This week will see the final episode of Reservation Dogs, the FX/Hulu TV series about four kids living on an Oklahoma reservation dealing with the death of one of their friends. In the three seasons the show's been on, the focus moved from the kids to their parents (with a similar plot about how one of their friends died), to the elders (who are dealing with one of their friends who didn't die, but was driven away from home).
The show started out at a great level, but then moved to an absolutely epic level when they started to introduce ... I want to say "magical realism," but that doesn't quite fit. More of a realization of the Muskogee histories and traditions, where creator/writer Sterlin Harjo grew up.
The show is unique in that it has an all-Native main cast, writers' room, and BTS crew. I can't fathom why it's taken this long, because Harjo and company have produced a brilliant series about dealing with the loss of friends, the history of Native Americans, and what it takes to work through your traumas and move forward in life. It's full of people and stories that have obviously come from the real lives of the writers (the most obvious being the general-purpose epithet "shit-asses," contributed by one of the actors and liberally applied throughout the series.)
I can't wait to see what the people who worked on this show are going to do in the future, but for now here are ten things that made Reservation Dogs unique and what I'll miss.
1. Native humor
When the show first came out, a lot of the actors were talking about how great it was to see "native humor" in the scripts. The humor comes from various features of modern life for Native Americans, such as getting treatment at the IHS clinic (which seems to have just one doctor) or having to deal with the clueless but well-meaning white people in their lives. They have a lot of fun with the mixing of tradition vs. the idea of tradition that we have today from pop culture, like the appearance of Dallas Goldtooth's immediate hit character, William Knifeman (insert yell). Another fine moment happens in season 2, where a traditional land acknowledgement somehow turns into giving thanks to the dinosaur oyate that came before us.
But the humor also hits on universal themes, like how somebody always shows up to a pot-luck with a bunch of fast food. (As long as they show up with Sonics it's okay though.) If the Native themes are keeping you away from the show, or if you think it'll be too heavy, rest assured that there's a lot of entertainment in between the heavy bits.
2. Zahn McClarnon
Of the big list of supporting characters on the show, none are so great as Big, the tribal officer who seems to not be aware of what's going on in his own community. Zahn McClarnon has been mostly doing dramatic roles (including his current show DarkWinds, where he plays a tribal cop that's about as un-Big-like as you can get), but he play the comedy foil so effortlessly here that I would love to see him continue taking comedic roles in films and TV.
3. The Tarantino references
With a title like "Reservation Dogs" you're going to expect a number of references to the films of Quentin Tarantino, and you do get plenty of those (no focusing on feet, thank goodness). But the one thing that Rez Dogs does so well that they borrowed from Tarantino is the possibility of following supporting characters to see their stories.
The best examples come from Season 1, starting with episode 5, "Come and Get Your Love". Cheese (Lane Factor) has signed up for a ride-along with the Lighthorsemen, the tribal police force, and he has apparently been unlucky enough to be assigned to Big, who at this point is still seen as a clueless individual who doesn't understand the community. The episode shows that Big knows a lot more than he's letting on, and the easy buddy energy between Cheese and Big feels like a quick break from the heavy plot of dealing with death. It's one of my favorite episodes of television, ever.
3. The brilliant names
Here are the names that are in just the "Come and Get Your Love" episode: Big, Cheese, Chubs, Bucky, Bethany, Grandma Imojene, Big Murph, Bunnie Tiger, Ray Ray, Donell, Auntie Bent, and yes, the Deer Lady. Each name has a particular weight and connotation that helps with the character development. Ray Ray, for instance, is just a guy at home (played by writer Migizi Pensoneau) smoking weed and wearing a Tulsa Noise Fest T-shirt. The majority of character names come from real life, and that helps out so much.
