"Reservation Dogs" ends a high-spirited second season with a California dream and cinematic realism

The FX dramedy ends a stellar second season with a story about making peace with our ghosts, and what we believe

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published September 28, 2022 7:36PM (EDT)

Dallas Goldtooth as Spirit, William Knife-Man in "Reservation Dogs" (Shane Brown/FX)
Dallas Goldtooth as Spirit, William Knife-Man in "Reservation Dogs" (Shane Brown/FX)

The following story discusses Season 2 plot points of "Reservation Dogs."

We're all trailed by ghosts. The trick is figuring out how to coexist with them. "Reservation Dogs" has been digging into that idea since Bear (D'Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai) met William Knife-Man (Dallas Goldtooth) in the pilot. William is an all-purpose visitor, showing up to advise Bear and other folks in his community out of a sense of cultural pride and obligation, but mostly because his version of the afterlife is boring.

He's not directly connected to Bear and his friends Elora Danan (Devery Jacobs), Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), and Cheese (Lane Factor) by blood, friendship, or local community member, giving him more of a license to prod and annoy. Throughout the recently ended second season, however, the four friends and the folks around them confront and are confronted by the spirits of some of their nearest and most dearly departed loved ones.

Elora's disquietude with her life calms somewhat after a failed attempt to run away to California with her one-time sworn enemy Jackie (Elva Guerra) brings Elora home in time to say goodbye to her grandmother Mabel. Her passing kicks the ghostly chatter into high gear.

Part of growing up is figuring out where you've been before you can map out where you're going. At the beginning of "Reservation Dogs," the plan is for the four friends to escape together to California. The second season finale finally sees that mission fulfilled, inspired by their shared desire to fulfill their deceased friend Daniel's dream.

Of course, this isn't an end but a starting point for the next journey, one FX has guaranteed we'll enjoy by picking up the show for a richly deserved Season 3.

Reservation DogsElva Guerra as Jackie and Devery Jacobs as Elora Danan in "Reservation Dogs" (Shane Brown/FX)

Getting there takes us on a route through which the series ascended to its next level of greatness. Season 2 is surer in its execution than the already excellent first season. Many have said this, but it is a crime that this show hasn't received more awards recognition, especially at this point.

That fact also proves the gripe that most awards juries don't legitimately sit with most of the shows they're tasked with honoring. The frustrating part about even that, though, is that "Reservation Dogs" is one of the easiest and most inviting shows to spend time with.

To watch the show is to understand and appreciate the many ways that its creator Sterlin Harjo plays with the concept of spirits, ancestors, and legend as a creatively dominant theme. Even so, that isn't the story's sole driver or its most influential. Primacy still belongs to Harjo's and his writers' love of American coming-of-age movies, and movies they enjoyed while he was growing up.

The show's fluency in the common language of '80s and '90s cinema and cinematic trends enable each episode to effortlessly dance between comedy and drama.

Each character's swim through memory, legend and nostalgia brings forth an assortment of ancestral forces living, dead, and culturally metaphorical that form the weave of the stories they tell themselves about themselves, and the stories defining who they are to the people around them. Taken together, this season lands with an important epiphany: sometimes it's the quietest spirits that need the most attention.

Reservation DogsDevery Jacobs as Elora Danan, Lane Factor as Cheese and D'Pharaoh Woo-A-Tai as Bear in "Reservation Dogs" (Shane Brown/FX)

Not every second season episode of "Reservation Dogs" connects to a ghost story. One of the season's best, "Wide Net," follows Bear's mother Rita (Sarah Podemski) her co-worker and Jackie's aunt Bev (Jana Schmieding), and a couple of their other childhood friends on a crazy weekend disguised as a work trip. It eventually turns into a deep examination and critique of cultural roles foisted upon women, and the choices and consequences of accepting those prescribed expectations or rejecting them. Mainly, though, their aim is to get laid.

Another stellar half-hour, "This Is Where the Plot Thickens," stars local lighthorseman Big (Zahn McClarnon) teaming up with crooked salvage yard operator Kenny Boy (Kirk Fox) in an odd couple/buddy cop mash-up that ends with them busting a ring of secret society fish fornicators that includes the governor. Oh, and did we mention the good guys did it all while tripping balls?

Reservation DogsZahn McClarnon as Big in "Reservation Dogs" (Shane Brown/FX)

Even that episode ties into the season's larger theme of accepting the part we all play in the collective lineage of our families and communities. The girl's trip takes place after Mabel's farewell vigil, which brings the community together to swap stories about her and inevitably leads to remembering the daughter and sister who isn't there to say goodbye: Elora's deceased mother Cookie.

The emotional climax of Big's episode reveals that he blames himself for failing Cookie when she needed him – a pang of guilt that earns him the mercy and protection of another famous spirit, the Deer Lady (Kaniehtiio Horn), who turns out to also be a fan of Kenny Boy's.

Memories are the body's home movies, ever-shifting and constantly edited. And in this memory-heavy season, where major characters are featured in episodes influenced by familiar movies or cinematic genres, "Reservation Dogs" reasserts its strength as a love letter to cinema while reminding us that it is still a show about chosen families – the kind seen throughout TV, especially in sitcoms.

Bear, Elora, Willie Jack, and Cheese finally get to California only to find themselves stranded, friendless, and without options, leaving them no choice but to accept guidance from America's spiritual mascot, White Jesus.

Since it's California, White Jesus might be real or a collective hallucination. But he's a generous soul who guides them as far as they need him to and appears to abandon them in a moment of crisis. Along with emphasizing ancestry and spirits this season, the writers enjoy winking at white America's stereotypes about Indigenous spirituality.

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If you're familiar with that corny "Footprints in the Sand" poem frequently spotted in Christian grandmothers' powder rooms, you may recognize this as a well-earned bit of turnabout. If you're familiar with '80s vampire flicks, you'll recognize the wild scene White Jesus navigates the foursome through a scene lifted out of "The Lost Boys." (The finale episode, by the way, is titled "I Still Believe" and features a relevant cameo during the end credits.)

It tempts one to theorize what this episode and the season as a whole are saying about America's current struggle with itself over the truth of our shared history and experiences. But that spell of intellectualizing is quickly broken when Cheese, standing in the ocean and saying a prayer for Daniel, cites a scene in "The Neverending Story" shortly after Willie Jack, asked to sing a hymn for their friend, offers up a few mangled bars of "Free Fallin'" by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, as their uncles did before them.

"We just wanted this moment to be significant, like in the movies," Cheese explains to the spirits, and us, and we get exactly what he means. That's a universal struggle we can only win on occasion, a victory "Reservation Dogs" clinches in its sophomore outing.  Whenever that happens, it's worth celebrating.

All episodes of "Reservation Dogs" are streaming on FX on Hulu.


By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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Commentary Devery Jacobs Fx Indigenous Native American Reservation Dogs Sterlin Harjo Tv