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Critic’s Notebook: ‘Reservation Dogs’ Finale Caps an Unlikely and Magical Series to Cherish

My favorite scene in “Dig,” the series finale of FX’s Hulu series Reservation Dogs, finds Devery Jacobs’ Elora joining D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai’s Bear sitting by Old Man Fixico’s casket.

Bear is meditating on nothing less than the impermanence of life, which is also what Elora wants to discuss. Specifically, she has to tell Bear that she’s exiting their hometown, departing Okern and going to college. She knows, though, that Bear’s mother (Sarah Podemski’s Rita) has recently told him she’s taking a job in Oklahoma City. Everybody is leaving Bear, and Elora worries about how her friend will take the news.

The emotion is bursting out of Elora. She wants to explain, to apologize, to justify. Bear asks her to pause. She looks at him with concern. He looks down. Pondering. She’s wondering if Bear’s about to break down. We’re wondering if Bear’s about to break down.

“That’s awesome,” he finally says, choosing every word correctly, acknowledging the struggles Elora has gone through recently and the opportunities she now has. The dams of sadness and affection break in each of them.

It’s a beautifully performed scene from both actors, who casting directors should be falling over themselves trying to utilize for years to come. It’s a cumulative scene, reflecting on the distance the two characters have traveled over three seasons, from the desperate-to-leave kids we met in the pilot. But more on that in a second.

No, my favorite thing about this scene, which I assume will be many people’s favorite as well, isn’t an aspect anybody else is likely to love. It’s hardly even an aspect at all, more of an accent.

Elora asks if she can sit with Bear and he replies, “What’s up? What do you want to talk about?” In this moment, the Toronto-born Woon-A-Tai’s Canadian accent comes out in full force. “Abooooooot.”

Normally, things like this pull me out of a show in a negative way, but Woon-A-Tai’s small Canadian slip pulled me out of the finale — for a fraction of a second, but a real fraction — in the best way possible.

For one blink, I was reminded that Reservation Dogs didn’t just HAPPEN, that creators Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi didn’t simply stumble upon a group of friends in rural Oklahoma, though that’s where star Lane Factor is from, and document their lives for three years.

Woon-A-Tai is from Toronto, Jacobs from Quebec, Paulina Alexis from Alberta. Somebody — or multiple somebodies, starting with casting directors Angelique Midthunder and Jennifer Schwalenberg — had to find the show’s four stars.

Somebody had to conjure up reasons to make a show in which Zahn McClarnon, Gary Farmer and Wes Studi go fishing and just goof off for a full 30-minute episode. The magic of this show, or a part of the magic of the show, is that it has always given the impression of being the embodiment of the quote often attributed to Michelangelo — that a sculpture is already complete within the piece of marble, but it’s the artist’s job to find it and bring it forth.

But maybe the real task of an artist is to give the impression that creativity is this natural, so that people receiving the work can focus on the art and not get lost in the difficulty of the process. In the case of Reservation Dogs, that would mean relishing the 28 episodes immersed in the day-to-day experiences with these characters and in this location, not stepping back to ponder how unlikely a show with this level of Indigenous representation has been and how that’s a thing simultaneously to celebrate and bemoan.

Sterlin Harjo didn’t magically invent Native American storytelling or spawn this sprawling ensemble of talent exclusively himself. He just got the opportunity where few have before and he gave opportunities to others, allowing something wonderful to flourish. It shouldn’t take a stray “aboot” to bring that truth to the surface, but it was lovely to be briefly reminded before being pulled right back into the scene.

When it was announced, seemingly abruptly, that Reservation Dogs was ending after this last run of 10 installments, my only concern was whether or not Harjo had received the chance to conclude on his own terms, whether Reservation Dogs would have a finale that felt like a real finale or whether it would be something frustrating and truncated.

I needn’t have worried. “Dig” absolutely feels like a series finale. What’s interesting to me is that some series finales work by resolving the core dramatic concerns of the pilot, but that was really what was accomplished in the second season finale, “I Still Believe.” “Dig” resolves, in a thoroughly open-ended way, the overall concerns of the series that Reservation Dogs grew into after its pilot.

Go back and watch the pilot. Written by Harjo and Waititi and, like the series finale, directed by Harjo, it’s a wildly entertaining half-hour that introduces us to the Reservation Dogs — Elora, Bear, Cheese (Factor) and Willie Jack (Alexis) — as a quartet of fun-loving miscreants. One year after the death of their friend Daniel, they’re pulling various petty and not-so-petty crimes — hijacking a chip truck, stealing copper wire, heisting edible deliveries off of porches — in hopes of making enough money to leave Oklahoma behind and go to California.

“This place killed him, ” Bear says. “That’s why we’re saving our money, so we can leave this dump before it kills us too.”

For 15 minutes, the pilot of Reservation Dogs presents Okern, Oklahoma, as a place to be left, to be FLED.

But by the end of the pilot, Bear has had his first interaction with William Knifeman (Dallas Goldtooth), a spirit who died under inauspicious circumstances at The Battle of Little Big Horn and offers Bear semi-regular advice on masculinity, Indigenous identity and, most importantly, on community. By the end of the pilot, Bear has already begun to view Okern not as a place to leave, but as a place that needs to be fought for, with a new gang of hoodlums presented as a potential set of adversaries.

