Bottle episodes are not always the best. They’re there to fill in gaps, and usually, the physical limitations of production work against the show. Unless the writers have been able to sustain actual character storylines and development throughout the season, half of the time, bottle episodes don’t work because characters don’t work. They’re a hard thing to handle, and the fine line between entertainment and boredom has never run thinner.
Not with Brooklyn Nine Nine, though.
With any other show, three characters in an interrogation room for twenty minutes would’ve been claustrophobic, limiting, and boring. But when those characters are Jake Peralta and Captain Holt, and a brilliant murderer played by Sterling K. Brown, well, things change. For the better. “The Box” cleverly avoids every possible classic bottle episode error to deliver one of the most thrilling, exciting, and character developing storylines of the season.
When Holt finds out Jake is about to interrogate a dentist who has clearly murdered his boss, he decides to skip his opera date with his husband to help break the suspect. Seriously, if Holt —who by the way feels the necessity to spell out his last name to his husband— is missing out on the Bugs Bunny opera to try and crack this murderer, there is no way this isn’t a great episode. And Holt makes the right choice. He stays, and both of them spend an entire night cooped up in a very uncomfortable literal box to outsmart a brilliant Sterling K. Brown.
Wouldn’t be half as good! ? https://t.co/F085tnSQZs
— Sterling K Brown (@SterlingKBrown) March 31, 2018
DENTISTS AREN’T ACTUAL DOCTORS
Despite being a bottle episode, “The Box” was full of wonderful surprises. For one, it was refreshing to see a storyline where an actual case takes somewhat center stage, and props to the writers for actually making sense of a complicated murder plot line that included a super prepared alibi and twists and turns in the narrative. Cases are always side-stepped on the show, so the question of whether they’d be able to craft a smart, complicated one was on the table. But I’m sorry I ever even doubted the writers. It looked like a procedural, but it felt Brooklyn Nine-Nine. And that’s the best thing that the show can and has accomplished.
But the truth is that none of that procedural mumbo jumbo would’ve made sense if you hadn’t had a strong third pillar to the episode. Having two strong leads can allow you to power through it if the guest star isn’t exactly up to the task, but Sterling K. Brown surpassed any and all expectations.
We’re used to his award-winning acting from his role on This Is Us, where he plays pain and sorrow with delighting talent. But playing a witty dentist who believes he can outsmart both Holt and Jake because he has concocted the perfect crime suits him well. He was flawless, he was funny, he was great at combining confidence with frustration with hilarity. Every choice he made was excellent, he gave a depth and an edge to the character in a very limited amount of time and rather joke-less scenes that immediately built up who this man was despite the fact that we only saw him for twenty minutes.
He made us actually believe that this perp had the advantage, that he was smarter than our favorite cops, that he could actually walk out of there innocent despite us knowing that that, logically, was rather unlikely.
But perhaps most importantly, he challenged our leads. His character was a test to Holt and Jake’s relationship, he was there to push their dynamic forward in new ways —and what a clever use of a bottle episode that was. But Sterling K. Brown did more than that. He challenged both Braugher and Samberg, pushed them to be better. Maybe it’s the serenity he brought to the character, drenched in a relaxed confidence that, halfway through the episode, both unsettled and frustrated even the audience. But there was something in that dynamic, in those three very clever actors playing three very clever people that gave a new tone to the show, a new dimension so powerful, that despite the writing having the same pacing and the characters being themselves at their essence, it felt almost like a different show.
In the best way possible.
And it was even more refreshing coming right after a classic Brooklyn Nine-Nine episode that delved right into the mythology of the show. Last week we knew exactly what to expect, how the narrative worked, how the storyline was going to end. This week, the lighting was lower, the characters were limited and we had no idea what to expect. If you ask me, if a show can mold and play with your expectations with such ease from episode to episode, it absolutely deserves a renewal.
I’m looking straight at you, FOX.
THREE OH DAMN’s!
Sterling K. Brown was amazing. But special kudos must be rewarded to Andy Samberg and Andre Braugher. They have always been the strong roots of the show, the leads that pull everyone together, the characters that lead every story. And sure, they’ve always been built up to be the leading forces of the comedy. But this proved they are the absolute ground the show stands on.
The Brooklyn ensemble is a strong one, yes. The show doesn’t work if the entire squad isn’t perfectly intertwined and absolutely in-sync. And they always are. They never once disappoint. But if “The Box” proved anything, it’s that Braugher and Samberg can —and must— hold down the fort at all moments. The same episode would’ve worked well, for instance, with Joe Lo Truglio’s character Charles and Jake. Or with Melissa Fumero’s Amy and Holt. But one of the two must always be there, at some point, to hold it together perfectly.
And if we have both of them? It’s gold.
Because this episode had a lot of great things. It had great comedy, it had a great murder story, it was filmed brilliantly —and brilliantly different to what we’re used to, in some ways. But if it had one amazing thing, it was Jake and Holt’s partnership. And you really don’t need anything —or anyone— else.
