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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Meet “Dillman”—Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s approach to a classic whodunnit

Illustration for article titled Meet “Dillman”—Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s approach to a classic whodunnit
Photo: NBCUniversal

After an episode that perhaps could’ve been better served by putting the squad together but didn’t go that route, this week’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine bounces back with an episode that does just that. “Dillman” not only puts the whole squad together for a singular plot, it does so with an Agatha Christie-inspired plot.


With each passing season, Brooklyn Nine-Nine makes perfectly clear just how little it cares for actually having the squad of the Nine-Nine solve crimes and work cases while also highlighting just how much it wants to prove that these characters are competent detectives with advanced deductive reasoning skills. That’s what episodes like the Halloween Heists do, as do other episodes all about the Nine-Nine’s competitive nature. “Dillman” is a twist on that particular concept, as there’s no specific competition—though there is Jake’s need to be Holt’s choice for a special task force—and the plot relies on deductive reasoning and good detectiving (from Dillman, Jake, and Boyle) to be wrapped up.

Right now, when it comes to recent takes on Agatha Christie’s approach to whodunnit stories, it’s kind of impossible to ignore Rian Johnson’s Knives Out. Unless you’re Brooklyn Nine-Nine, as it is specifically Christie’s Murder On The Orient Express that Jake is going for here, right down to the attempts at a Belgian accent that Amy says makes him “sound like a Nazi.” With or without the accent, the premise of the episode and the plot is exciting. But the plot of “Dillman” ends up telling a less intricate story than Brooklyn Nine-Nine tends to tell with something like its Halloween Heists, which makes the excitement of an outside the box story like this decrease somewhat with the realization that this story isn’t so outside the box.

Ultimately, “Dillman” is a one-two punch of Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s affinity for having every cop outside of the Nine-Nine squad be either corrupt or incompetent. J.K. Simmons’ Frank Dillman is literally “the single best detective” Holt has ever worked with and even he fits the bill, as he’s lying about still being a cop* to weasel his way onto the task force and he’s wrong about Jake being the culprit. And of course there’s Officer Howard Booth, who literally plants the glitter bomb to tamper with evidence on his (corrupt and incompetent) ADA brother-in-law’s behalf. If you want to call Booth incompetent too, his desire to test Jake on his name is sealed his fate.

* “I guess he rubbed the brass the wrong way,” Jake says, but there is no elaboration. Holt’s initial introduction of Dillman mentions how he was originally let go from the NYPD because he was investigating internal corruption, so was that why he was also let go from SFPD? It would be one thing if he were actually a bad detective... but he’s not. 

However, Dillman is a character who can hopefully return in the future, possibly with an actual police (or police-adjacent) job next time around. Especially as there’s a comparison to be made between Dillman and the late Madeline Wuntch, as Dillman is clearly the complete opposite of Wuntch in Holt’s eyes. On just that front alone, it’s absolutely appropriate that Wuntch herself, Kyra Sedgwick, directed this episode. But for any fans of The Closer, it’s even more appropriate that Sedgwick’s directorial debut for Brooklyn-Nine-Nine featured her former castmate in Simmons, essentially playing his own version “The Closer.” (Yes, I know her name was Brenda on the show, but I will always call her “The Closer.”) Jake’s frustration with Dillman is reminiscent of his behavior in “Captain Kim,” only here, he’s mostly fueled by his desire to solve the case before Dillman can, not trying to uncover Dillman’s secret. Though, Dillman’s secret—because he actually has one, unlike Captain Kim—is pretty quick for Jake to uncover once it gets to that point.


Simmons’ dry delivery also pairs extremely well with both Andre Braugher and Stephanie Beatriz’s, in different ways. It’s an interesting form of back and forth in both instances. For Dillman and Holt, there’s a familiar back and forth rhythm that instantly sells their years-long relationship; for Dillman and Rosa, the back and forth is a game of soap opera-based chess. Unlike the glitter knowledge, there is no verbalized explanation at the end of the episode as to why Dillman knows so much about the soap opera Drake’s Hollow, which makes that fact even more delightful. Dillman can come back anytime.

