Tuesday, August 1, 2023

The Final Season of Reservation Dogs Proves Its Power In Its Storytelling [Contributor: Jenn]

(Image credit: Shane Brown/FX)

Even though I have only seen the first four episodes of Reservation Dogs’ final season, I can already tell that the show is going to end its run just as strongly as it began it. This groundbreaking series features four Indigenous teenagers on a quest to get out of their Oklahoma reservation and to California. At the end of season two, all of the teens — Bear, Elora, Cheese, and Willie Jack — managed to do just that to honor their deceased friend, Daniel. Unfortunately for them, their car and money were stolen so season three picks up where we left off.

The four episodes I watched were all quite different from one another, but all of them are engaging and gripping for various reasons and set up what is sure to be an exciting final season.

Below, I break down what you can look forward to in the first few episodes, with minor plot spoilers. 

The season premiere features all four of the teenagers interacting, marking a rare occurrence in the first few episodes, as they head back to Oklahoma via bus (thanks to a rescue from Aunt Teenie). I’d missed the banter that these individuals had in pairs and as a group. (There’s a particularly silly scene about day-old donuts and how each character reacts differently to the idea of them.) 

But what the episode really serves as is a springboard for Bear’s character arc the rest of the season. He’s the primary focus of the few episodes I saw, and it’s fascinating to see just how he’s growing. More on that in a minute!

Meanwhile, on the bus back to Oklahoma, Cheese is drawing and Willie Jack tells him how amazing his art is. Even though all of the teens wanted to escape Okern, both Cheese and Willie Jack admit that they appreciate it more after California. They also both discuss that Bear and Elora are destined to leave them and Oklahoma altogether. I loved that we got some genuine, heartfelt moments between these two characters. Since Cheese is the youngest, he obviously knows that his friends will likely leave before him. But it was sweet to see how excited Willie Jack was by the drawings, and how encouraging she was about his talent.

Elsewhere on the bus, Aunt Teenie gives Elora some unexpected information that is part of what her character arc will be about the rest of the season.

A theme that runs through these first few episodes is the idea of figuring out what you consider home, as well as how to care for and protect the people you love. The teens were desperate to go to California at the beginning of the series, but the truth that they uncover is that it wasn’t all they expected — or even wanted. The teens all now recognize that the idea of California was more appealing to them than actual California itself; it was the escape — from their routines, from their grief, and from their boredom — that they really wanted. And while it was cathartic for them all to honor Daniel and feel his presence on that beach with them, it seems like everyone is actually grateful to be going home again by the time we reconvene in season three. 

All, unfortunately, except Bear who gets left behind at the bus station with no money or way home.

In the next episode, Bear meets a stranger named Maximus. Dehydrated and left behind in California, Bear begins to walk (and gets increasingly frustrated with his visions of William “Spirit” Knifeman and how Spirit will not practically help him out) — and then gets shot with a very real tranquilizer dart. 

As it turns out, that dart belongs to Maximus — who appears to be a conspiracy theorist. He is Indigenous and reveals to Bear that he used to live in Okern, Oklahoma too. He gives Bear some much-needed water at his home. The rest of the episode is an unexpectedly moving one in which the two characters have conversations about life, friendships, and the way they perceive the world differently than others around them.

This one is a Bear-centric episode, and one that  D'Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai absolutely knocked out of the park. Isolated from the rest of his friends, it was impressive to see how Bear handled challenges that arose. I think this episode and the next one (“Deer Lady”) are great examples of the kind of person Bear is and the quality of his character. Yes, he still often makes poor decisions in the company of his peers because... well, he’s a teenager. But he has a lot of compassion and empathy for others, even if he doesn’t understand them. 

Even though Bear is initially (and rightfully so) wary of a stranger, he carries on conversations with Maximus throughout the episode without making Maximus feel judged or condescended. And while the end of the episode is a bit heartbreaking, the core of it is about two human beings just trying their best to understand each other and the world around them better — and that is beautiful.