“The Box” was the best way to further develop their already complexly delicious dynamic in a way that not only tested the character’s faith and confidence in themselves, but also tested their trust in each other. From the moment Jake rethinks whether or not he should let Holt help him out, you see his inner turmoil: he is going to do everything in his hands to impress Holt, to prove to him not that he’s the best detective in the world, but that he is worthy of Holt’s trust and admiration. And the entire episode revolves around that.
But Jake is constantly learning. He has good ideas and he isn’t, in the least, the “dumb cop” that Holt suggests he plays early on in the interrogation techniques dance that they go through all night. But his eagerness to prove himself, to please everyone and especially Holt, blinds him at times. This is one of the things that Brooklyn Nine-Nine does best: the writers allow the characters to make mistakes, to miss their chances, to make the wrong call time and time again. They allow the characters to be wrong constantly, to learn from that. To admit, unabashedly, that they still have a long way to go and that they aren’t perfect.
Jake constantly makes the wrong call during this episode, and it’s believable partially because Sterling K. Brown’s performance is so spot-on and so specific. This man is a real challenge for Jake —and Holt— precisely when Jake’s about to prove to Holt just how much he deserves Holt being proud of him. Terrible timing.
He tries everything. Literally. Good cop, bad cop. Smart cop, stupid cop. Getting angry and throwing a chair at the mirror. Screaming and playing the guitar —and, I must say, what a wonderful callback that was to one of the iconic scenes that sold the show to me! By the end of it, he stops listening to Holt and he lies. His frustration and his eagerness blinds him, and despite always agreeing to trust Holt and rely on him when he thinks he has the better idea, in the end, his stubbornness leads him to commit what we think is a fatal mistake. Jake screws up. But because he screws up and admits it, because he owns up to his faults, we get to see him triumph in the end. And by the end of the episode, we echo Holt’s words.
We’re proud of our Jake Peralta.
And then there’s Holt. There’s Andre Braugher outstandingly playing Jake’s father figure, the one person he can trust the most —except Amy, okay. He’s impeccable in this, as he always is. His battle-of-wits dialogue with Brown’s character is delicious not only because we get to see these two strong, amazingly talented black actors sharing center stage, but also because we get to see a side of Holt —a trigger— that is equally hilarious and baffling. He loses his temper about the butchering of the word “doctor”, and in any other show that would’ve been the strangest thing you’ve ever heard. But on Brooklyn Nine-Nine it makes so much sense you can’t even imagine the episode without that scene. Braugher is spot-on. Holt is spot-on. His ability to perfectly compliment Jake in every way not only makes the episode work, it also builds on beautifully on the show’s central relationship.
By the end of the episode, you’re left wondering whether Holt coached Jake through the interrogation to make him better even though he knew how to crack the case or whether he was just as frustrated as Jake was. But that last scene proves that Jake is now one step closer to being Holt’s equal.
That’s what the Halloween episodes were for —initially, at least. They were a way to prove that Jake could outsmart Holt and that his constant bragging had a solid foundation. But Jake is far from that Detective Peralta we first met. He has matured, he has become better, and it’s mostly thanks to his healthy relationships: Amy, Holt, Charles.
Seriously, though, how amazing it is to see such wonderfully crafted and incredibly healthy relationships on a show like this? Very amazing.
But the Halloween episodes had a lot more comedy to them than development. And “The Box” was a combination that perhaps preferred development to comedy, but we’re more than fine with that. Sacrificing comedic bits for heartfelt development is absolutely always the right call. And in this case the episode made surface all of Jake’s insecurities, all of his darkest fears —incidentally, what leads him to solve the case and make the suspect crack— and we simultaneously got to know the character better and got to witness his progression.
Also, Andy Samberg absolutely kills it. That scene where he gets angry when Brown’s character starts to question whether Holt trusts Jake or believes in him or not is magnificent. The audience is left to wonder whether those were actually his feelings or if he was just playing angry, but Samberg plays a truth to it that’s hard to avoid.
Jake might not be scary when he’s angry, but Samberg is sure as hell good at playing it.
I LOVE THIS JOB
Bottle episodes are not always the best. They’re hard to handle. Except when we’re talking about Brooklyn Nine-Nine. In that case, bottle episodes can be one of the best episodes of the season. “The Box” is precisely that. It has terrific acting, an unbelievably amazing guest star, and brilliant writing. It uses the smallest resources to prove that a great show —a great episode— isn’t great in its immensity, but great in its essence. Three characters, one interrogation room. And it manages to prove why this is one of the best comedies on television right now.
And watching Jake admit that he loves his job at the end of the episode was surprisingly heartbreaking with the question of their renewal still hanging in the balance.
We love your job just as much as you do, Jake. Believe us.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine airs Sundays at 8.30/7.30c on FOX.