I’ll miss Cheese most of all.
No, Willie Jack. No, Big. No, Bev. No, Bear and Elora.
Oh, hell, now that it’s ended—movingly, beautifully, of course—I want them all back, every single character from FX’s Reservation Dogs. Maybe not White Steve, but I want more time with everyone else, even the freaks from the local junkyard.
A lot of memorable and eminently rewatchable shows—among them Schitt’s Creek, Rectify, Rutherford Falls, and Derry Girls—evoke a very specific sense of place and time, and Reservation Dogs had a Friday Night Lights level of lived-in, tactile familiarity. We got to live in Okern, Oklahoma, for more than two years, and it wasn’t long enough.
The series, created by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi and run by writer-director Harjo, chronicled the adventures and stop-start maturation of four young people mourning the death of Daniel, a beloved friend. The pilot jumped off with Cheese (Lane Factor), Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Elora (Devery Jacobs), and Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis) stealing a truck full of Flaming Flamers, their favorite chips, to fund a trip (an escape, really) to California, a place Daniel had always wanted to visit. They eventually felt bad about the truck escapade upon realizing the repercussions the theft had on the driver, but they weren’t able to take back that mistake, and they kept making new ones. That was sort of the point.
Reservation Dogs explored, again and again, how choices ripple outward, how the best and the worst of the past are always present, and how actions reverberate into the future. Visiting spirits; young shit-asses on surreal road trips; a cop who rarely solved crimes and had seen bigfoot; a real yet mythological spirit woman with deer hooves instead of feet—they were all part of a web of connections and consequences that proved inescapable.
With clarity, acerbic humor, and a great deal of concise yet spacious visual and verbal poetry, Reservation Dogs taught its characters—and us—that while those bonds could be annoying and inconvenient at times, they were not a trap. They were actually, as the core quartet realized, the scaffolding that held them up, as well as a net designed to catch them when they fell.
The net of community, as Hokti (the great Lily Gladstone) explained to budding healer Willie Jack in the series finale, is like any other object that gets a lot of use: It needs tending and mending. Willie Jack thought she hadn’t gotten enough time with Fixico, her mentor. But Hokti, Daniel’s mom and a spiritual adept in her own right, used a bag of Flaming Flamers surrounded by other snacks to show her that Fixico and his knowledge were still around, and always would be.
A generosity of spirit infused the irreverent and exceptional Reservation Dogs from the start. But when the show began, rural Okern felt stifling—especially to Bear and Elora, longtime best friends who were wildly different from each other. Bear’s face always broadcast the intense emotions rolling through him, while Elora was much more guarded and watchful. It was astonishing to watch Jacobs’s body language and face in the recent episode in which Elora met her father, Rick (Ethan Hawke). It was magical to see her unlock psychological doors she’d kept shut for years, transforming her into a more relaxed version of the capable, considerate woman she’d always been.
Bear, on the other hand, acquired more steadiness as he came to terms with just how unreliable his absent father had been, accepting not only that he could depend on his mother and other elders around him (as flawed as they were), but also that he could lean on his own persevering nature and intrinsic kindness. Over time, he needed less and less guidance from William Knifeman, a Native warrior who frequently appeared to him to offer random observations, anecdotes of debatable value, and heartfelt encouragement.
William Knifeman presented another example of the show doing something that, on paper, seemed impossible—yet Reservation Dogs delivered everything that character embodied with offhand brilliance. William was simultaneously a subversion of and commentary on Native American stereotypes, welcome and necessary comic relief, and a sincere, dad-energy distillation of the idea that ancestors don’t stop caring about their communities just because they die. Dallas Goldtooth never missed in those scenes; as William, he combined deft comedic timing with a caring, enthusiastic energy that Bear barely tolerated at first and eventually came to appreciate.
The series finale also focused on a death, this time that of Fixico—but the central characters’ emotions weren’t nearly as raw as Reservation Dogs wrapped up its story. Along the way, every road trip, every setback, and almost every conversation with members of the community (past and present) helped these young people realize that they’d always carry their friendships and connections with them, no matter how far they traveled. In the end, Elora is about to move on to college, and Rita, Bear’s mom, has gotten a promotion that will take her to Oklahoma City. Sweet, artistic, video-game-loving Cheese announces his desire to stay put in Okern; the group’s eventful trip to Los Angeles was enough excitement for him. He liked the city, but the familiar and the Midwestern are much more his speed. (Same, Cheese, same!)
I want more Reservation Dogs because this show was its own thing, and yet it excelled at every familiar genre it took on. This season alone gave us a heist episode dedicated to busting an elder out of a mental health facility, as well as the installment “Deer Lady,” effectively a horror movie that, with sensitivity and righteous fury, depicted the brutal boarding schools that many Native children were forced to attend. Wes Studi, Gary Farmer, Zahn McClarnon, Kaniehtiio Horn, Kirk Fox, and Jana Schmieding continued to kill it in supporting roles, and a bunch of uncles took Cheese fishing. That low-key outing is actually another fine encapsulation of what Reservation Dogs did so well: It could take a series of moments in which not much appeared to happen, and mine them for the silliest and most profound emotions inside them.
The phenomenal cast made it easy to relate to Cheese’s desire for contented stability, Bear’s need for affirmation, Willie Jack’s search for a clearer purpose, and Elora’s wounded, restless energy. Part of what united the quartet was a curiosity about the world and a desire to find meaning and laughter in the face of tragedy. Reservation Dogs premiered less than a year and half after a worldwide pandemic had begun, and it’s ending as the entertainment industry wraps up one strike while enduring continued waves of seismic changes. Week after week, it was comforting to know that Reservation Dogs would take us somewhere worth going, and that even as it delved into rage, heartbreak, and injustice, it would never forget that these four shit-asses were never really alone.
One of the things I prized most about this show was that when watching it, I never really knew what was going to happen next. That quality of spontaneity is increasingly rare in TV. But how could I not know what was coming, given how well the show had drawn its characters? Because life, and people, are unpredictable. Because time is not linear, nor is grief; beauty and poetry and love and pain arrive on their own timetables.
Will a radically altered entertainment industry allow for the creation of another world as specific and universal and surprising as this one? Will the gatekeeping that denied nuanced Native representation on American screens for decades put those gates right back up? I don’t know; I have my doubts. But if I’ve learned anything from this show, it’s that it pays to be like Cheese; it’s worth it to try to stay open to each moment and its possibilities.
To steal from the title of an iconic Reservation Dogs episode: Despite everything, I still believe.
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