We are all followed by ghosts. The trick is figuring out how to coexist with them. “Reservation Dogs” has been digging into that idea ever since Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai) met William Knife-Man (Dallas Goldtooth) in the pilot. William is an all-around visitor, showing up to advise Bear and others in his community out of a sense of cultural pride and obligation, but mostly because his version of the afterlife is boring.
He is not directly related to Bear and his friends Elora Danan (Devery Jacobs), Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis) and Cheese (Lane Factor) by blood, friendship or local membership, which gives him more allowed to push and annoy. Throughout the recently completed second season, however, the four friends and the people around them come face to face and confront the spirits of some of their closest and dearest relatives.
Elora’s worry about her life eases somewhat after a failed attempt to run away to California with her former nemesis Jackie (Elva Guerra) brings Elora home in time to say goodbye to his grandmother Mabel. His passing kicks the ghostly chatter into high gear.
Part of growing up is figuring out where you’ve been before you can figure out where you’re going. At the start of “Reservation Dogs”, the plan is for the four friends to escape to California together. The second-season finale finally sees that mission accomplished, inspired by their shared desire to make their deceased friend Daniel’s dream come true.
Of course, this isn’t an ending but a starting point for the next journey, an FX guaranteed we’ll enjoy as we pick up the show for a much-deserved Season 3.
Elva Guerra as Jackie and Devery Jacobs as Elora Danan in “Reservation Dogs” (Shane Brown/FX)
Getting there takes us down a road through which the series has reached its next level of greatness. Season 2 is safer in its execution than the already excellent first season. Many have said so, but it’s a crime that this show hasn’t received more awards, especially at this point.
This fact also proves the reproach that most awards juries do not sit legitimately with most of the shows they are charged with honoring. The frustrating part about this, however, is that “Reservation Dogs” is one of the easiest and most inviting shows to hang out with.
To watch the show is to understand and appreciate the many ways in which its creator Sterlin Harjo plays with the concept of spirits, ancestors and legends as the dominant creative theme. Even so, it’s not the story’s only driving force or its most influential one. The primacy still belongs to Harjo and his writers’ love of American coming-of-age films and the movies they enjoyed while he was growing up.
The series’ mastery of the common language of ’80s and ’90s cinema and movie trends allows each episode to dance effortlessly between comedy and drama.
Each character’s swim through memory, legend and nostalgia brings to light an assortment of living, dead and culturally metaphorical ancestral forces that form the weave of the stories they tell about themselves and the stories defining who they are. for the people around them. All in all, this season comes with an important epiphany: sometimes it’s the calmer minds that need the most attention.
Devery Jacobs as Elora Danan, Lane Factor as Cheese and D’Pharaoh Woo-A-Tai as Bear in “Reservation Dogs” (Shane Brown/FX)
Not all episodes of the second season of “Reservation Dogs” are related to a ghost story. One of the season’s best, “Wide Net,” follows Bear’s mom, Rita (Sarah Podemski), co-worker and Jackie’s aunt, Bev (Jana Schmieding), and a few of their other friends from around the world. childhood during a crazy weekend disguised as a work trip. This ultimately turns into an in-depth examination and critique of the cultural roles imposed on women, and the choices and consequences of accepting or rejecting these prescribed expectations. However, their main goal is to get laid.
Another stellar half-hour, “This is Where the Plot Thickens,” features local horseman Big (Zahn McClarnon) teaming up with twisted salvage yard operator Kenny Boy (Kirk Fox) in a strange couple/buddy cop mash-up that ends with them breaking up a network of secret society fish fornicators that includes the Governor. Oh, and did we mention the good guys did it all by tripping bullets?
Zahn McClarnon as Big in “Reservation Dogs” (Shane Brown/FX)
Even this episode ties into the season’s larger theme of accepting the role we all play in the collective lineage of our families and communities. The girl’s journey takes place after Mabel’s farewell vigil, which brings the community together to swap stories about her and inevitably leads to remembering the girl and sister who aren’t there to say goodbye: Elora’s deceased mother, Cookie.
The emotional climax of Big’s episode reveals him blaming himself for letting Cookie down when she needed him – a pang of guilt that earns him the pity and protection of another famous spirit, the Deer Lady (Kaniehtiio Horn), who also happens to be a fan of Kenny Boy.
Memories are the personal movies of the body, ever changing and constantly changing. And in this memory-laden season, where major characters are introduced in episodes influenced by familiar movies or cinematic genres, “Reservation Dogs” reaffirms its power as a love letter to cinema while reminding us that it is always of a show about chosen families – the genre seen through television, especially in sitcoms.
Bear, Elora, Willie Jack, and Cheese finally arrive in California to find themselves stranded, friendless, and without options, leaving them with no choice but to accept the advice of America’s spiritual mascot, White Jesus.
Since it’s California, White Jesus could be an actual or collective hallucination. But it is a generous soul who guides them as far as they need and seems to abandon them in a moment of crisis. Along with emphasizing ancestry and spirits this season, writers like to nod to white American stereotypes of Native spirituality.
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If you’re familiar with that corny poem “Footprints in the Sand” frequently spotted in Christian grandmothers’ shower rooms, you might recognize this as a well-deserved turnaround. If you’re familiar with ’80s vampire movies, you’ll recognize the wild scene White Jesus navigates with the foursome as one from “The Lost Boys.” (The final episode, by the way, is titled “I Still Believe” and features a relevant cameo over the end credits.)
It’s tempting to theorize what this episode and the season as a whole say about America’s current struggle with itself over the truth of our shared history and experiences, but that intellectualizing spell is quickly broken when Cheese, standing in the ocean and saying a prayer for Daniel, quotes a scene in “The Neverending Story” shortly after Willie Jack, asked to sing an anthem for their friend, offers a few mangled bars of “Free Fallin'” of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, as their uncles did before them.
“We just wanted this moment to be meaningful, like in the movies,” Cheese tells the spirits, and us, and we understand exactly what he means. It’s a universal fight that we can only win on occasion, a victory that “Reservation Dogs” achieves on its second outing. Whenever this happens, it is worth celebrating.
All episodes of “Reservation Dogs” stream on FX on Hulu.
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