It’s hard to believe that viewers will have to say goodbye to “Reservation Dogs” already. Premiering in 2021 on FX, it feels like we’re still just getting to know Elora (Devery Jacobs), Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), and Cheese (Lane Factor). There’s something to be said for creators like Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi being willing to end a show before it gets critically stale, but this one feels a bit more frustrating than the arguably short runs of 4-season shows like “Barry” and “Succession,” more like a story that’s being cut off before it’s really been told. Maybe that’s part of the point. Sometimes that’s what being young is like. This way we can imagine where these lives will go. It would be admittedly odd to see the “Rez Dogs” truly turn into adults and so there’s something to holding them in our minds at this turning point in their lives forever. And there’s every reason to believe that Harjo and his writers will close this series in a way that feels right. Every decision they’ve made so far has been the right one. But it still hurts.
The third and now final season of “Reservation Dogs” opens with the gang having made it to California, fulfilling the mission of Daniel to make it to the coast, but now with nowhere really to go next after they’ve spread his ashes. The premiere really centers the gang trying to get back home again, a journey made particularly difficult when Bear gets separated from the group. Teenie (Tamara Podemski), Elora’s aunt, travels all the way to California to get the kids, but Bear gets distracted again by the goofy “Spirit” (Dallas Goldtooth) in the bathroom at the bus stop and misses his way home.
Bear’s detour centers the first few episodes of the season, including a memorable pitstop with a loner named Maximus (Graham Greene) in the second chapter and a stunning encounter in the third episode with a “Deer Lady” (Kaniehtiio Horn), a vengeful spirit in the form of a woman with hooves. Alternating flashbacks to a school in which kidnapped Indigenous children were abused with Bear’s journey home makes for one of the best half-hours of TV this year anywhere. Horn is phenomenal as a mythical creature sent to avenge the sins of the past in an episode that may be the least traditionally funny thing to ever air under the banner of something called a “comedy.” (“Reservation Dogs” is another one of those excellent half-hour shows that feels like it defies simple genre classification.) But that’s one of the things that makes it special. One never knows where this show is going, but the writing is so confident that it all makes sense when it gets there.
That confidence in tone, character, and theme is what really places “Reservation Dogs” on the top tier of comedy of its generation. It can swing wildly from silly jokes to emotional coming-of-age character beats, and somehow make the transition feel seamless. So many comedies are desperately eager to please—hitting jokes in a way that feels like they’re begging for laughs or manipulating viewers for emotional responses that haven’t been adequately earned. There’s not an ounce of that in “Reservation Dog,” a show that’s effortlessly funny, smart, and moving.
Of course, a perfect ensemble helps. This is a show that often devotes entire episodes to one member of the Rez Dogs so it will likely balance out as the season progresses, but the first four episodes place a lot of narrative weight on the shoulders of D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, and he proves that he’s only gotten stronger as an actor over the run of the show. Devery Jacobs has arguably been the stand-out, but the truth is that picking only one performer misses the point of the series—these young people are stronger as a team than they are apart. And the consistency at the center of the show allows for guest stars to shine in roles that are often broader in comedy terms, including the extended family of this show in great bit players like Zahn McClarnon, Gary Farmer, Sarah Podemski, Jon Proudstar, and more. No one on this show steals focus, all working together to make the world around the Rez Dogs feel complete. The characters in this comedy feel like they exist between episodes, not just sent in by writers to sell a laugh or make a point.
It’s not just that “Reservation Dogs” tells stories that haven’t really been seen on television before—although that representation is, of course, very important—it’s that it does so with confidence and pride. While it may be coming to an end, it truly feels like people will catch up to this show over the coming years, growing its fan base and increasing its reputation. It may be writing its final chapter, but so many people have yet to watch it that it will continue to have an impact. It will grow almost like a story told in the community that has given it so much life. In that sense, it isn’t over. And yet it will still be missed. [A]
“Reservation Dogs” Season 3 debuts on FX on August 2.