CULT, Classy Under-appreciated Ladies of Television, is an ongoing column about the minor yet essential lady characters of television, past and present. Many of these ladies tend to have a small cult following in fandom, as well. There will be no Temperance Brennans, no Sydney Bristows, no Liz Lemons, no Blair Waldorfs here today. These women have inspired us in ways that have possibly gone unappreciated by viewers because they were overshadowed by a major character – but no more. Welcome to CULT, the column to celebrate the best underappreciated ladies on the small screen.
Our inaugural lady in this series is Astrid Farnsworth of Fringe, played by Jasika Nicole. Astrid is an FBI Junior Agent who is officially the Fringe science team’s assistant, but effectively functions as the lab assistant in the primeverse, and is a Fringe division computer and statistics specialist (whose character is informed by high-functioning autism) in the altverse. Though in the primeverse we sometimes forget her significance, she not only keeps Walter in the present but is a strong agent in her own right. Astrid is a linguist who, besides being able to navigate the lab, has a thorough understanding of music and is quite capable as a computer hacker and code breaker.
One of the running gags for her character is that Walter can never quite remember her name, despite being in the lab with her for hours every day. Among the names he’s called her are Asterisk, Ostrich, Asteroid, Aspirin, Ashram, and more. However, he knows as well as any of the rest of them that Astrid is essential to the team, and she’s always on hand, ready with an answer to any question they may have regarding the case at hand (or ready with Walter’s snack du jour, as it may be). More than being a member of the team, however, Astrid is Walter’s friend. Due to the combination of the vast amount of time they spend together in the lab and her compassion, the pair have developed a bond that transcends Walter’s manic episodes, that allows her the insight to calm him when nothing else will. Sometimes Walter forgets this and abuses her emotional capacity, but Astrid is a lovely woman who can be firm with him without becoming a stereotype. Though she does more fieldwork in the amberverse, presumably due to Peter’s absence, she still remains the level-headed one of the bunch, as the rest of them tend to fly off the handle when it comes to dealing with the other universes (and especially their alternates).
Something I’ve always admired about Astrid is that she does whatever any of the rest of them ask her to, almost always without question. I know that’s part of her job, but not only does she have to handle bizarre cases every day, she also has to handle Walter’s bizarre requests. Astrid remains grounded, buoyant, headed firmly in the right direction, all while keeping her mind focused on everyone around her. The flip side of this is that Astrid tends to be the audience character, asking questions of Walter so that we can understand what’s going. Though I suspect she always knew the answer, it seems like part of Walter’s readjustment to real life, as well, so I can appreciate it on that level, too (rather than it seeming like a dumbing-down of Astrid).
And though Astrid may seem calm and collected most of the time, I have to say it was incredibly refreshing to hear her say that working in Fringe division does freak her out sometimes – “If I wasn’t seeing the agency shrink, my head would’ve exploded a long time ago.” Even for someone as entirely capable as Astrid, the Fringe events they work with every day are intense and like nothing they could have ever expected. I respect Astrid so much for knowing she needs to talk it out with someone in order to maintain her sanity, since she’s the keel for the rest of the team.
It’s also important that Astrid is as popular as she is on the show, as a woman of color, without becoming a hurtful stereotype. She’s smart and unequivocally as important to the team as any of the rest of them – without Astrid, they’d be floundering in their own unchecked emotions and unorganized lab set-up. She often provides crucial information or research, as is her job, without being written into a corner. Nicole’s own charismatic talent and presence of mind bring so much to the role, and I am truly grateful for her unending grace and acting ability.
I do have to admit that I was hoping Astrid would have a little more involvement as the show went on – in fact, in season one I was convinced she was going to turn out to be a traitor of some kind. I’m so glad she’s not, but Nicole is such a talented actress that I’ve been disappointed in the ways they haven’t used her.
In an interview with Persephone Magazine (a fantastic general interest ladyblog), Nicole said, “I am ecstatic to have been a part of the Fringe team from the very beginning, but I have fallen in love with Astrid and I want to see so much more of her.” The actress who plays Astrid is an artist and writer, as well, lending her talents to such works as The Letter Q: Queer Writers’ Notes to Their Younger Selves and creating the webcomic Closetalkers. Not only is Nicole multi-talented, she’s also a fan of NBC’s Community, as evidenced by a tweet about the 1/20 episode:
Are you a fan of Astrid and/or Jasika Nicole?
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