Jake: “Just tell us where you were at lunch.”
Holt: “Well if you must know, I was having lunch with Boyle.”
Jake: “Ha! No way. You two are the second most unlikely Nine-Nine lunch combination. First is anyone with Hitchcock and Scully. Second is Holt and Charles.”
Terry: “It is pretty strange.”


I’ve mentioned before how this season has worked to remember and remind the audience that Boyle is a competent cop and pulled back on Holt’s interactions with Boyle bordering on bullying. (It was actually near the end of last season where the latter started to shift, with “Return Of The King.”) So the combination of Boyle silently doing the work and Holt simply not piling on him allows an episode like “Dillman” to work when it comes to the reveal that Holt has chosen Boyle for the task force. It’s not even that Boyle wouldn’t have been worthy of that choice in previous seasons, but it would have come across as out of left field. It’s something the show would’ve done as a joke before, instead of something that clearly just makes sense at this point. And at this point, the conclusion to “Dillman” is a big reminder of Boyle’s actual ability as a detective. It also manages to maintain his general Boyle-ness, in terms of “waffling” his way through his reveal of the real culprit and somehow finding a way to turn Jake saying he deserves the task force into him saying Jake deserves the task force.

And to address the “unlikely Nine-Nine lunch combination” exchange, that moment is the series’ meta way of acknowledging that Holt/Boyle has never been a go-to Brooklyn Nine-Nine pairing. In fact, given the amount of Holt/Rosa bonding in this season, it wouldn’t have been a shocker to hear that Rosa was Holt’s task force pick. But as explained, the series has done a good job with Boyle lately in little ways so that it doesn’t come off as ridiculous that Holt would choose Boyle over Rosa—or anyone else in the squad.


It also makes sense for the Boyle character that he would still push for Jake to get the task force, though it includes the explanation that he’s doing that more for his weird attachment to his son than the sad (and expected) possibility that’s he’s forgoing a major career opportunity for Jake. Of course, both reasons are bad ones for Boyle to pass up the job in the first place, but episode writers Paul Welsh and Madeline Walter clearly know that. It would be one thing if the script had Boyle wanting to spend more time with Nikolaj for rational reasons, but it’s intentionally a matter of him worrying about his son actually making real friends, because he’s Boyle. His competence as a detective doesn’t change that part.

In addition to being a classic whodunnit, “Dillman” is a bottle episode with a great guest star and a solid utilization of (almost**) the entire cast. I’d argue that it’s not a showstopping bottle episode like “The Box” or “Show Me Going” (which also used most of the cast), but it’s also not as tension-filled—even with the whodunnit and the fact that there was major damage done to both the precinct and evidence—as those episodes. Despite—or really, because of—the major implications of the supposed prank-gone-wrong, ”Dillman” pretty much rolls its eyes at the possibility that any member of the squad is actually responsible for the glitter bomb.


** Melissa Fumero doesn’t do anything in this episode (“I mean, no one really suspects me.”) other than hold a file folder in front of her pregnant belly.

As for the whodunnit, in theory, pretty much anyone in the Nine-Nine should’ve picked up on the “AFI system” gaffe from Dillman immediately, since it hadn’t been used in five years. They may have all understandably been in fear or awe of Dillman—in Jake’s instance, jealousy—but there’s not even a “don’t you mean…?” reaction to that comment. Moving past that, Dillman’s knowledge of glitter is a clue that Jake points out as odd but doesn’t put together until it makes sense to, because it doesn’t really raise the red flag at first. But that obvious—to these characters, not the audience—clue about the AFI fingerprinting system was necessary for the plot to move on and work at all, despite the questions it should have brought up.


