In American pop culture, coming of age tends to be a solo endeavor. Adolescence is when we start to define ourselves against our parents, our peers, and the forces that structure our worlds; Hollywood often distills that grappling for identity into a lone hero’s journey. But, for the teen-age quartet at the heart of the FX series “Reservation Dogs,” which just concluded its three-season run on Hulu, it’s an inherently communal experience. Early on, the foursome—Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Elora (Devery Jacobs), Cheese (Lane Factor), and Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis)—resist that revelation, convinced that their home town of Okern, Oklahoma, killed the fifth member of their group, Daniel (Dalton Cramer), who had dreamed of ditching their Muscogee rez for California beaches. Grieving for their friend a year after his suicide, the teens couldn’t see what the audience could: that dusty Okern was alive with oddballs, artists, helpers, and ways to heal. The showrunner, Sterlin Harjo, who created the series with Taika Waititi, continued expanding this mosaic for the next two seasons, in a mode spearheaded by Louis C.K.’s “Louie” and brought to its apex by Donald Glover’s “Atlanta”: the formally and tonally mercurial, auteur-driven, detour-prone, impressionistic half-hour dramedy. (Call it “the FX mood piece.”) The result can be easier to admire than to get lost in.
- Japan celebrates 100th birthday of loyal dog Hachiko
- Mystery dog illness hasn’t hit Summit County’s biggest shelters
- I Was Not Prepared for ‘Lessons in Chemistry’ To Go Full ‘A Dog’s Purpose’ on Me
- Dog walker’s 999 call about teenager played to jury
- SCOOTER’S STORY: OLD DOG LEFT AT SHELTER AFTER OWNER PASSED AWAY, TUCKS HIMSELF IN & CRIES EVERY NIGHT
If Harjo owes a debt to predecessors like Glover, he’s also made the form his own through his emphasis on the collective. (The dialogue, peppered with Native slang and its own all-purpose curse word, “shitass,” is just as distinctive.) By the third season, Okern has come to encompass the spiritual, the folkloric, and the historical, effectively redefining what community can be. Alongside the single moms, aunties, and grandmothers anchoring the protagonists are a nineteenth-century warrior spirit (Dallas Goldtooth) who pushes Bear to soul-search; Elora’s dead mother, the forever-twenty Cookie (JaNae Collins); and the vengeance-fuelled Deer Lady (Kaniehtiio Horn), an ageless wanderer with hooves hidden under her disco-era denim jumpsuit.
Harjo’s project—a foulmouthed, art-house-inspired tribute to the endurance of Native communities, as well as an earnest call to insure their persistence—had no analogue on television. His mission is reflected in the special attention the show pays to rez elders, many of them played by celebrated Indigenous character actors. “Reservation Dogs” displays a reverence for the cultural wealth these figures stand to offer the next generation—but also insists, crucially, on their fallibility and humanity. Every member of this wizened circle has his quirks: the artist Bucky (Wes Studi) attempts to ward off disease with his mysterious figurines; the medicine man Fixico (Richard Ray Whitman) peddles “real medicine” outside the Indian health clinic; and the tribal cop Big (Zahn McClarnon) would rather chase down Bigfoot than go after juvenile delinquents. Though they’re eager to pass on traditional knowledge, they’re less forthcoming about the personal traumas that have shaped them. The most pivotal installment of the new season, “House Made of Bongs,” shows the elders as high schoolers during the Ford Administration. Like the modern-day Rez Dogs, they were a rude, tight-knit crew on the cusp of political consciousness, more interested in getting high than in attending class. While coming down from an acid trip, the teen-age Bucky mutters what may well be the thesis of the series: “How beautiful to never search for who you are. Everything you need is here in the millenniums of certainty living in your mirror.” Then Maximus—the Daniel of their group, an orphan who’s visited for the first time that night by either extraterrestrial kin or schizophrenic hallucinations—complicates this assertion of cosmic cohesion by slipping out of his friends’ grasp. When Bear encounters a grizzled Maximus (Graham Greene) by chance, decades later, the older man’s exile from Okern functions as a cautionary tale.
Harjo’s intense, even anxious focus on intergenerational bonds gradually exposes some of the series’ shortcomings. The writing has become more didactic, and, by continuing to zoom out further and further, “Reservation Dogs” cedes some of its more visceral pleasures: namely, hang time with the gang. Their low-key jaunts about town—to their catfish joint, the health center, or the homes of various elders—give way to sometimes meandering one-on-one scenes that lend several episodes the musty air of a chamber play.
The finale sends Bear, Elora, Cheese, and Willie Jack into adulthood with a newfound appreciation for their cultural inheritance, bringing a sense of closure to a series that many have argued is departing too soon. But where the idiosyncrasies of life in Okern have been rendered in loving detail, the teens themselves remain archetypes, and not wholly persuasive ones—partly because of how divorced they are from the rest of their cohort. (The core group only interacts with other kids after literally being ambushed by them.) The Rez Dogs seem to pay little heed to conventional milestones like birthdays, dances, or graduation—their most meaningful social gatherings are the funerals of elders. And though we know that Bear and Elora are the children of teen moms, the crew treats sex like a foreign concept; even crushes are rare. The absence of these “all-American” goalposts of adolescence, which are less universal than Hollywood would have us believe, can be refreshing. And yet there’s something unconvincingly childlike—perhaps defensively wholesome—about this depiction, too. After all this time, the gang’s ties to one another are still montage-level deep. Apart from reminiscing about Daniel, I can’t say I know what they would talk about in the quiet moments that make up life.
Toward the end of the show, we see what “Reservation Dogs” can accomplish when it decenters the teens from their own story. In a superb episode titled “Wahoo!,” Bear’s mom, Rita (Sarah Podemski), receives a visit from her deceased friend Cookie, just as the soon-to-be empty-nester is contemplating the possibilities that might open up once she no longer has to put her son first. Cookie asks Rita to check in on Elora, and the arc concludes with a moving ceremony that lets the spirit know that she no longer has to keep such close tabs on her daughter; the aunties vow to do so in her stead, allowing Cookie to rest in peace.
But the final season also features underdeveloped story lines and characters who suffer for Harjo’s preoccupation with the big picture. The deliberate obfuscation of the conflict between the estranged cousins Maximus and Fixico, for example, makes their long-awaited reunion less poignant than expected. The revelation of Deer Lady’s childhood in an Indian boarding school feels thinly sketched, as does Elora’s encounter with her white father (Ethan Hawke), a man she’d assumed died years ago. “I didn’t want to take you away from all that. . . . From your family, from your people,” he tells her, explaining why he had stayed away when she was younger. He knows her world well enough—he invokes her grandmother, her basketball coach, even the Okern epithet “shitass.” But he realizes, painfully, that he knows precious little about her. Even after three years in Elora’s company, some viewers might feel the same. ♦