(Bear and Elora in season three; image credit: Shane Brown/FX)

“Deer Lady” is episode three and is definitely the standout of the episodes so far in the season. As the title suggests, this episode is all about the Deer Lady, which means that Kaniehtiio Horn absolutely shines in a very nuanced, gut-wrenching performance. Young Deer Lady, played by Georgeanne Growingthunder, is truly wonderful too.

We learn about Deer Lady’s backstory — how she was taken away from her family and forced into an Indigenous boarding school where her hair was cut, she was not allowed to speak her language, and was abused if she (or any of the other children) did anything the nuns did not like. There, she meets a kind boy named Koda who tries to help her and tells her that the nuns will take a lot from them, but they never be able to take their smiles. Later on in the episode, we see the poignant moment where the child of Young Deer Lady becomes the Deer Lady herself.

“Deer Lady” technically and story-wise is impeccable and proof of why Reservation Dogs deserves acclaim. One of the most subtle elements of the episode that I appreciated is that when we’re in Young Deer Lady’s perspective in flashbacks, all of the adults sound garbled and like they’re speaking gibberish — this, of course, is because Young Deer Lady doesn’t know English and that is what it sounds like to her. That choice alone provides a way to immerse us in her point of view: confused and scared in a place that is meant to torture and kill.

The episode flashbacks are harrowing and horrifying (the episode opens with a viewer discretion warning), and they’re contrasted by some growing tension in the present-day story: Bear wanders into a diner that Deer Lady happens to be eating at. And while Bear is afraid she is there to kill him, Deer Lady assures him that she is not. 

Kaniehtiio Horn is the emotional heart of this episode. We’ve seen her before in the series, but watching her as Deer Lady unpack her trauma in the present-day storyline is so powerful and poignant. There’s a specific moment toward the end of the episode where you can see almost every emotion flicker across her face in the span of a few seconds. 

Additionally, like I noted earlier, “Deer Lady” is yet another example of how this season’s Reservation Dogs episodes are setting Bear up on a path toward finding his purpose in life. His empathy toward Deer Lady throughout the episode is incredibly touching, especially near the end.

Trust me: this episode is not going to be one that you want to miss.

The season premiere and “Friday” (episode four) are the only two episodes in this set that feature all of the teenagers. And both episodes are really about the individual characters’ storylines.

The plot is pretty simple: the teens all face consequences from the adults for going to California. The adults decide to divvy up punishments for everyone by having them work at the IHS clinic — including Jackie who, as she protests, didn’t even go to California! (She’s retroactively being punished by Bev for other things.) Jackie and Bear are on sweeping duty, Cheese and Willie Jack are cleaning graffiti, and Elora is taking out the trash. Throughout the course of the afternoon, all of the characters make some decisions or learn new information that will likely impact them in the rest of the season.

Jana Schmieding is truly the scene-stealer in this episode. She has a scene early on with Bear’s mom Rita which involves them hilariously bantering about Bear and Jackie, but then there’s one scene in particular toward the end of the episode between her and Officer Big that had me cackling out loud. It is truly perfect, and one of the funniest scenes I have seen in a while. Give Jana an Emmy for goodness’ sake!

Besides the subtle and fun moments that this episode inspires (Cheese finally gets his glasses, Willie Jack takes an interest in taking over medicine when talking to Old Man Fixico, Jackie refuses to believe Bear met Deer Lady), “Friday” focuses on what Elora wants to do with her life. She’s thinking about applying to colleges and is also still processing the news that Aunt Teenie told her in the premiere. I like that Elora is charting her own course in the world, but what’s interesting is that she’s seemingly keeping this from her friends — especially the news Teenie told her. The episode ends with the group exiting the IHS clinic together after a day of work, Elora covertly taking an important document with her as she does. I am very interested to see if she involves her friends in her decisions moving forward.

Still, despite the fact that Bear, Elora, Willie Jack, and Cheese are likely to have conflict this season, the first few episodes of Reservation Dogs are proof that they are a tight-knit group, through and through. They show up for and support one another, and I love that. I am definitely excited to see how the series wraps up.
Watch the final season of Reservation Dogs, beginning August 2 on Hulu. 
Support the SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes for fair wages and treatment by donating to the Entertainment Community Fund if you can.


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