Early on in Reservation Dogs’ season-two premiere, we peek in on Jackie and Elora, who are road tripping cross-country to Los Angeles together, the pair having made good on Elora’s plan to get out of town last season. They make a quick stop for gas only to be inundated by two massive stereotypical images of Natives: Outside the store sits a wooden “cigar-store Indian” making a salute and wielding a tomahawk at folks driving up, and behind him stands a plastic tepee. Inside the store, it’s even worse. It’s a straight-up Dances With Wolves acid trip: scary uncanny-valley-looking toy babies dressed in a mishmash of neon “regalia,” dreamcatcher replicas, acid-wash T-shirts adorned with stoic braves backed by howling wolves, and all of it watched over by a giant “authentic” headdress (great for Coachella). The sequence is striking. It’s one of those moments that (as a Native viewer especially) you suddenly find yourself holding your breath. All the robust, unique, life-giving elements of Indigenous cultures are reduced to a mishmash of cheap trinkets, now available for you to consume alongside your slurpee and beef jerky.
Wall to wall, the gas station is brimming with the very kind of simplistic, debasing representation of Indigenous peoples that Reservation Dogs satirized and challenged in its first season. And I’m glad to be able to write that in the year following the first season’s release, the show has been suitably rewarded for its efforts. Since the show’s initial premiere in August of last year, the series has received an AFI Award for Best TV Program of the Year, two Independent Spirit Awards (for Best Scripted Series and Best Ensemble Cast in a New Scripted Series), a Gotham Award for Best Shortform Breakthrough Series, a Peabody Award, and countless other nods and nominations for its grounded, honest depiction of Indigenous life from an Indigenous perspective. Reservation Dogs, along with recently released shows like Rutherford Falls, Dark Winds, Mohawk Girls, and Chambers, have helped facilitate a huge shift in American popular culture. (If you like this show, you should go watch all of these series right now, FYI!) And all this despite the ill-guided efforts of some critics to want to label the growing wave of Indigenous-led series a “microgenre.” (What does that even mean?! Gross! So gross!)
As Elora and Jackie exit the store, they exchange a knowing nod with another car full of Native teens, a look conveying in all its brevity the jumbled-up feelings of simultaneous hope, exhaustion, and acknowledgement that, yes, things are really messed up (and have been for a long time) but that maybe, just maybe, if we all keep pushing, it can get better soon, right? It’s the exhale after you’ve been holding your breath for so long. It’s these kinds of moments that kept me thinking about Reservation Dogs long after the end of season one, and so to see the series off to another strong start just makes me wanna shout a big SKODEN. Reservation Dogs is back! And I’m so glad.
Okay, okay, Indigenous peoples are great and amazing and all. But what are all the other characters in Reservation Dogs up to this season?
A major theme of this episode is transformation, but not in the cool, positive-growth sense. It’s more like transformation when the ground gives away too fast right under your feet, and our main characters are struggling to find a safe place to stand. Last season centered the group’s various reactions to the suicide of their friend Daniel. This season, the material links they had to Daniel are slowly disappearing: Daniel’s father has moved away, and the old building hideout where the gang made a memorial for their friend has been torn down in order to make room for a megachurch. These events hit Bear especially hard, and he spends most of the first episode walking around in a total daze, slowly falling further out of touch with Willie Jack and Cheese. Spirit appears again to remind him that he needs to “grow up” and to start “working for the people,” but Bear doesn’t seem ready to process it all quite yet. It’s not clear yet whether Bear literally just can’t perceive that he has new adult responsibilities he needs to own up to, or if he just doesn’t want to take charge of his life yet.
If Bear’s response to all this sudden change is to freeze up, Willie Jack, on the other hand, is all action. She’s convinced that the reason the storm (and all of the other bad shit) happened is because the curse she tried to cast on Jackie last season backfired (or maybe it just worked too well?). Feeling guilty, Willie Jack backtracks to various adults and asks for their help, only to be turned away by all with the exception of Bucky, who gives her a lift and offers her and Bear a couple of copper statues for protection. In a touching monologue, Bucky insists that all of this sudden change is natural. “We just borrow stardust until we die and then we return it for something else to use. We’re like vibrating strings,” he assures her. In other words, it seems like the kids are going to have to come to terms with the fact that the reservation won’t always stay the same — change is coming, it’s already here, and they can either push to make their village better or they can stand by and watch all the good stuff slip away.