4. The centering of female characters
It becomes pretty obvious that the women in the community are the ones getting things done. In the seacon season there's an episode where a group of women who work together at the local clinic go out to a conference for the weekend, and while they're ideally there to "snag," there is a lot of conversation that also happens that gets to some really important subjects. One of the group actually left the community to enlist and go to college, and there is some minor conflict that happens when they compare her seemingly superior life to the ones who stayed at home, raising a family and working at the clinic. Some fantastic acting in that episode, particularly between real-life sisters Tamara and Sarah Podemski, who have no trouble capturing the uneasy conversation between two friends who used to be a lot closer than they are now.
5. The use of familiar actors
Along with the new faces, Rez Dogs includes some familiar faces (well, familiar to the white audience): Gary Farmer, Wes Studi, Evan Adams (from Smoke Signals), Marc Maron, and Graham Greene, all of whom are fully fleshed-out characters and mostly unlike any other people they have portrayed.
Wes Studi in particular mines comedy gold as Bucky, a goofy scatterbrained elder who's first seen taking a nap on a city bench. Instead of the homeless or transient character we would expect in this situation, Bucky turns out to just be a guy taking a break from his partner ("Well, she's a white woman", he explains). Eventually we get details on a crazy scheme the Bucky has in mind to promote his copper jewelry hustle: step 1: leave little copper figurines around the area, step 2: ???, step 3: profit.
Studi seems to be having the time of his life playing such an un-serious character, and it's likely that many of the established actors that appear in the show never thought they would have an opportunity to act on a show like this, so it's no surprise that they are all doing excellent work.
6. The non-actors
The show brought in a lot of people who hadn't done much of an acting job, and pretty much everyone did a fine job. The rap duo Mike Bone showed up several times as Mose and Mekko, two guys just wheeling around town acting as a Greek chrous for the action. More recently, community educator Thosh Collins showed up as a gym teacher in a flashback episode, and the show's music creator Mato Wayuhi gave a shaggy, funny performance as a side character in the same episode.
7. The attention to details
This is most apparent in the episodes where we get shots inside the homes used for shooting throughout the show. Many are obviously someone else's home that's just been borrowed for the filming, and nowhere does this work better than episode 4 of season 2, "Mabel". The episode deals with the passing of one character's grandmother, and the house has a real-life lived-in feel that you usually only get if you're using someone's house. (Also some great use of non-actors in this episode as well.)
8. Dealing with death
The first two seasons feature a lot of information about how the Native community deals with death, from the vigil of keeping watch over the dying person, to the grave houses that cover the cemetery. And even when people die, sometimes that show up again as spirits. Some have been around a long time, like the previously-mentioned William Knifeman, and some are just on their way out of our world to the spirit world. It may be odd to think of a loved one's death at home to be a good thing, but the "Mabel" episode shows how the community comes together in celebration and food, lots of food, to send Mabel off. The sorrow isn't confined to the one family; the community comes together to help, to reminisce, to love, and to be loved.
9. The 1976 flashback episode
Episode 5 of the third season will seem quite a lot like a certain coming-of-age film, and that's no fluke. Sterlin Harjo has been copping a lot of ideas from Richard Linklater's films, and fortunately he's been successful in weaving them through the story (episode 9, the most recent one as of this writing, contains a very obvious Linklater homage). The "House Made of Bongs" episode provides high-school-age analogs of several characters we've met before, and it ties in well with the idea that the trauma the current generation has is something that the elders have also had to deal with. So it's not just a fun idea to see the "young Elders", although it is a fun & fantastic concept.
10. History lessons
In all of the episodes, the stories that come up are ones that are often directly or indirectly caused by the treatment of Native people in this country. Nowhere is that more obvious than the third episode of this season, where we get an origin story of the Deer Lady who's been seen dispensing justice a couple of times before. We get a brief depiction of an early 20th century "boarding school" where Native children are forced into giving up their "savage" ways to be more like white people. This is a very heavy subject, and Reservation Dogs gives us a view into what it might have been like for these children, abducted and held at a school where the students had no common language with the instructors.
And this episode gives us a great bit of advice, one that the Deer Lady learns from one of her captive friends at the school. "Keep smiling," he tells her. "They can't stop you from smiling." And the Deer Lady passes that message on to one of the Rez Dogs, and hopefully he will continue to pass the word on.