. She looks content, though, now that she knows the truth. Walter administers Conrad’s antidote to Hicks and then acquiesces to Olivia’s request to go in the tank again.
He warns her that it may be the last time she “sees” John; her brain waves show she’s nearly purged herself of his memories. They meet up by a lake. She tells him she trusts him. He puts the ring on her finger. They kiss, then he disappears.
BOTTOM LINE: The show alludes, again, to the idea—and dangers—of “playing God,” this time by introducing a man-made “designer virus” that changes its victims’ DNA and turns them into monsters.

Episode 12: Seen, Ghost in the Machine

FROM ENTERTAINMENT REPORTER KIMBERLY ROOTS: In the suburb of Springfield, Massachusetts, a teenager is on the phone while sitting in front of his computer. A pop-up window appears on screen with the headline, “What was that noise?” and prompts him to click on a button. He does, and as he ends his phone conversation, a series of blurry videos begin streaming on his screen. They look like the lost reel of The Blair Witch Project, and they sound like it, too—lots of screaming and spooky noises. His mom ducks her head in to tell him she and his father are going out, and because she’s used to the uncommunicative nature of teen boys, she doesn’t think it’s weird when he doesn’t respond. His back is to her, so she can’t see that he’s transfixed by the video, tears streaming down his face, mouth agape. She leaves. A hand morphs out from the screen reaches toward the boy and eventually grabs on to his skull. That’ll teach him to install Pop-Up Blocker.
At Walter’s Harvard lab, we hear him loudly denounce Darwin’s theory of evolution while Peter opens an envelope addressed to his dad. Astrid notices him read it and toss it in the garbage as Olivia calls to say the computer boy—Greg—is dead and his body will arrive at the lab shortly. While the Bishops go out to meet it, Astrid sneakily retrieves the balled-up letter from the trash. After Greg is laid out for an autopsy, Walter announces that the teen’s brain has completely liquefied … and Peter barely hides his disgust as he drains the gray matter into a beaker. Astrid, who we learn has a background in computer science, examines the hard drive that Greg’s parents gave Olivia and deems it fried. While she gives it another look, Olivia travels to an auto repair shop to talk to Luke, who was chatting with Greg the night before. Luke is surprised by the news of Greg’s death and tells Olivia that they’d been friends since their dads worked together years before. Just then, Peter calls. There’s been another victim.
The second guy died at the car dealership where he worked and exhibits the same symptoms as Greg: brains leaking from the ears, nose, and mouth. Ew. The dead man, Anton, died in front of his computer, too. Astrid looks at Anton’s hard drive, which is corrupted in the same way that Greg’s is, and realizes that both downloaded a gigantic file before the drives crashed. Peter takes both pieces of hardware to one of his unsavory contacts, leaving Astrid to share the trashed note with Olivia, who looks shocked.
Peter’s contact, Hakim, isn’t happy to see him. But when Peter produces a gold coin that seems to have meaning to both of them, Hakim warms up. He locks on to the file that both victims downloaded and is amazed at the complicated way it’s been bounced around the world. He can’t tell where it originates, but he can tell that it’s being downloaded right now … in Olivia’s apartment! Cut to Olivia’s place, where her niece, Ella, is playing on a laptop. Peter calls Olivia and both race to her apartment, where Ella clicks on the pop-up and the bizarre video begins to play. Her mom, Rachel, is cooking and isn’t aware that Olivia’s frantically calling or that a digitized hand is reaching out of the laptop screen toward her daughter’s head. Olivia busts in, guns blazing, and the video abruptly shuts down. Peter’s close behind. Ella is catatonic for a moment, then comes around and asks when Olivia got home. Later, Peter plays with Ella and flirts with Rachel. Suddenly, Ella remembers the hand, prompting Olivia to take a closer look at the laptop. She notices the built-in camera is activated … and we cut to a dank basement where a man stares at a computer screen that’s receiving the signal from Olivia’s laptop. He mocks her inability to comprehend what’s going on—but then quickly shuts down the screen when someone approaches his workshop. Turns out, it’s his son … who’s also Greg’s friend, Luke. It becomes clear that Luke has no idea what his dad is up to, but he’s wary about why anyone not in The Matrix would need that many computers in one place. All he’ll say is that he’s working on a new program.
In Evanston, Illinois, a woman comes home to find her day trader husband dead at his computer, soupy brains all over the place. At Harvard, Walter’s figured out what’s going on but Astrid puts it in plain language: “It’s like a computer virus that infects people.” Outside, Peter has a tense conversation with an older woman who wants to see Walter. He won’t allow it. Olivia later confronts him about the letter, which was from the woman, and exposits that she’s the mother of the lab assistant that died in a fire at Walter’s lab 20 years before. (Her death, by the way, was the crime for which Walter was found guilty and imprisoned.) Peter doesn’t think Walter can handle talking with the grieving mom; Olivia does. Astrid interrupts to say that the newest victim married Miriam Dempsey, Luke’s mom, a year ago. Olivia and the gang eventually figure out that Luke’s dad, Brian, worked as an advanced computer programmer for Greg’s dad until he was fired. They bring Luke in for questioning, but after Sanford Harris forces Olivia to come down hard on the teen, the boy demands a lawyer and clams up. When he’s released, however, he runs right to his dad’s workshop, where Olivia finds Brian watching his own program and slowly losing what’s left of his mind. He holds a gun under his chin and, after a few moments, kills himself.
At the FBI, Phillip Broyles sticks up for Olivia and tells Harris that if he wants to take her down, he’s going to have to go through him. At Harvard, Peter brings the lab assistant’s mom to see Walter, who handles the situation with compassion and empathy. And later that night at Olivia’s apartment, the doorbell rings: It’s a slightly tipsy Peter, who apologizes to Olivia and says she was right about Walter after all.
THE BOTTOM LINE: The “ghost in the machine” concept—illustrated here by the computer virus that’s too effective for mankind’s own good—originated with Gilbert Ryle’s take on Descartes mind-body concept and gained even wider notoriety with Arthur Koestler’s book of the same title. Koestler argued that humans have a propensity for self-destruction. The virus in this episode, had it gotten out of control (like most viruses do), might’ve given humanity a little push in Koestler’s direction.

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