The Gang is Broken Up, And Things Just Keep Getting Worse Everywhere
Reservation Dogs Returns for a Sublime Second Season
One of the minor gems of the 2021–2022 season was the Hulu and FX collaboration Reservation Dogs. Executive produced by the legendary Taiki Waititi and written by the incredible Sterling Harjo, the series exploded on to the consciousness by being the first series anywhere to be written, directed and feature entirely by indigenous people. So many writers were in awe in this fact that it nearly got lost what a remarkable show this series, mixing the tragic elements of Native American life with the low comedy that seems to follow it everywhere. The Emmys, showing the same wisdom when it comes to almost any series not centered around white males, chose to fundamentally ignore it for nominations (while nominating the tired comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm) but the HCA, showing signs of increasing genius, nominated it for three awards including Best Direction and Best Writing for a streaming series.
When we left the gang after a hurricane hit the reservation, Willow Jack decided to blow the reservation with arch nemesis Jackie, leaving her three fellow Reservation gang taking all the money they’d earned stealing. The reactions have been mixed: Cheese and Willie Jack, who had tried to curse Jackie, are now convinced theirs some bad medicine and the entire reservation is suffering. They have spent the first two episodes desperately trying to ‘reverse’ the curse and have ended up in the hands of two rival ‘elders’ they consider medicine men (they’re basically rival drinking buddies) Bear (Devery Jacobs) is trying to move on from all of the chaos and is now trying to atone for the robberies the gang engaged in throughout the first season. That involves getting a job and apologizing to the driver of the truck they heisted in the Pilot. It turns out not only did the driver know who had done it the whole time, the owners of the general store they frequent had seen them do it and posted it on social media. Even Bear’s ‘spirit guide’ has abandoned him and is now working with the elders to make him a true medicine. (Of course, that assumes he was ever a competent guide to begin; the more we hear him tell the legend of Crazy Horse and how he menstruated really makes you wonder if spirit guides get senile after awhile.)
As for Elora and Jackie, their trip starts off as a disaster and only spirals from there. The car they take overheats. They hitchhike and end up in a car with a man headed for Texas who could be a pedophile or maybe just creepy; we never find out because they prematurely stab him and jump out of the car, leaving their stuff and money behind. Then they try to steal a car from a much of good ol’ boys who chase them down with a shotgun. Then they manage to find a mansion in the fields inhabited by a surprising nice white lady, who is going through a divorce and who has wanted to run away. (Cameo by Megan Mullally.) She treats them better than anyone so far on this trip, but Jackie still steals her car in the middle of the night and feels no remorse for it. Admirably, despite Elora’s clear signs that she is feeling remorse for leaving her friends behind, unlike with a lesser series, Harjo and his writers show no sign of her going back home.
Reservation Dogs is one of the slyest and most well written comedies in recent years, with the humanity of FX’s recently departed Better Things and the occasionally surrealistic nature of the soon to vanish Atlanta. We see the world around the youths beginning to disappear — the shrine that they built to Daniel, their friend whose death sparked most of their actions last season is being torn down for a megachurch. All of them are still dealing with the agony, from Cheese still having conversations with his picture to Willow having agonizing dreams about his death. Every bit of this series will either hit you in the gut or in the funny bone.
And it’s not just the young newcomers all of whom are sensations all the way through. Many great indigenous actors who have spent their lives in clichéd roles are finally getting the characters they deserve. Veteran character actor Wes Studi has a memorable role as Bucky, an ‘elder’ brought in to remove the curse. Hearing about Uncle Brownie (Gary Farmer) drives a lawn mower to meet with him, and the two engage in a ‘ritual’ that quickly dissolves in to them dealing with an old feud over a woman and then singing an ancient spiritual song — ‘Freeballing’ “It’s over thirty years old, Uncle Brownie says when Cheese tells him it’s not an old song. (Zahn McClarnon has been less present as his marvelous spacey deputy, but as those of us who watched him in Dark Winds know that he’s now playing a different kind of Navajo lawman.)
Taiki Waititi has taken some abuse recently for how he handled the most recent installment in the Thor movies, but as anyone who has been paying attention to TV the last few years knows, his mastery of bizarre comedies has not changed. What We Do in the Shadows was nominated yet again for Best Comedy by the Emmys and his new HBO Max series Our Flag Means Death demonstrates what a talent he is an actor among anything else. Waititi of course is aboriginal himself, which was no doubt at least part of the reason that he helped developed this work of art, but even if his attachment is merely a producer, the incredible group of writers and directors that Sterling Harjo has assembled would be formidable on their own. It’s sad that we had to wait this long for this level of talent to be assembled for Reservation Dogs, but its arrival may be the first sign that this untapped vein of talent is about to be mined. I don’t think it likely Dark Winds could have been greenlit without the immense popularity of this series, and the latter show’s recent success indicates that there might be more series like this come. Reservation Dogs is a trailblazer, but don’t let that keep you from forgetting its one of the most brilliant series on TV today.
My score: 4.75 stars.