The last we saw of the Reservation Dogs, the friends were letting go of their grief on a Los Angeles beach. The protagonists and namesake of the half-hour series on FX were thousands of miles from home, a testament to the flexible, expansive world-building of co-creator Sterlin Harjo and his team. “Reservation Dogs” is rooted in its specific setting of Indigenous Oklahoma, but the show also gives itself license to experiment with focus, tone and, eventually, geography. It’s a story with the confidence to go new places, and trusts the audience will follow.
As a result, “Reservation Dogs” could’ve started its third and final season just about anywhere. Instead, the action picks up right where it left off: with Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Elora (Devery Jacobs), Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis) and Cheese (Lane Factor) stranded in Santa Monica without a car or a plan. Before the events of the show, the crew of Native teens lost fifth member Daniel (Dalton Cramer, as seen in flashbacks) to suicide; without a center of gravity, the group started to drift apart, onto their own paths of mourning. At the end of Season 1, Elora abandoned Bear to take off for California with Jackie (Elva Guerra), the scowling, bleached-blond ringleader of a rival clique. By the end of Season 2, the Dogs had come back together to celebrate Daniel as one, locking arms in the Pacific Ocean.
With some closure on this central storyline, there’s a version of “Reservation Dogs” that could continue indefinitely, exploring new corners of its characters’ community. Some of the series’ best episodes have expanded the show beyond the Dogs themselves, whose perspective can be myopic in the way of young people experiencing their first brush with adulthood. Lighthorseman Big (Zahn McClarnon), a tribal cop no one takes seriously, got his own spotlight; so did Bear’s mother, Rita (Sarah Podemski), a tough and wryly intelligent single mom who raised a son without his erratic aspiring rapper of a dad. My personal favorite installment took place midway through Season 2 at a conference for the Indian Health Service, where four middle-aged women let loose in a more mature, equally goofy version of the kids’ adolescent high jinks.
Instead, Harjo announced in June that “Reservation Dogs” would end with Season 3. The show may have cultivated a sprawling, almost “Simpsons”-like cast of small-town eccentrics, but a coming-of-age tale ultimately belongs to those coming of age. The four episodes of this final season provided to critics take steps toward what seems to be a definitive conclusion, but through a typically digressive route. This indirect approach is a fitting farewell to one of the most singular shows on TV, though “Reservation Dogs” has always worn its significance lightly.
On the bus ride back to their sleepy hometown of Okern, a trip “Reservation Dogs” traces on a map labeled with the historic territories of Native tribes, Bear gets separated from his companions. Egged on by William Knifeman (Dallas Goldtooth), his slacker of a spirit guide, Bear embarks on a journey guided by the ghosts of history: a conquistador (Eric Mainade) lost on the salt flats; a hermit (Graham Greene) living off the grid; and Deer Lady (Kaniehtiio Horn), the vengeful spirit last seen in Season 1 who gets an origin story in harrowing flashback. Only after Bear’s travels do we get a vintage “Reservation Dogs” hang, with the bored foursome entertaining themselves while doing odd jobs at the IHS clinic.
In its portrait of Indigenous life, “Reservation Dogs” touches on all kinds of weighty social issues. The long shadow of genocide and mass displacement looms over every frame, manifesting in poverty, mental illness and a claustrophobic sense of social malaise. But “Reservation Dogs” is not a grim PSA meant to educate a non-Native audience about the plight of its subjects. The show often integrates cultural references without explaining them, like a Season 3 subplot driven by a character’s belief in so-called star people. A droll sense of humor adds to the feeling that we’re listening in on a conversation, not sitting down for a lesson. “I think I’m, like, an accessory to murder now,” Bear says of his encounter with Deer Lady. “But that’s cool!”
Slowly, “Reservation Dogs” starts to prepare its audience for a world in which its heroes’ trajectories continue out of view. Tomboy Willie Jack takes an interest in traditional medicine; Elora investigates the idea of going to college. The schism that once threatened to split the group down the middle — Bear and Elora’s ambitions to leave home versus Cheese and Willie Jack’s desire to stay — starts to settle into a healthy respect for differences among friends. In other words, they’re growing up.
Within the larger TV landscape, “Reservation Dogs” set records for representation that may leave a vacuum in its wake. Every writer and director, in addition to the vast majority of the cast, is Native, the kind of first you hope won’t have to stand alone for long. Despite the cancellation of “Rutherford Falls,” the Peacock sitcom starring “Reservation Dogs” actor Jana Schmieding, there are reasons for optimism elsewhere. AMC’s “Dark Winds” was the second show that features McClarnon as a law enforcement officer to premiere in the same week; at the multiplex, Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon” will make a blockbuster of an anti-Osage conspiracy this fall. “Reservation Dogs” has the privilege of ending on its own terms, a rare opportunity at a chaotic and uncertain time in entertainment. It does so having shifted the parameters of what’s possible to put on-screen, a daunting legacy to leave and an exciting preview of what could come — whether from Harjo, his collaborators or new talent inspired by their mainstream success. Early adulthood is all about potential, and “Reservation Dogs” proved there’s plenty left untapped.
The first two episodes of “Reservation Dogs” Season 3 will premiere on Hulu on August 2, with the new episodes dropping weekly on Wednesdays.
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