Early in the third and final season of FX/Hulu’s Reservation Dogs, Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai) finds himself peering up at a glittering night sky with Maximus (Graham Greene), the conspiracy theorist who’s temporarily taken him under his wing. “In order to observe the universe, you must put your back to the future and fix your eyes on the past,” Maximus advises him. “Celestial events that occurred long ago, we still see remnants of them. The universe knows. It always knows. We are just echoes of the things that came before.”
And though Maximus is a noted kook who spends his time growing eggplants in perpetual anticipation of alien visitors, his words in that moment ring true. Reservation Dogs has always been concerned with how histories, both personal and cultural, reverberate into the present and eventually the future. Its very premiere centered on the death a year earlier of the gang’s friend Daniel, with his absence as keenly felt as his presence must have been once. But while the universe may be infinite, TV series are not. In a superb final season, Reservation Dogs seizes the opportunity to impart some final bits of wisdom (some poignant, some uproarious) before we see the Rez Dogs off into adulthood.
‘Reservation Dogs’ Season 3
The Bottom Line A superb sendoff for one of TV’s finest series.
Airdate: Wednesday, Aug. 2 (Hulu)
Cast: D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, Devery Jacobs, Paulina Alexis, Lane Factor, Dallas Goldtooth
Creators: Sterlin Harjo, Taika Waititi
The third-season premiere is fairly conventional by Reservation Dogs standards, which is to say it’s still a zigzagging chapter narrated by William Knifeman (Dallas Goldtooth, who also penned the episode), Bear’s undistinguished and often unhelpful warrior of a spirit guide. (When Bear begs for some concrete advice, William shrugs, “I don’t like it either, but I gotta report to the spirit council.”) We find the Rez Dogs exactly where we left them at the end of season two — in Los Angeles, trying to figure out their next move — before the decision is made for them with the arrival Teenie (Tamara Podemski), the auntie assigned by the group’s very angry parents and guardians to usher them back to Okern, Oklahoma.
Cheese (Lane Factor) and Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), generally the most community-oriented of the group, board the bus, relieved to be going home. Elora Danan (Devery Jacobs) joins them because she doesn’t really have a choice, and doesn’t really seem to know where else she’d prefer to be anyway. And Bear, who’d been reluctant to return, totally means to come with them — but then gets waylaid in Amarillo when William appears in a bathroom to suggest his path lies elsewhere.
As ever, one of the chief pleasures of Reservation Dogs lies in its unpredictability. Though Sterlin Harjo’s dramedy maintains a consistent voice, with themes and storylines that recur throughout the run, its tone and perspective can vary wildly from week to week. I wouldn’t necessarily have predicted that episode two would open with a visit to the spirit world — represented here as the salt plains of Oklahoma, which director Tazbah Rose Chavez truly does make look otherworldly in their emptiness, their vastness and their blinding whiteness — but it’s exactly the sort of artsy, magical concept this series excels at bringing to life. Its prelapsarian starkness is later contrasted by Bear’s stay in Maximus’ cabin, so remote and isolated that it could be something out of a postapocalyptic drama.
The third outing takes an even bigger swing by nestling a detour within a detour. After Bear chances upon the Deer Lady (Kaniehtiio Horn), we delve into her formative childhood experiences at an Indian boarding school run by abusive nuns who whip the children for speaking in their native tongues or not working hard enough or simply for no reason at all. Harjo and director Danis Goulet deploy an array of tropes familiar from religious horror movies — English speech rendered demonic through reverse playback, crosses turned upside down with the flip of a camera — only here, the terror lies in the cruelty of regular human colonizers rather than in the supernatural. The Deer Lady, with her cloven hooves and bloodstained talons, is nowhere near the monster that the man who tore her from her home is.
It’s one of Reservation Dogs‘ most harrowing storylines (all the more devastating for being ripped from historical fact), and Horn plays movingly the fear and terror that haunt Deer Lady even decades later. But this has never been a series given to overindulging in pain and misery. In a surprisingly tender ending, she passes on to Bear the counsel she once received from another child at the school: “Remember to keep smiling,” she tells him. “They can’t stop you from smiling.” And as if in deference to her advice, the fourth and final installment sent to critics (out of 10) proves to be the most optimistic of the season so far. It begins inauspiciously for the Rez Dogs (plus their nemesis turned ally, Jackie, played by Elva Guerra), as they’re assigned menial tasks around the Indian Health Service clinic as overdue punishment for their unsanctioned jaunt to Los Angeles.
Over the course of the half-hour, though, we start to see hints of the futures they might be headed toward as they contemplate career paths and flirt over chores. Where they’ll ultimately end up is anyone’s guess. Particularly with Bear featuring so heavily early in the season, we get only fleeting glimpses of the paths that Cheese or Elora Danan or Willie Jack or Jackie are on, to say nothing of what the rich community of aunties, cousins and local oddballs surrounding them have been up to. Before they venture into the unknown, though, we’re treated first to the familiar sight of the Rez Dogs striding across the parking lot, chatting and laughing in a straight line as they’ve done so many times before. Maximus was right: The past echoes. In this case, it does so with joy and hope and endless reserves of love.