Valentine’s Day is a Holiday meant to express love and appreciation, and this Valentine’s Day I am sending all of my love and appreciation to FX’s underrated masterpiece Reservation Dogs. Created, written, directed, and produced by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi, Reservation Dogs tells the tale of four close knit indigenous Oklahoma teens trying, via a small-time crime spree, to honor the memory of the fifth member of their crew, Daniel (Dalton Cramer), who a year previous, fell victim to suicide. The Dogs chosen method of honoring Daniel is to and save enough money to leave their reservation (often referred to as The Village), move to California, and start new lives.
Funny, heartbreaking, risk taking, and inventive, Reservation Dogs is charming at every turn and each episode can be viewed as 25-minute short film. Odds are however, that you won’t see it as such, as once you watch, you will be hooked, and after you are hooked, you will binge.
And why exactly is Reservation Dogs so binge worthy? Primarily because of the perfectly cast group of leads whose characters are navigating teenage life while trying to process their grief as they barrel towards adulthood. Which is all to say that The Dogs’ on-screen experiences are as heartfelt, well written, and executed as anything in recent television history.
And I mean ANYTHING. Let’s meet the Dogs, shall we?
- Elora Danan Postoak (Devery Jacobs) – the Dog most intent on leaving the Village and mastermind behind their crime spree. Elora is also trying to find out details about her mother, affectionately referred to by everyone in the Village as Cookie, who passed away when Elora was three
- Bear Smallhill (D’Pharoah Woon-A-Tai) – A kind hearted and sheltered mama’s boy whose absentee father lives in California and whose attempts at leadership and masculinity are often met with humorous effects
- Chester ‘Cheese’ Williams (Lane Factor) – the most mature and intelligent member of the Dogs who is fond of pronouncing his pronouns and whose lack of family structure leads him into state mandated foster care
- Willie Jack Sampson (Paulina Alexis) – Daniel’s cousin and an emotionally mature tomboy with loving parents, Willie Jack, despite tough façade, is often the Dogs’ moral and emotional compass
As the Dogs turn to crime and away from each other to avoid processing their grief and sadness surrounding Daniel’s suicide, they embark on screwball adventures that introduce the viewer to an colorful secondary cast of characters including a rival teenage Village crew, a group of drug manufacturers and sellers who live, work, and operate out of a junkyard, a gossiping duo of brothers who are trying to break into the rap game, and children (who have their own children) who reside in a juvenile group home.
Oh yeah, cameos from Bill Burr, Megan Mullally, and Marc Maron certainly don’t hurt.
Reservation Dogs is revelation in the sense that there has never been anything on television quite like it. By focusing on life in the Village, the audience is treated to a cast of characters and experiences that have not been given screen time and in a refreshing twist, there are no ugly indigenous stereotypes previously presented on television and film. There are no Chief Wahoos, no Indian Princesses, no loyal sidekicks, and no peace pipes.
Although there is a lot of marijuana being smoked. And I mean A LOT.
Instead, the citizens of the Village are portrayed as a hard working, tight knit, familial group who look after each other. You know, like normal people.
Which is not to say the Reservation Dogs ignores the plight and hard ships of an economically surprised and historically marginalized (to put it lightly) race of people. Real life, low income struggles, such as the Village being a food dessert with high unemployment and crime rates are not shied away from, and are addressed, often in humorous, thoughtful, and touching ways.
Perhaps the only way these Village stories could be brought to life, while walking the line between sacred and sardonic, is because Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi both have indigenous roots and are gifted at what they do. In lesser hands, and/or in the hands of non-indigenous show runners, it is difficult to imagine Reservation Dogs succeeding in as many avenues.
For example, Village Lighthorseman, or patrolman, Officer Big (Zahn McClarnon), is less obsessed with catching the Dogs committing crimes, and more concerned with the sugar intake of the members of his community, calling the sugar intake ‘White Man’s Bullets’. He’s got a point.
Reservation Dogs also benefits from highlighting the spiritual and supernatural, as spirit guides and ancestral spirits lead the Dogs to enlightenment, a Big Foot type character is used for comic relief, and the Deer Lady saves the day on more than one occasion.
And nowhere is this element of the supernatural highlighted better and more intensely than in the penultimate episode of Season 2, which finds Willie Jack visiting her aunt (Daniele’s mother) in prison to present her with an unread letter Daniel wrote to his High School senior self as a freshman. In this episode, entitled Offerings, Daniel’s mother, who struggles with mental health issues, and whom also has not processed Daniel’s death, finds the strength to discuss his suicide and offer advice to Willie Jack, with the help of a spirit guide and an army of spirit ancestors who walked the Trail of Tears.
I don’t believe it to be hyperbolic to rate Offerings as one of the finest singular episodes of television in the last 10 years and the characters and stories presented in Reservation Dogs in nothing short of groundbreaking and deserve your love and appreciation this Valentines Day.
It beats the hell out of a sitting on your couch, alone in the dark, while you eat a heart shaped box of white man’s bullets.