Sterlin Harjo’s FX series Reservation Dogs (airing on Hulu) is more than just a glimpse into an underrepresented Native American community. It’s hilarious, heartbreaking, and thought-provoking all at once. Following a group of young teens trying to find their way — and maybe their way off — an Oklahoma reservation, a throughline of loss and grief propels the series. Struggling to cope with the death of Daniel (Dalton Cramer), one of their closest friends, Elora Danan (Devery Jacobs), Bear Smallhill (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), and Cheese (Lane Factor) form a ragtag gang, robbing chip trucks and their local convenience store just to make another buck. They’re desperate to find enough money to leave the reservation, living by the belief that if Daniel had made it out, maybe he’d still be alive. At the start of Season 2, the young adults exist in a state of liminality, divided amongst themselves. A better life on the reservation seems possible in Willie Jack and Cheese’s eyes, but Elora and Bear see nothing but their dreams of California.
When its first season premiered on Hulu last fall, it was easy to be instantly enraptured by the brilliant cast of Indigenous newcomers. Jacobs (from the Kahnawà:ke Mohawk Territory) and Woon-A-Tai (Oji-Cree) lead the cast of breakout performances. To some of the others on the reservation, Elora comes across cold or aggressive. But Jacobs’ rich and thoughtful embodiment of a young woman trying her best to process the unspeakable grief she’s witnessed firsthand is deeply moving. Like everyone in Reservation Dogs, down to the most minor supporting characters, Elora is thoroughly lived in. She’s real and recognizable as a troubled teen who feels like everything in the universe is stacked against her.
Bear, more aloof and more juvenile, is perfect as Elora’s foil. Daniel was Bear’s best friend; Elora loved him in a way that was perhaps more than a friend, though that hasn’t been fully expressed on the show. Their differing relationships with Daniel affect how both deal with his sudden suicide. Elora is pissed off, Bear is heartbroken; Elora obsesses over his death, Bear tries to remember Daniel’s life. They’re just kids trying to process grief in the way they each think is the only true way to do so. After Elora ditches Bear for her big trip off the rez in exchange for Jackie (Elva Guerra), his sworn enemy and the leader of the rival gang, their relationship is put to the test in this new season. Anger and bitterness drive the two best friends apart until even further loss pushes them back together.
In addition to leading the series, Jacobs also joined the writers’ room for Season 2. She’s credited as the co-writer for “Mabel,” one of the four episodes made available to review. This is the final episode released, and though I can’t speak to the further trajectory of the season, “Mabel” is one of the strongest episodes of the series so far, epitomizing everything that makes Reservation Dogs work so well. The ensemble cast is united in one home for the duration of the episode, and the grief that has simmered beneath the surface comes out on full display. Inviting us to process death alongside the community, it’s an intimate episode, showcasing just how powerful Jacobs is as both an actress and a writer.
Reservation Dogs’ talented cast extends far beyond the impressive group of young actors. Megan Mullally appears in an episode for a great guest role, and Macon Blair returns as a kind convenience store co-owner, who looks the other way when the Rez Dogs ransack his store, but who now pushes Bear to find a job and take some accountability. Renowned Indigenous actors like Zahn McClarnon (Longmire, Westworld), Gary Farmer (Dead Man, Smoke Signals), and Wes Studi (Geronimo: An American Legend) also see expanded roles in the new episodes. As elders of the community, they are fascinating and dynamic, and never one-dimensional. No, there are no easy tropes to fall back on in Reservation Dogs. For Elora, they’re representative of everything she’s trying to leave behind: avuncular old men, stuck in their ways, either mumbling through a fog of weed smoke or piously sober. As she skips town, Willie Jack has also become a more central character, finding herself drawn to the wisdom and traditions these men hold onto. (In one perfect scene, Farmer’s Uncle Brownie and Studi’s Bucky help Willie Jack reverse the bad medicine she put out into the world by singing an old tune together—just maybe not a particularly traditional one you might be imagining.)
Just a season and a half in, Harjo and co-creator Taika Waititi have already found their groove with Reservation Dogs. Inviting us onto the reservation to experience it with this group of quickly beloved kids, Reservation Dogs feels like a celebration of Native life and a way to inspire change for the better. Willie Jack wanting more out of life here isn’t a condemnation of the reservation life, but a way to show how much she loves and respects her heritage. Elora’s desire to run away from it all and her inability to do so doesn’t mean it’s a negative that she feels trapped here. She too just wants more. More opportunity, more people to meet, more financial stability. We can love where we come from and still desire more from it. As Reservation Dogs continues to explore the nuances of everyday life for Native Americans, it will only become an even richer text.
FX’s Reservation Dogs Season 2 premieres on August 3 with a two-episode drop, exclusively on Hulu.
Kristen Reid is a writer, covering television for Paste Magazine and Vulture. She’s been known to spend too much time rewatching her favorite sitcoms, yelling at her friends to watch more TV, and falling in love with fictional characters. You can follow her on Twitter @kreidd for late-night thoughts on whatever she’s bingeing now.
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