Prepare for a lovely last "Reservation Dogs" ride, circling back to where its cinematic trip began

As the show edges up to its conclusion the writing showcases the ways it remains true to its original excellence

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published August 2, 2023 12:00PM (EDT)

D'Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai as Bear and Dallas Goldtooth as Spirit in "Reservation Dogs" (Shane Brown/FX)
D'Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai as Bear and Dallas Goldtooth as Spirit in "Reservation Dogs" (Shane Brown/FX)

"Reservation Dogs" was never shy about wandering. Describing other TV shows thusly implies a lack of narrative discipline or confused intent, but that's not the case here. Series creator Sterlin Harjo and his writers have always conveyed a sense of knowing where Bear (D'Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Elora Danan (Devery Jacobs), Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis) and Cheese (Lane Factor) are headed in their shared and individual quests while expanding their stories along the way.

The show began with the quartet vowing to leave their small community in Okern, Oklahoma for a fresh start in California without really knowing what that would take or what they'd find when they got there. Ostensibly their reason was to honor the last wishes of their friend Daniel, who took his own life before the series began.

The four episodes made available to critics hint at a wistful final run for this cinematically adventurous show that never loses sight of where it began.

By the end of Season 2, they'd realized that goal, only to have their car stolen along with whatever money they had, forcing them to share a bedroll with White Jesus. Even that ending was dreamy and tinged with '80s nostalgia as they get their feet wet in the surf, and Bear, overcome by the glow of the place, announces he wouldn't be returning to Oklahoma with them.

To paraphrase that line from "The Outsiders," if Bear is this show's Pony Boy, California would not be the place he'd stay gold. But Oklahoma might not be where he belongs either, something he contemplates in a third season premiere where he intentionally gets lost as everyone else begins to light on their purpose.

The four episodes made available to critics hint at a wistful final run for this cinematically adventurous show that never loses sight of where it began and everything that makes it outstanding.

That includes its otherworldly figures like White Jesus.  In a show that haunts one of its main protagonists with the ghost of a feckless warrior called William Knifeman (Dallas Goldtooth) and makes the vigilante spirit Deer Lady (Kaniehtiio Horn) a regular visitor several characters can see, why wouldn't some scraggly street guy actually be the son of God?

It's all part of the show's pragmatic treatment of life on the rez for its young characters and their elders. Although Bear, Elora, Willie Jack and Cheese are quick to remind their parents, aunts and uncles who treat them like children that they're 18 (or close enough) their exploits retain an innocence because their expectations are both romantic and childish.

Reservation DogsDevery Jacobs as Elora Danan, Paulina Alexis as Willie Jack and Lane Factor as Cheese in "Reservation Dogs" (Shane Brown/FX)Still, the best episodes of "Reservation Dogs" also focus on the men and women raising these kids and their gleeful reversion to their adolescent personas whenever they can. Season 2's "Wide Net" encapsulates this with buffoonish splendor as the four main mother figures in the show, Bear's mother Rita (Sarah Podemski), Bev (Jana Schmieding) Elora's aunt Teenie (Tamara Podemski) and Natalie (Nathalie Standingcloud) enjoy a girls' trip to the Indian Health Conference where their primary aim is to get lit and get laid.

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The Podemskis and Schmieding return in this new season, with Schmieding running away with the fourth episode so completely that you'll wish for someone to write a show just for Bev. Schmieding had a Peacock show, "Rutherford Falls," but her "Reservation Dogs" turn sells her as a compelling antiheroine game for just about anything. A dirty flirty exchange with Zahn McClarnon's Lighthorseman Big proves this beyond all doubt.

Foremost "Reservation Dogs" remains a story of manifesting a path forward in life and what we gain and lose in that.

Schmieding's Bev is one among many we wish we'd get to see more of, and maybe we will – we hope. While we're weeks away from saying a definite goodbye to this show, it's understandable to already miss the unique ways that it feels simultaneously common to the American working class experience and specific to this community and Indigenous. Like any version of the American story that runs concurrent to the white experience while contradicting what it holds to be the truth, it reflects what we know back to us from a viewpoint not commonly sought out or shared.

That may sound didactic — far from it. An upcoming episode depicting the anguished history of government-mandated Indian schools comes from a true and tragic place but shows it for the horror story that it was visually and tonally while flipping familiar genre tropes on their heads.

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Foremost "Reservation Dogs" remains a story of manifesting a path forward in life and what we gain and lose in that. With their California adventure complete, these next chapters circle back to Oklahoma where life as they know it and its accompanying consequences wait for the four friends.

Bear's journey home takes a detour partly guided by Goldtooth's spirit, whose main purpose is to frustrate and befuddle those unlucky enough to see him. But he also meets a couple of figures along the way who hint at how special he is even if the world doesn't see it.

Reservation DogsPaulina Alexis as Willie Jack, Devery Jacobs as Elora Danan, D'Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai as Bear, Lane Factor as Cheese and Elva Guerra as Jackie in "Reservation Dogs" (Shane Brown/FX)What that means is unclear, since Bear doesn't have any firmer sense of where he's going than the others do. But the plot teases a larger message reminiscent of so many heroes' journeys that end with the protagonist back where he started with a renewed appreciation of family and community.

No one aside from the cast and crew knows whether this is how their story concludes, but if it is, I doubt the writers will make that ending feel typical or reductive. Those terms could never be used to describe this show, which keeps finding new ways to nurture and break our hearts, and will probably maintain that trend right up to the finale's end credits.

The first two episodes of the third and final season of "Reservation Dogs" streams Wednesday, Aug. 2 on Hulu. New episodes premiere weekly on Wednesdays.


By Melanie McFarland

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

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Devery Jacobs Fx Jana Schmieding Paulina Alexis Reservation Dogs Review Sterlin Harjo Tv Zahn Mcclarnon