Although they briefly caused Bear to require medical attention in the second episode, that rival faction stopped really being a consistent adversary by the end of the first season. The NDN Mafia was, through the course of the series, assimilated into the Reservation Dogs. Jackie (Elva Guerra), their leader, was road-tripping with Elora by the start of the second season and by the finale, it appears that she and Bear are in some couple-type situation, which is definitely a form of resolution.

The Reservation Dogs eventually got to California in “I Still Believe.” That part was resolved. But then they came back. Though the Reservation Dogs harkened back to their criminal roots in “Send It,” earlier this season, the attempted prison break to get Graham Greene’s Maximus proved to be a misdirect. Most of the journey instigated in the pilot was not the journey that Bear or the rest of the series needed to take in “Dig.”

In the finale, Knifeman makes one last visit to Bear, who summons him by whistling in a graveyard. As has frequently been the case with the show, the spirit takes a meta approach to his wisdom. Knifeman asks Bear what he has learned from their interactions and Bear replies, “I’ve learned that I don’t gotta be the only leader and I’m from an amazing community and I’m just proud to be a part of it.”

If Okern was a place that needed to be escaped in the first act of the pilot, everything is more complicated by the finale. Elora and Rita are leaving, but not just to leave. They’re leaving for opportunity.

Willie Jack, following in the footsteps of Old Man Fixico and connecting to the wise words of Hokti (the great Lily Gladstone), her auntie and Daniel’s mother, is embracing her roots and is well on her way to becoming a student of the old ways and a community leader moving forward. Cheese, having been taken on that Farmer/Studi/McClarnon fishing trip earlier this season, is looking forward to being an elder (if anybody got a little short-changed by the finale, it was Cheese, though he got to whack White Steve in the face with a shovel, which was really funny). And Bear? Seemingly the main protagonist in the pilot, he isn’t sure. He’s taking a year to stay in Okern and assess his possibilities, but the idea that Okern offers possibilities is a sign of hope and progress for him.

That’s the wonder of the show’s journey and why it makes complete sense that Harjo was prepared to leave the story here. After a pilot characterized by cheeky pop culture references and an effectively broad sense of humor that only popped up sporadically thereafter, Reservation Dogs became a series without an objective as clear as “Let’s make money and move to California,” which has always made it more difficult to explain to outsiders. It’s also what made it a better series.

Like several other recently concluded FX shows that are its top-tier companions — Better Things and Atlanta come instantly to mind — Reservation Dogs became a show that, week to week, could be absolutely anything and could make any character in its stable into its complicated protagonist.

It could be a supernaturally tinged detour into the nightmare of Native American boarding schools (“Deer Lady”), a ’70s-set stoner flashback featuring possibly literal aliens (“House Made of Bongs”) or a deeply raw and emotional first meeting between a daughter and the father she never met (“Elora’s Dad”). And that’s just this season.

The world that Harjo built out gave him the opportunity to pay his own tribute to some of the best and most actively working Native actors in the business and, with the help of the aforementioned casting directors, to show that not only can you cast one show entirely with mostly unknown Indigenous performers, you could repopulate and expand that ensemble several times over.

The question that Hollywood executives should be asking going forward should never again be, “Is it possible to make a show like this with authentic casting?” but rather “Now that we have indisputable proof that this amazing and varied pool of performers exists, how are we going to give them more comparably outstanding work?”

The answer to that question lies in the ongoing employment of the roster of writing and directing talent that Harjo brought together, a cadre that starts with Harjo’s collaborators in the Native sketch comedy group the 1491s and includes breakout star Jacobs, who added both writing and directing credits — under her full name of “Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs” — by the third season.

In the pilot, Elora angrily declares “Fuck the village. Fuck the people in it,” and by the finale Harjo is giving viewers one scene after another to illustrate the affection and devotion that Elora and the show feel for the fictional village formed over these years.

It starts with the “elders” and the infectious pleasures that come from just watching Farmer, Studi and latecomer Graham Greene getting to crack jokes and imply decades of shared history. Or seeing McClarnon’s Big and Jana Schmieding’s Bev getting to play out the raunchy and hilarious burgeoning love story between them. It can be seen in the slightly younger generation, all of the aunties and uncle-cousins and friends who spent the finale making fry-bread and digging a grave and generally just embodying the values of this community. And it all comes back around to Willie Jack, Cheese, Bear and Elora Danan, given the freedom to decide if this life represents their past, their present or their future.

Because we have to classify things as “comedies” or “dramas,” we’ve had to pretend Reservation Dogs was simply a “comedy,” mostly because of its half-hour running time. And it is! “Send It” was hilarious. “Frankfurter Sandwich,” with the fishing and the farting, was hilarious. But “Elora’s Dad,” with its remarkably lived-in, never stunt-y guest turn from Ethan Hawke, offering clear ties to his Before trilogy, wasn’t so easily defined, nor was the haunting “Deer Lady” and nor was the finale.

Reservation Dogs was a series to treasure not as just one story or just one genre or just one tone or just one character’s journey. It was a series to treasure for everything that happened within it and everything that happened to make its existence even possible.

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