Did Dignam in The Departed Used to Be Nice?

Another edition of Fan Theory Fridays

This post is part of Fan Theory Fridays, in which we share and explore a new fan theory about a film, television series, book, or other fictional narrative. For more on what a fan theory is—and what it isn’t—please read D. F. Lovett’s previous explorations of the subject.

During a recent viewing of The Departed—a film I saw twice in theaters, have blogged about before, and have seen somewhere between 10 and 1000 times—something occurred to me. Something I hadn’t considered before. A question that seemed unanswered.

That question is this: was Staff Sergeant Dignam normally a nice guy?

“Maybe. Maybe Not. Maybe Fuck Yourself.”

This fan theory’s origin rests in one simple, throwaway line delivered by Alec Baldwin as Ellerby. The line occurs around the 25 minute mark. Baldwin delivers it at the end of a briefing scene, during which Dignam insults a team of cops investigating Frank Costello, including the resident FBI agent who is cooperating on the case.

One of his best scenes, and the one that inspired this fan theory,

At the end of the conversation—after insulting the FBI agent, the entirety of the room, Ellerby and Ellerby’s wife—Dignam departs on the line that “…feds are like mushrooms. Feed ’em shit and keep ’em in the dark.””

Baldwin’s subsequent line in this scene is the following, referring to Dignam after Dignam leaves the room:

“Normally, he’s a very, uh, nice guy. Don’t judge him from this meeting alone.”

Of course, the entirety of this theory rests on Ellerby’s statement in this scene being taken at face value. This might seem challenging, at first, considering that all of Dignam’s behavior throughout the film suggests he is anything but a nice guy.

All the things that point to Dignam not being a nice guy…

We first see Wahlberg eight minutes into the The Departed, when he says “Whoop-dee-fucking-doo” to Damon’s character, Colin Sullivan. He then says Damon rises fast “like a twelve year old’s dick.” Dignam’s next interaction is their interrogation and recruitment of Billy Costigan into their undercover unit.


From this first scene and all the subsequent ones, it’s hard to believe that he might normally be a nice guy. As Queenan (Martin Sheen’s character) says of him during this first scene: “Staff Sergeant Dignam has a style of his own. I’m afraid we all have to get used to it.”

Let’s consider the evidence as to him being normally nice or not:

  • Uses harsh and racist language in various scenes
  • Makes a fart noise when someone mentions Hawthorne
  • Says “I’m tired from fucking your wife” to Alec Baldwin during the aforementioned scene
  • Asks “who forged your transcript” to an FBI agent
  • Threatens to erase Billy Costigan’s file then gets in a fist fight with him
  • Says the famous line: “I’m the guy who does his job. You must be the other guy.”
  • Mocks Costigan for not graduating from the academy despite being part of the reason Costigan didn’t graduate
  • Mocks Costigan for his wealthy upbringing, repeatedly calling him “lace curtain”

However, let’s now consider the alternate possibility. Is there any way that Baldwin wasn’t kidding when he said Wahlberg is normally a nice guy?

Did he used to be nice until the pressure got to him?

The Departed is a film in which everyone is stressed beyond belief. Every character aside from Ellerby, Dignam, and Vera Farmiga’s Madolyn dies by the end of it. Before they’re dead, characters regularly shout at one another, punch one another, call one another names and threaten violence in nearly every scene. Billy Costigan considers suicide and abuses pills.

Here’s where this fan theory has its teeth. There’s no doubt that Dignam is both rude and funny. But what earned him his role in the state police? How did he get to this position of authority, the second-in-command of a unit running undercover units investigating organized crime? He’s relatively young for someone in such a major role.

Consider, now, some of Dignam’s more positive behavior in the film:

  • Says “I can’t wait to wipe that fuckin’ smirk right off of your face” to mob boss Frank Costello’s face
  • Punches Sullivan (Matt Damon) after Queenan’s death
  • Kills Sullivan at the end of the film

Okay, so even his positive behavior is still violent, but it’s violence toward the villains. Let’s also note that while he’s rude to the characters played by Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Alec Baldwin, they are all either subordinates or equals to him.

The one character to whom Dignam is nice, even respectful, is Queenan—his older superior.

The fan theory itself

Which brings me back to the fan theory: is it possible that Dignam was a nice guy before the events of The Departed? Is he cracking under the stress of finally having informants in Frank Costello’s operation? Is he being a jerk because he knows no other way to cope with the level of intensity involved in this operation?

Consider that the one scene in which he appears calm and says nothing is the final moment of the film, in which he kills Matt Damon and brings the events of the film to a near-definitive close.

There’s even one other thing I find important to note: President Barack Obama, during a moment of frustration with the Republicans, once quoted the character Dignam and his line about jobs.

There’s no way to know if he used to be a nice guy or if Ellerby is just being funny. Or, as Dignam would say: Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe Fuck Yourself.

Enjoy this read? You may enjoy more fan theories by D. F. Lovett. 

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