Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi’s FX series “Reservation Dogs” was easily one of 2021’s biggest, most welcome surprises. In a year that saw an explosion of Native-led stories on film and television—including Peacock’s “Rutherford Falls,” among others—it was “Reservation Dogs” that made the biggest critical impression, right down to winning a Peabody for its heartfelt, authentic portrayals of the everyday lives of Native Americans, stripped of poverty porn or undue exoticism. Season Two continues that tradition, even as it follows the well-worn FX tradition of shifting its comedies into more overt drama in their sophomore outing.
When we last left the titular “Reservation Dogs,” the tight-knit quartet of Indigenous kids getting by in Oklahoma’s Indian Territory, the group was scattered to the four winds in the wake of a devastating tornado. After saving up money all season to move to California (and hopefully escaping the fate of the group’s fifth member, Daniel [Dalton Cramer], who died by suicide), Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis) and Cheese (Lane Factor) chose to stay after all. Elora (Devery Jacobs) decided to ditch the gang to travel west with Jackie (Elva Guerra), a sympathetic member of a rival crew. Meanwhile, the group’s de facto leader Bear (D’Pharoah Woon-A-Tai) is left holding the bag, wandering around the rez on his own looking for work and another way out. Ask Willie Jack, and she’ll tell you there’s bad medicine involved, a curse that only they can lift.
The curse, moreso than the glimmers of magical realism that pervades “Reservation Dogs,” is the effect of Daniel’s death, one whose ripples are still cascading across our characters’ psychological ponds. Bear resents the gang, Elora especially, for abandoning him on their quest to California in the hopes of escaping their friend’s fate. Now, with the gang split up and their former clubhouse about to be razed for a megachurch, Bear sees the specter of manhood approaching and is terrified to meet it.
Elora, the only one actually making good on their plans to run from their problems to California, hits the challenges of the world headfirst. She and Jackie are accosted by shifty samaritans, MAGA hat-wearing good old boys who chase them down with shotguns in their pickup, and Megan Mullally as a well-meaning but deeply strange divorcee who serves them a tray of ‘spaghetti taco casserole’ (“You don’t wanna see what happens when I run out of ranch dressing,” she warns). By the time she returns to town, hat in hand, it feels like a defeat.
For all its downbeat notes, “Reservation Dogs” feels as committed as ever to demonstrating its characters’ resilience in the face of hardship. In the two-part premiere, Willie Jack takes it upon herself to lift the curse, with the help of Cheese’s kooky, weed-addled Uncle Brownie (Gary Farmer, uproarious as always) and his longtime rival Bucky (the legendary Wes Studi), a years-long feud quashed along with some ancient Navajo rituals and a full-tilt rendition of “Freefallin’” by the river.
Bear’s last-ditch attempt to get a job has him spending the day with a pair of construction workers who team him the ropes of roofing and manhood. One’s played by viral TikTok sensation Doggface (best known for skating down the road, chugging Ocean Spray and lip-syncing to Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams”), which is a neat enough cameo on its own. But the other is Daniel’s father, giving the pair a long-overdue chance to jointly grieve the loved one they’ve lost, and wonder what they could have done differently.
More than overcoming the systemic hardships of poverty, marginalization, and anti-Native racism that so often pervades shows like these, “Reservation Dogs” is most interested in examining what its characters are going to do about their hardships. Sometimes, that means trying to escape for better weather. But Season Two seems to want to show the virtue of staying to be part of your community, to improve it from within instead of running away from your problems.
The season’s fourth episode, set at the home of Elora’s grandmother during her dying days, is a good example of this. We see the entire town gathered in Mabel’s home, the women cooking corn chowder and making coffee, the men whiling away the hours with cold beers in the living room. Jackie admits she’s never made frybread before; the others teach her how to. When Mabel is experiencing her final moments, her bedroom is packed with the tear-filled faces of everyone she loves. She takes her last breath, and her loved ones breathe it into their lungs. It’s an emotional episode, one that pays tribute to the Native women, young and old, who build and maintain these communities. (The credits are a long list of dedications to Native women and artists who’ve died in recent years.)
That’s not to say the first season’s deadpan humor isn’t still here. It’s everywhere from Farmer’s grinning eccentricities to town sheriff Big (Zahn McClarnon; one wonders how his character here would fare paired with his dogged Tribal Police chief from “Dark Winds”) claiming aliens created humankind. Why would they do that? “Sex,” he replies matter-of-factly. Most importantly, season one favorite William “Spirit” Knifeman (series writer Dallas Goldtooth), the spirit of one of Bear’s Lakota ancestors, is a more frequent presence this time around, ambushing Bear in Port-A-Potties and town streets to dispense half-baked Navajo wisdom amongst bites of snacks and the occasional recitation of Kansas’ “Carry On My Wayward Son.”
But “Reservation Dogs” is overall more solemn and downcast this time around, a move that seems to recognize its impact among Native and non-Native audiences and the need to take the issues facing its community seriously. It’s a mantle Harjo and crew don’t take lightly, even as they pepper this reverent tone with the kind of offbeat humor its characters carry in spades. While the choice to separate the gang futzes with the show's sense of momentum—Lane Farmer’s Cheese is sorely underrepresented in the front half of this season—it makes room for deeper, more personal character stories in each episode. It’s a dramatic shift from the ensemble antics that made “Reservation Dogs” such a standout in its freshman year, and it's proof that the show, like its central characters, is still growing and changing.
The first four episodes were screened for review. Season two of "Reservation Dogs" premieres today on FX on Hulu.