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FX's Reservation Dogs Says Goodbye Too Soon in Third Season

Late in Season Two of FX’s brilliant “Reservation Dogs,” Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis) visits her late friend’s mother (Lily Gladstone) in prison; a corrections officer tells her she can only have two moments of physical contact. One hug at the beginning and one at the end. It’s bittersweet to know that we’re nearing that second moment for Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi’s groundbreaking series, which feels like it’s wrapping its story far too soon. But at least it’s going out the only way it possibly could: with a deep swell of love for its characters and reverence for the Native community and culture it celebrates.

When last we left our heroes—Willie Jack, Bear (D’Pharaoah Woon-A-Tai), Cheese (Lane Factor), and Elora (Devery Jacobs), they’d rallied after a season of separation to finally fulfill their friend Daniel’s final wish: to travel to California and see the Pacific Ocean. Season three picks back up in the wake of that moment (and a delightfully scattered recap from William “Spirit” Knifeman [Dallas Goldtooth], who promises “a story as fresh as Mountain Dew”), with the Res Dogs adrift and without purpose in the wake of their successful mission.

The Dog who feels this most acutely is Bear, and the bulk of the season’s early stretch hones in on him as he misses his bus home and goes on a spirit walk through the California desert. After a muted premiere that mostly reorients us to the Dogs’ troubles, the second and third episodes send Bear through a surrealist dark night of the soul, demonstrating Harjo and company’s flexibility with genre. In one, he’s rescued by an oddball stranger named Maximus (Graham Greene), whose obsession with UFOs reminds Bear of the value of purpose, however misguided it may be.

In the other, his path intersects with the mythical, hooved Deer Lady (Kaniehtiio Horn), who returns on a quest for vengeance—tied in a haunting flashback to the ugly history of white religious institutions violently converting Indigenous children to Christianity and the alienating ways of European hegemony. This episode, directed with poignant immediacy by “Night Raiders” director Danis Goulet, is easily the highlight of these early episodes.

But this focus on Bear in the early goes makes it hard to evaluate the season as a whole; fans of “Reservation Dogs” know that its most valuable moments are the time we pull away from our central gang to touch base with one of the show’s many vibrant supporting characters. Season Two was rife with these moments, whether a girls’ getaway at an IHS conference with Teenie (Tamara Podemski) or an accidental drug trip with irreverent tribal sheriff Big (the eternal scene-stealer Zahn McClarnon). In its final act, the show wants to make sure its central characters are front of mind—particularly Bear, who’s often been defined by his dismissive defiance of his community's expectations. 

Season Three of “Reservation Dogs” feels like a comedown from the fragmented tension of the last season, a “what now?” for its scattered group of tribal misfits. The pain of Daniel’s loss has tainted their relationship for two whole seasons; that cathartic moment in the California surf last season, a group hug visited by Daniel’s spirit, brought them some much-needed closure. (And as someone for whom the loss of a close friend like Daniel is particularly recent, it’s a moment that hits particularly hard.)

But like myself, Bear, Elora, and the rest wonder where the next chapter of their journey takes them. Escape to California is no longer the end goal; their bus ride home is depicted, fittingly, as a piece of tribal art, a drawing of their Greyhound traversing an American map noted not by state borders but by which tribes that land belongs to. Now, it might be time for them to figure out where they fit into the cultures and traditions they’ve kept at a distance. The fourth episode is a relaxed reset for the show, a waystation for the kids as they reflect on their catharsis and forge new paths. I can’t wait to see what journeys these remaining six episodes take on while lamenting that this is all we have left.

Then again, it’s oddly fitting that “Reservation Dogs” ends when it is, despite the dearth of Native-focused content ready to replace it. (Jana Schmieding’s IHS secretary is a hoot in every scene and a bitter reminder that her Native-led sitcom, “Rutherford Falls,” also suffered an untimely demise.) Our four leads can’t stay teenagers forever, after all. Do they continue to run away from the economic and spiritual depression of the rez, clinging feebly to health departments with shoestring budgets and cityfied Native influencers who offer nothing but platitudes? Do they sit down with their elders and learn how to carry on the practices they’ve stewarded for generations? 

However the rest of the show answers these questions, it’ll likely do so with the wit, specificity, and heart that has elevated it to one of the most well-received shows in FX’s current slate. And while the show may end, I hope its spirit will live on, much like William Knifeman’s—imparting deceptively insightful wisdom from beyond the grave, preferably wearing a pair of assless chaps.

The first four episodes were screened for review. “Reservation Dogs” premieres August 2nd exclusively on Hulu.

Clint Worthington

Clint Worthington is a Chicago-based film/TV critic and podcaster. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Spool, as well as a Senior Staff Writer for Consequence. He is also a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and Critics Choice Association. You can also find his byline at RogerEbert.com, Vulture, The Companion, FOX Digital, and elsewhere. 

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