The first season of Reservation Dogs earned a raft of much-deserved praise for its funny, thoughtful look at the lives of four Native American teens living on a reservation in Oklahoma. Now, the FX on Hulu show is following up its acclaimed debut season with a funny-yet-poignant sophomore outing. It confidently builds on our understanding of the core characters and their lives while continuing to deliver its signature brand of offbeat humor. (First four episodes screened for review.)
‘Reservation Dogs’ Season 2 picks up immediately after the season 1 finale
In season 1, the Rez Dogs – Elora Danan (Devery Jacobs), Bear (D’Pharoah Woon-A-Tai), Cheese (Lane Factor), and Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis) – spent much of their time getting into mischief as they plotted their escape from their small hometown. The tight-knit quartet dreamed of escaping to a new life in California. At the same time, they were mourning the loss of their friend Daniel (played in flashbacks by Dalton Cramer) to suicide a year earlier.
Through a combination of hustling and petty thievery, the Rez Dogs managed to pull together the cash they need for their trip. But their grand plans fell apart in the finale. Willie Jack realized she couldn’t leave her parents. Cheese was out too. Then, Elora and Bear got into a huge argument, and she took off for the Golden State with Jackie (Elva Guerra), a member of a rival gang.
Reservation Dogs Season 2 picks up immediately after Elora hits the road with Jackie. Willie Jack gets us up to speed as she talks to her late cousin Daniel’s portrait. “Things are all messed up around here,” she tells him. Later, she blames a “white wizard curse” for everyone’s troubles. But Bear isn’t convinced “bad medicine” is the cause of their rotten luck. He’s decided it’s time to man up and take some responsibility in his life. As for Elora, her trip to California quickly hits multiple speed bumps, including a pit stop at the home of a Gloria Steinem-reading Christian divorcée (a pitch-perfect Megan Mulally).
‘Reservation Dogs’ dives deeper in its sophomore season
Season 1 of Reservation Dogs was all about getting to know the main characters and their world. In season 2, the show’s writers delve deeper into the lives of Elora, Bear, and their friends and family. In the process, they offer more insight into their culture, community, and past.
Bear is still processing Daniel’s death. He’s also wrestling with his complex relationship with his dad, who abandoned him and his mother. This season, he decides he needs to be the provider that his irresponsible, aspiring rapper father is not. To that end, he gets a job as a roofer. Bear’s first foray into the working world delivers plenty of laughs, as he frantically scuffs up his new toolbelt while his mother (Sarah Podemski) hands him a bag lunch like he’s headed off to his first day of kindergarten. But the episode’s emotional heart is Bear’s heartfelt conversation with Daniel’s father (Michael Spears). The older man opens up about his regret over his failure to help his son. He also assures Bear that he’s not to blame for his friend’s suicide. “It’s on the adults,” he says. “We didn’t see it.”
The fourth episode, “Mabel,” also packs a powerful punch. Co-written by Jacobs, it sees the community coming together to honor an elder’s life and prepare for her passing. It also gives Jacobs a chance to subtly convey her character’s complex feelings regarding her home and her family. We see the way they function as both a powerful support network and an anchor she’d sometimes like to shed.
The show hasn’t lost its sense of humor
Reservation Dogs doesn’t shy away from addressing tough issues, from the ripple effects of suicide to the grind of poverty. But even when the subject matter is dark, creators Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi, along with the show’s all-indigenous team of writers, can find the light. In season 1, Dallas Goldtooth was a standout as Bear’s off-kilter spirit guide. He gets an expanded role in season 2, offering up nuggets of sometimes questionable wisdom to Bear as well as to his new client Uncle Brownie (Gary Farmer). His presence is always welcome on screen, whether he’s giving thanks for “sacred tater tots” or offering Bear advice in the form of borrowed song lyrics. “Carry on my wayward son, there’ll be peace when you are done,” he says, quoting ‘70s rockers Kansas.
The four Rez Dog are the show’s core (though as Cheese, Factor deserves more screen time in season 2). But the strong supporting cast, including Zahn McClarnon as a superstitious police officer and Wes Studi as Bucky, is another reason to tune in. In a memorable sequence, Bucky and Brownie team up with Willie Jack and Cheese for a creek-side ceremony that will break the curse. It ends with both men belting out a mangled but heartfelt version of “Free Fallin’” by Tom Petty.
Afterward, Brownie passes on a bit of wisdom from Goldtooth’s spirit guide. He’s warned the older man that the curse won’t be broken until the show’s wounded teens – “the little f*ckers of the seventh generation” – deal with their guilt over Daniel’s death. Brownie’s translation? “You kids gotta stop being sh*t*asses,” he says. Of course, learning how not to be “a sh*t*ass” is part of growing up. Part of the pleasure of Reservation Dogs is watching as Bear, Elora, Cheese, and Willie Jack figure out how to navigate that challenging process in an environment where the odds are stacked against them. Fortunately, they have each other, their community, and their heritage to draw on as they stumble toward adulthood.
Reservation Dogs Season 2 premieres Wednesday, August 3 on Hulu.
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