Reservation Dogs Season 1 Discussion: Skoden
The plot summary for Reservation Dogs season 1, as I’ve shared here a few times, is simple. It’s a show that, according to the official description, “…follows four Indigenous teenagers in rural Oklahoma as they steal, rob, and save to get to the exotic, mysterious, and faraway land of California.” That’s basically true, although as it’s a logline, it’s unsurprisingly facile. How the story actually plays is a bit more complicated. And a lot more special.
Reservation Dogs Season 1 Plot Recap (Spoilers to Follow)
Again, I feel like I’ve written this so many times that I could write it in my sleep. But here we go, one more time. Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-a-Tai), Elora Danan (Devery Jacobs), Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), and Cheese (Lane Factor) are the Indigenous teenagers the show follows. The show isn’t explicit at first about why they want to go to California so bad, though. However, this kind of longing for escape is not Native-specific. I’d wager you could find it in any small town in these United States.
Alexis and Jacobs, image via FX on Hulu
Anyway, at first, the show presents California as the unfulfilled dream of their late friend Daniel (Dalton Cramer). That isn’t exactly true, though. Just as we find out more about what befell Daniel, we find out that California was just a passing mention. He certainly didn’t plan for it or work for it like the friends he left behind. It seems to be just one of many things for which Daniel desperately grasped in the time before his death.
And while the circumstances of his death are unfortunately unsurprising, that doesn’t make it any less devastating when it unfolds. Like too many Native kids, Daniel died by suicide. Elora Danan was the one who found him. It appears that in her grief, she’s trying to do what she thinks he wanted. However, the rest of the kids, while also grieving, are clearly divided in their willingness or reasons to leave the only home they’ve ever known.
So it’s equally unsurprising when Willie Jack, for instance, backs out. After all, she’s not running from anything. She has a stable home with a supportive mom and dad, the latter of whom points out that anything she wants to do with her life, she can try in their community first. In this, it might seem as if the show is being reactionary, trying to discourage kids from spreading their wings.
But it’s of a piece with what William Knifeman tells Bear in the Reservation Dogs series premiere episodes: “We died for our people. We died for our land. What are you gonna do?” If you’re a Native born into a Native community, then that connection can never cleanly break. History inextricably links you forever and as such, you’ll always feel a responsibility to make a stand for your people.
So what will that mean for Elora Danan, who does leave town at the end of season 1? It’s unclear right now, of course, but given that she’s leaving with former rival Jackie (Elva Guerra), there are some hints. For one thing, Elora sure didn’t look that happy when Jackie mocked the rest of the Rez Dogs, or Uncle Brownie (Gary Farmer), for that matter. Feeling adrift in the world, she’s obviously searching for some meaning and stability. She might find out, though, that there’s no place like home.
Now Let’s Talk More Even More Specific: What’s the Matter with Daniel?
(CW: Suicide) We start seeing snippets of Daniel in flashback, most notably in the episodes “Hunting” and “California Dreamin’.” In the former episode, he’s, well, hunting with Willie Jack and her dad, Leon (Jon Proudstar), when he becomes agitated. He plays it off like it’s boredom, but his reaction is over the top. As for Willie Jack and Leon, their reactions tell us a lot. While they seem mildly concerned, they also don’t seem shocked. They’re more resigned to it, as if this were just what Daniel does. I don’t know if the show is hinting at a more complicated mental illness here, or if Daniel just has the depression that just seems to come with being Indigenous.
There is something missing in him, though, a hole he cannot figure out how to fill. And I really appreciate that the show depicts the helplessness others feel when they can’t reach someone in this situation. Leon, for instance, remembers Daniel stopping by the house just before he died. You can see it on Leon’s face, both the horror he feels that he didn’t see what was coming, and the guilt from not doing more.
At the same time, we see in Elora Danan’s episode, “California Dreamin’,” that Daniel was maybe already gone by then. It’s realistic that he would idly dream of California when he “can’t go home.” But when you’re depressed, it’s easy to let those kinds of fantasies (and everything else) crumble into dust. Everything is just too much. And while Daniel’s descent is painful to watch, it’s also sadly accurate.
(Native kids–and others–please don’t go. Please ask for help if you need it.)
Too Rez for You, Bro: The Distinct Indigenous Joys of Reservation Dogs
As I mentioned in that review of the season premiere, it felt like a revelation to hear TV characters use Native slang and Native languages like it’s normal (because it is). That feeling only persisted throughout the season, as the show sprinkled in little bits of Native lore like they were Easter eggs for Indians. In episode 3, “Uncle Brownie,” for instance, the kids (save Cheese) visit the titular character, Elora’s semi-relative.
As they approach Brownie’s house, they’re horrified to find out that he has one of those owl decoys hanging outside. They shade their faces from it. When the show gives it a close-up, it blurs out the decoy’s eyes. Reader, I wheezed for seconds on end. You see, while beliefs vary from nation to nation–what you would probably call “tribes”–owls are (generally) bad luck. You don’t want to look at one and you don’t want it to look at you, even if it’s fake.
Horn and Bodhi Okuma Linton, image via FX on Hulu
And while I called stuff like that (and the Tall Man and Kaniehtiio Horn as the Deer Woman) Easter eggs, that attention to detail doesn’t just feel like fun little tidbits. It feels like love, like Sterlin Harjo, who wrote the episode, wanted his Native viewers to feel seen. (As I mentioned in the piece on the show’s renewal for season 2, though, we could use more of that for Black Natives.)
A Few of My Favorite Things in Reservation Dogs Season 1
Because that’s the real Indigenous joy of watching this season–seeing things I’ve never before seen on TV, but that I recognize immediately. There’s Rita’s (Sarah Podemski) hook-up with David (Garrett Hedlund), for example. At first, he seems like a catch, but the adventure quickly devolves as she realizes he’s basically a fetishist. Unfortunately, this was not an unfamiliar scenario for me.
At the same time, though, while that’s a precise experience, there are others on the show that are more general. Still, though, they just feel good and right. I’m thinking, for instance, of when we meet Bucky (THE Wes Studi) in episode 5, “Come and Get Your Love.” There’s nothing particularly noteworthy about watching him chat with Big (Zahn McClarnon) and Cheese, who’s on a ride-along. It’s just three dudes talking. But to my three-sizes-too-small heart, watching some Native guys on a TV show just shoot the shit is everything.
Studi and McClarnon, image via FX on Hulu
I had a similar feeling watching the next episode, “Hunting.” Again, it’s not a ground-breaking plot–it’s Willie Jack, who quickly became my favorite character, going deer-hunting with her dad. But again, it made me feel seen. Because whenever I meet people who know my dad, they always mention hunting. Why? My daddy freakin’ loves going hunting.
He also loves fishing–he shot the cover photo for the January 2021 issue of The Angler (Atlanta) magazine–and I could definitely see him trying to sell me on my hometown by telling me I could do things like “eat catfish and walk around.” So in that, for the first time, I can see the people I know and love truly reflected in a TV show. I can see myself. And if you’ve always had that, then you can’t possibly understand what it feels like. But to me, it’s something like magic.
Reservation Dogs will return for season 2. Season 1 is now available in full through FX on Hulu. Stoodis.
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featured image via FX on Hulu
Salomé Gonstad is a freelance writer who grew up in the swampy wilds of south Alabama. When she's not yelling about pop culture on the internet, she's working on a supernatural thriller about her hometown. Also, we're pretty sure she's a werewolf. Email her at [email protected]