Rachel Nichols

Rachel Nichols is about to go through a rite of passage.

The Criminal Minds newbie, who plays Ashley Seaver, will recite one of the show's trademark thought-provoking quotes on Wednesday's episode. "I get to read the quote at the end, which is really exciting. It's my first time!" Nichols tells TVGuide.com. "They assured me that they will not take that quote away from me!"

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The voiceover honors caps a fairly Seaver-centric hour, in which the BAU rookie steps up and shows her value to the team — and in Nichols' case, her value to the show's diehard fans. The actress has been in a tough spot since landing her initial three-episode stint during the CBS procedural's cast upheaval that saw A.J. Cook leave in September and Paget Brewster depart last month. After getting promoted to series regular in December — a move that enraged a number of fans — Nichols has remained in the background while Brewster's exit arc was unraveling.

"They've had a hard time since I came back," she says. "Prentiss' story was far, far, far more important than introducing Ashley Seaver. They've had to struggle to make me be present, but they couldn't give a lot of time to Seaver because she's not that important! So in that sense, I get [why some fans] think she's useless or doesn't do anything. But you'll get to see more of Seaver here and you begin to understand that although she's new, there's a reason she deserves to be part of the team."

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The episode takes the BAU to San Diego, where an unsub is targeting female college students. Seaver has her first one-on-one interview with the roommate of one of the victims, and it all culminates with her being directly involved with the capture of the unsub.

"At the end of the episode, I'm delegated to do something fairly intimidating and you see that she's up for it and is good at it," Nichols says. "It shows that she's coming into her own quickly. Even though they have those intense situations that maybe someone new couldn't handle, you get to learn more about her strengths and you get a little tidbit about her past. I don't get to kill anyone yet, but what happens is a big deal for Seaver. For the rest of [the team], it's not a big deal because they have been through it a million times. It's like child's play to them."

Because Seaver is a freshly minted agent and not a seasoned pro — as was the case for the rest of the team members, past and present, when they were each introduced — Nichols thinks she can act as an "emotional barometer" for the long-running show.

"The show works because everybody is so different on and off the show. Seaver is the newbie, so she hasn't been desensitized to the gruesome things they've all seen," Nichols says. "There's a certain level of emotion to her that maybe isn't as apparent in the other characters because they've been doing this for a long time. You see this new girl coming in — I've been told I have watery eyes, whatever that means — and there's a sympathy behind her eyes for the victim, for the unsub."

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Nichols likens Seaver to another young FBI agent who was plucked from training and thrust into a major and majorly grisly case: Clarice Starling. "The Silence of the Lambs is one of my favorite movies. I'll never forget the scene where Jodie Foster is examining [the body of a] girl who's been in the water and the skin off the back has been removed," Nichols says. "She shows up and profiles the body, but the look in her eyes — it's like, 'Oh my God, I'm looking at a dead body now.' There's a reaction, but she can mask it and do her job. She's not fragile; she's determined to succeed. And Seaver's the same."

So does that mean she's a Clarice Starling in the making?

"Seaver will take as many Clarice Starling moments as she can!" Nichols says with a laugh. "You'll see a few here — the emotional side and the ass-kicker side. Now, she's graduated and they've lost a team member, so she knows it's time for her to step it up and she does. And I can't wait for everyone to see it."

Criminal Minds airs Wednesdays at 9/8c on CBS.