Reservation Dogs’ sophomore run layers drama and comedy to excellent effect.
Season Two of Reservation Dogs opens with the aftermath of last season. Elora (Devery Jacobs) left fellow Rez Dogs Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), and Cheese (Lane Factor) high and dry as she ran away to Cali with Jackie (Elva Guerra), one of their group’s sworn enemies. They’re all trying to grow up and move on from their haunted pasts, and their friend Daniel’s (Dalton Cramer) death still lingers. Will a prayer and Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’” be enough to lift the curse and bring the Rez Dogs back together? It’s a slow-burn season, balancing the drama and the comedy of the teens coming of age both on and off the reservation.
The first season followed the Rez Dogs as a whole, a tight-knit group that stuck together through thick and thin. The second season in turn explores the growing pains of growing up, of asking who are they outside of their childhood friend group. It’s a great way to evolve the series and shift its focus to individual members with the group scattered.
Individually, the Rez Dogs are in disarray. Bear, in a funk after Elora’s split, seeks guidance from Spirit (Dallas Goldtooth), the comical indigenous spirit who tells him that it’s time for him to grow up and get a job. Willie Jack is hell-bent on reversing the curse she placed on Elora, and turns to adversarial elders Uncle Brownie (Gary Farmer) and Bucky (Wes Studi) to lift it. Cheese is still figuring out his identity, in the wake of the news that their secret hideout is being torn down to accommodate a megachurch. And Elora’s off on her road trip to Cali, a directionless journey that turns sour and tests how far she’s willing to go to leave her home.
Reservation Dogs, co-created by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi, has a lived-in authenticity that’s rare amongst half-hour comedies. It’s a testament to the forces deployed on and offscreen—every writer, director, and series regular on the show is Indigenous. Scripts are peppered with colloquialisms like “skoden” (slang for “let’s go then”) and “snag” (slang for “hooking up”). It’s also filmed on location in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, building that local atmosphere that’s essential to the show.
The entire cast is fantastic, but Devery Jacobs as Elora is a definite stand-out this season. Elora was the only Rez Dog to make it off the reservation, even if it meant hitching a ride with Jackie. Their journey is full of obstacles – a car breakdown, a creepy man offering them a lift, and racist country bumpkins. They press on, even with Elora’s guilt at leaving the other Rez Dogs behind. In episode 4, Elora gets pulled back to the reservation due to the declining health of her grandmother Mabel (Geraldine Keams). In her greatest time of need, Elora has to face the fallout from the friends she left behind. She’s at a breaking point, at a crossroads of deciding to leave what’s left of her reservation family, or risk another road trip with Jackie. It’s a gut-punch of an episode, and it marvelously showcases Jacobs’ range as an actor and a writer (she co-wrote the episode with Harjo).
While there’s a lot of drama in season two, there are still plenty of laughs to go around. Megan Mullally shows up as a divorced Christian housewife who opens her house to Elora and Jackie as they travel toward Cali. She’s the type of Midwesterner who bakes a spaghetti taco casserole and prays to God to help her finish Gloria Steinheim’s book, even if it’s just one page a night. Mullally blends into the role, making what could have easily been a caricature into a fully-developed supporting character.
Moreover, Wes Studi and Gary Farmer’s turns as town rivals Bucky and Uncle Brownie make for a hilarious subplot. They’ve both got their methods on how to help the Rez Dogs reverse the curse, culminating in a prayer-off by the river, each trying to outdo each other in a chorus of “Amens!” and a classic rendition of Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’.” It’s also nice to see Studi, known more for his dramatic roles, flex his comedy chops, with Farmer as a worthy comedic adversary.
Whereas other shows might tug at the heartstrings, Reservation Dogs likes to get the audience crying first with drama, and then with a clever joke. As the Rez Dogs evolve, so does the series. Reservation Dogs is still an ensemble comedy; now it is taking time to focus on the members of its title group as individuals, and in so doing it finds both laughs and deep wells of emotion.
Reservation Dogs airs Wednesdays on Hulu.