Jake being suspended is also necessary for the plot to work at all. Again, the episode creates enough damage as a result of the glitter bomb that it’s impossible for it to really suggest that any member of the squad did it—just as Boyle points out in the beginning—so Jake being suspended for two seconds isn’t that big of a deal. But as much as Holt believed in Dillman’s skills as a detective, the idea that he would be so quick to believe that any member of the squad would do this (or wouldn’t push back against that suggestion) is hard to buy. Perhaps it would work many seasons prior and in a time where Holt didn’t just come back from a demotion caused by another cop having a vendetta against him. But then again, it also makes no sense why it would be Jake, considering he’s the one who brought up it being an obvious botched prank in the first place. Dillman’s rationale is that Jake wanted to prove himself for the task force, but that line of thinking suggests Jake would’ve then framed someone... which, would’ve deserved pushback for Holt or anyone in the squad.

Assuming there absolutely is not a Halloween Heist episode this season, it makes sense that Brooklyn Nine-Nine has been trying to fill that void with things like the return of the Jimmy Jab Games, the reverse heist and Doug Judy, and even a classic whodunnit. But unlike the Halloween Heists—which are fueled by chaos and competition, on top of the intricate nature that makes them a pain for the writers—and even most of the Doug Judy episodes, “Dillman” actually holds up less on rewatch and further examination. I was originally prepared to give this episode a much higher grade after my first watch, but in the process of rewatching and writing this review, it started to fall apart at the seams. (Though it thankfully doesn’t try to create thin subplots within.) Which shouldn’t be the case for a good whodunnit or who has done it, even when it has its moments. Because “Dillman” does have its moments. Dillman is one of the Brooklyn Nine-Nine characters that just clicks upon their introduction, just like Wuntch did. And while the actual whodunnit isn’t as impressive as previous episodes’ similar plots, the episode itself is fun. After all, it’s an episode where Holt is giddy, Scully has glitter on his face the entire time, and Boyle gets a win, which are all delightful in very different ways.


Stray observations

  • As Jake realized in the moment that he shouldn’t do the resumé rap, he wasn’t able to tell Boyle (aka “Chucky B”) until it’s too late that they’re not doing the rap anymore. However, Boyle’s rap is not the rap that they agreed on before.
  • Jake’s clearance rate puts him in the top 2% of all NYPD detectives. That is actually impressive. He should be on a task force.
  • Rosa: “I am not a Blanche!” Rosa had a right to be upset about the results on her Buzzfeed quiz. She’s a Dorothy. Also, the montage of glass breaking in the Nine-Nine was the funniest part of the episode, outside of Holt’s enthusiasm for all things Dillman.
  • Also, give Andre Braugher an award of any kind for the way he says “Dillman.”
  • Jake (re: Officer Howard Booth): “Let’s blame him! He’s always up to no good!” Jake figured it out immediately.
  • Terry: “But they’re playing ‘Uptown Funk’!”
    Holt: “I wouldn’t care if they were playing actual music.”
  • Sleuth Sisters stick together: When Terry points out that the culprit has to be Amy because of the “babe” part of the prank note, Rosa sticks up for her and points out Boyle’s year-long phase of calling everyone “babe.” Amy barely even sticks up for herself in the scene, because Rosa does it for her.
  • Jake: “It appears what we have is a classic whodunnit.”
    Holt: “The phrase ‘whodunnit’ is a grammatical abomination. Please, use the proper term: a ‘who has done this’.”
    Jake: “I will not.” But Dillman does.
  • When Dillman makes his big entrance, the music cue is “Frankenstein” by The Edgar Winter Group.
  • Jake: “You see, Terrence, I couldn’t help but notice you’re not wearing suspenders today. Odd, considering suspenders are your entire personality.” Not true. Terry also has kids.
  • Jake: “What? Don’t gasp for him. What are you doing?”
    Boyle: “Sorry, it just slipped out.”
    Rosa: “Title of your sex tape.”
    Jake: “Yes. Obviously. Title of his sex tape. Everyone’s taking my stuff!”
  • Rosa: “Stupid Terry and his stupid kids.”
  • Jake: “No one likes a know-it-all.”
    Dillman: “You’re married to one.”
    Jake: “...you’re married to one.

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Despite her mother's wishes, LaToya Ferguson is a writer living in Los Angeles. If you want to talk The WB's image campaigns circa 1999-2003, LaToya's your girl.