Like many sitcoms, Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s chief traits are the relationships between its characters. Whether it’s Boyle’s unfaltering loyalty to Jake, Jake’s odd couple professional bond with Holt, Holt’s mentor-mentee rapport with Amy, or Amy’s socially imbalanced encounters with everybody in the office, Brooklyn Nine-Nine best thrives when the writing creates a space where these characters can evolve through interactions both expected and unexpected: We can generally anticipate, for example, that from one episode to the next Boyle will offer DIY culinary and hygienic tips that fall so far off the beaten path they rouse disgust in his peers, but nobody would have ever predicted that Rosa would end an episode by breaking down in Holt’s office.
So “Into the Woods” is an amazing anomaly in Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s life cycle, offering up exactly what we want and need from the show as well as a few developments that are atypical to the characterizations of its ensemble. It’s an episode built around departmental bonding. In the A-plot, Jake and Boyle cajole a peak-stressed Terry to join them on a camping trip to let off some steam, which— surprise surprise—simply leads to Terry building up more steam; in the B-plot, Amy appeals to Gina’s talents for showmanship and spectacle in selling a hands-free, shoulder-mounted flashlight to the NYPD’s purchasing bigwigs; and in the C-plot, Holt oversteps his bounds by helping Rosa break things off with Marcus in one of the show’s most memorable side threads.
The common critical refrain made about Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s third season is its lack of emphasis on its female cast members. “Halloween III” partly answered this complaint by putting Amy in the driver’s seat and giving her all the agency needed to pull one over on her boyfriend and her boss; that installment made a point of acknowledging her skills as a detective while also letting her play with the guys and have some fun. “Into the Woods” doesn’t quite do for Rosa what “Halloween III” did for Amy, but it gives the 99’s most singularly badass officer a chance to grow, tell her story, and be hilarious all at once. (Rosa gut-punching poor Scully might be the episode’s high point, though it’s hard not to feel bad for the guy afterward.) The series has paired her with Holt a handful of times previously, often over her relationship with Marcus, and in each of their ventures together they’ve made a hysterically impassive duo. “No longer,” says “Into the Woods.” It’s time for them to emotionally invest in their scripted lives.
Boy, do they. Brooklyn Nine-Nine isn’t usually a touching show, and when it is, it punctuates affection with jokes. (No demerits there, of course. Remember, it’s a sitcom.) That’s true of “Into the Woods,” of course, but the final moment Rosa shares with Holt is shaped much more by genuine sentiment than by punchlines. Stephanie Beatriz and Andre Braugher are both terrific performers, and they ably handle “sad funny,” but they bring such authentic feeling to the material that their tears prove more significant than the inherent comic value of watching Rosa and Holt confront their emotions. (They are, as Holt acknowledges, pretty good at it.)
Meanwhile, seeing Amy and Gina collaborate is a joy just because we get to see them work together without self-sabotaging over their differences. Sure, Amy’s a huge dork. Sure, Gina’s a drama-driven looney tune. But they’re friends, and have been since “Beach House.” “Into the Woods” gets that, and gives them the chance to be friends instead of be opposites. As with Rosa and Holt, the substance of the Amy/Gina team-up is in the subversion of expectations. We might assume that their entire arc will revolve around Gina rolling her eyes at Amy’s bookish tendencies, or Amy losing her cool at Gina’s sensationalist delusions. Instead, it aims for something more meaningful. In fact, if there’s any trace of frivolity in “Into the Woods,” it’s in Jake, Terry, and Boyle’s ill-fated journey into the wilderness; it’s staple boys’ stuff, with Jake planning for nothing and, through his own ineptitude, getting the trio stranded in a sinkhole with no food, no water, no way to stay warm, and no hope of making it back to civilization.
Spoiler alert: They do. (Natch.) As a character-building exercise, “Into the Woods” is a resounding success, a one-off affair that keeps Brooklyn Nine-Nine in a holding pattern so far as an overarching narrative is concerned. There aren’t any job-related conflicts left to push the show’s story along, just a sprinkling of personal matters that, while interesting, don’t lend the show the same gravity as Holt being ousted from the captain’s desk did. Maybe the series pulled the trigger on that one too soon, or maybe there are more problems for the precinct to tangle with further down the line. For now, Brooklyn Nine-Nine is keeping things intimate.
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has contributed to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Birth.Movies.Death. You can follow him on Twitter. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.