‘Reservation Dogs’ Says Goodbye With Moving Journeys of Personal Discovery

Too many gems are having fleeting lives in the universe of streaming. Barely entering its third season, “Reservation Dogs” is saying goodbye after breaking new ground for Indigenous representation on American TV. So many shows keep going and going long after running out of steam, this one feels like it was only getting better. Produced by director Taika Waititi and Sterlin Harjo, this is one of those unique series where the characters fully create the experience, making us care for them beyond the plotlines. Even then, the twists and turns felt as vivid as a documentary, while still playing with great comedy and penetrating social commentary. The series celebrated Native culture as an eternal part of this land’s fabric, featuring an all-Indigenous cast, while reminding viewers of communities still feeling cast aside and underrepresented. 

But let’s return now to the journey of our young heroes. Last season ended with the Oklahoma “Res Dogs” Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Cheese (Lane Factor), and Elora (Devery Jacobs) committing to going to California to see the Pacific Ocean, which was the cherished dream of their late friend Daniel. Once in Los Angeles, they soon discovered the headaches of the big city, such as getting carjacked. We’re updated on the latest by the overseeing spirit warrior, William Knifeman (Dallas Goldtooth). Despite the hassles faced, the friends are now wondering if returning to Okern is even worth it. At least out here there’s the hint of more. Bear decides to try and see his father, Punkin, but once the group arrives at his apartment, they only meet the girlfriend who tells them he’s away recording in Oakland (or so he claims). But the gang won’t be here for long since Elora’s aunt, Teenie (Tamara Podemski), arrives with the mission of bringing them back home via bus. For Bear it becomes a whole new saga when he’s distracted, his phone dies and he’s left stranded at the bus station.

“Reservation Dogs” is such a great show because of everything it accomplishes simultaneously. It captured the microcosms of Native American life with crackling writing and a magnificent cast, while having that special touch of transcending into something universal. Its depiction of working class life in an underrepresented sector could be relatable to viewers in East Los Angeles or Compton. But of course the importance here is Indigenous representation and this season combines the personal with the historical in funny, piercing ways. While trying to find his way back home, Bear is followed by William Knifeman who faces off with the wandering spirit of a Spanish Conquistador, mocking him with bad directions to El Dorado. During the arduous bus ride back to Okern, Cheese draws people on horseback while telling a passenger, who claims to also be Native, that he’s actually never ridden a horse. “Reservation Dogs,” like all good shows of its kind, comments on stereotypes while brushing them aside. 

The impact of colonialism is an undercurrent in the writing, as the characters’ personal journeys take center stage. Elora feels adrift after the death of her grandmother and has a great conversation during the bus ride with Teenie. It builds to the sudden revelation that Elora’s father was a fully white man, adding more fuel to the questions of who she wants to be now that adolescence is nearing its end. In the early episodes, Bear is the one thrown into a true crisis and personal quest. Just as his iPhone is dying, he’s distracted by William Knifeman during a bathroom conversation. He misses his bus and wanders down a highway where he then meets Maximus (the great Graham Greene), who lives in Oklahoma in the middle of nowhere, obsessed with UFOs. He also grows eggplants and waits for the return of the “star people.” Had the showrunners opted for clichés, this could have become pure comedy. But as Maximus tells his story involving electro shock therapy forced on him in psych wards, he becomes a moving figure, detailing how we don’t know the journeys that have brought people to certain places. The hovering question is then, where will the road take Bear and his friends?

“Reservation Dogs” leaving the FX on Hulu roster marks the end of another series that showed the best Peak TV is capable of. On another level it’s fitting it is ending at this point, because the characters are reaching a bittersweet crossroads. They have to make choices for which there are no easy answers, particularly in an Indigenous community still struggling for true equality and recognition. Like many underrepresented corners of the United States, to be leaving your childhood doesn’t come with ready-made pathways into the delights of white suburban life. Bear and the gang need to decide if they will stay at “the rez” figuring it all out, fall into the same entrapped states as their parents or attempt, against all the odds, to find something beyond the confines of their home. That’s the kind of human insight this show never left behind and from which future showrunners can learn from.

Reservation Dogs” season three begins streaming Aug. 2 with new episodes premiering Wednesdays on Hulu.