Another sequence from the episode that gave me pause was the continuation of Jackie and Elora’s plot that closes out the episode. First, after the two are stranded due to car trouble, they decide to hitchhike only to get picked up by a creepy white salesman. As soon as the car pulled up and they got in, there I was, holding my breath again. The image of two teenage kids getting into a stranger’s car in the middle of nowhere is certainly a cause for concern, but given that Native women face murder rates ten times the national average, and 78 to 85 percent of Two-Spirit Indigenous peoples report that they have had acts of gender-based violence committed against them, the sequence takes on an especially grim tone. Things escalate, of course, when, after a friendly session of trauma-dumping on his two passengers, the driver takes a sudden turn down an abandoned road, locks the car doors, and refuses to explain his sudden change in direction. Frightened, Jackie manages to kick the hell out of the driver and Elora stabs him in the arm. Deflated, the driver dumps the two and takes off with their bags — and all their travel money. Is this sudden turn of fate just part of what it’s like to be Indigenous in the world, or is it the lingering effects of Willie Jack’s curse?
Things only get worse from there when Jackie goads Elora into stealing a car from a rural townie. It’s clear based on Jackie and Elora’s interactions that Elora is caving to Jackie’s influences, and perhaps her struggle this season will be finding her own voice in their burgeoning relationship. Elora keeps watch while Jackie digs around for the car’s keys, and things get even more tense when the two are spotted by a resident. Shortly, we see that they’re being chased by a truck full of armed men. It’s a sequence that recalls the murder of Colten Boushie by a rural Canadian farmer back in 2016. Boushie was shot to death trying to drive away from a location after his friends entered a property looking for help with their car, and Boushie’s killer was ultimately acquitted of all charges. It’s a subtle allusion that shows off the writing talents of director Sterlin Harjo and his longtime 1492 collaborators Dallas Goldtooth and Ryan Redcorn. Again, it’s one of those moments that feels familiar to Native viewers in ways that are affirming and simultaneously terrifying.
I’m so glad to be back writing these recaps, and I’m thrilled to see where the show will take us this season. Reservation Dogs masterfully mixes humor with grounded drama in ways that are accessible to Native and non-Native viewers alike, and this season is already fearlessly tackling big issues in Indian Country head-on. Last year Reservation Dogs sparked some important conversations, and I can’t wait to see where this season leads us.
• The Medicine Man Fortune Teller/Spirit bit in the gas station was hilarious. Please tell me someone is already making stickers of those cards?
• I’m interested to see how Jackie’s plotline shapes up. While the two are eating, Jackie admits to Elora that their brother died, but the cause of his death and the full effects the event had on Jackie aren’t made clear yet. Also, the message they receive from the Fortune Teller warns that “Your medicine has grown weak, you must turn away from the path that you are on.” Will the pair make it all the way to L.A.? It seems likely given some of the shots included in this season’s teaser trailer. But will Elora be the one to make the call to return home, or will it be Jackie?
• Uncle Brownie is also on a bit of a transformational journey, albeit one of the trickster variety, maybe? As Spirit’s “new client,” he’s convinced that he’s super extra sacrit now, enough to declare that his home can no longer be adorned with “colonizer boobies.” It seems like his arc will intersect with that of the rest of the Rez Dogs’ in some significant way, especially since he is being positioned as a kind of “kid who never grew up and is now trapped in an adult’s body” foil that reflects how the teenage Rez Dogs are kids moving against their will into adulthood.
• I was so immensely stoked to hear my favorite Black Belt Eagle Scout (Swinomish/Inupiaq) song “Soft Stud” in the opening moments of the episode. I have a soft spot for her music as a fellow Pacific Northwesterner.