Reservation Dogs, a show created by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi, is unlikely to be replicated. This isn’t only because the show has continuously featured nuanced Indigenous people, which television should and should try to elevate rather than degrade, as it all too frequently does. Rather, it was the way these stories were portrayed in such a beautiful and daring manner that made them so constantly sublime.
Achieving more in a few seasons than many do in a decade, humorously examining adulthood’s expectations with boisterous wit in one episode and the emptiness of influencers in the next, each new layer peeled back revealed a work that was as effortlessly amusing as it was quietly illuminating.
It’s always been about luring us in with strange flourishes that may be as funny as they are heartfelt, never happy to play it safe and becoming all the better for it. Reservation Dogs will always and forever be at the ultimate peak with the very best of them as we look back on the great works of television from this era.
It was, in many ways, too wonderful for this world, but that didn’t make the announcement that this third season would be its final one any less sad. Still, given that the show appears to be ending on its own terms, it is difficult to imagine a greater way to bid farewell to some of the finest characters ever created for the screen. Though there is still much to come for the ragtag group of Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Elora (Devery Jacobs), Cheese (Lane Factor), Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), and the rest of the community living on the reservation in rural Oklahoma, the beginning of this end is already bright even as it delves even further into darkness.
Following the ending of the previous season, in which they successfully made their journey to California to bid farewell to the departing Daniel, the companions are now making their way back and rethinking their futures. Of course, in classic Reservation Dogs fashion, life is full of difficulties that are both sharply comic and gently heartbreaking, with the two intertwining into a beautiful tapestry of television whose only defect is that we’ll soon have to say our goodbyes.
We briefly catch up with the characters in California, thanks to a piece of narration from the series’ staple Spirit, deliberately represented once again by a wonderful Dallas Goldtooth (who also co-writes the season’s premiere episode with Harjo). That doesn’t last long, as they are rescued by Teenie (Tamara Podemski of the great Outer Range series and the forthcoming feature Fancy Dance), who is entrusted with bringing them all back home.
This does not go as planned, as Bear gets separated from the group after an occurrence that is acknowledged as a bit of a ruse with a playful wink. Many of the first four episodes seen by critics are centered on him, yet they never seem limited in their investigations. Rather, we are going to areas the series has never visited before, both physically and philosophically, while the plot continues to be an extension of what has come before.
In the second episode, written and directed by Tazbah Rose Chavez, we see Bear meet someone new in what begins on shaky ground. The new character, portrayed by the great Graham Greene (who is always a delight, even in little roles — like when he just featured in The Last of Us), is a lonely one who is facing problems on his own.
Even though this might easily be played for laughs via Bear’s eyes, Greene adds a calm elegance to the performance that cuts deep the longer we get to sit with him. It establishes the tone for a steady development of episodes that aren’t hesitant to drive us further into sorrow while never losing sight of the comedic moments that accompany them.
This also features the series’ darkest episode to yet, in which we get a better look at the backstory of the Dear Lady, who has always been an important but mysterious component of the plot. Rather than depriving her of her mystery, this journey into her background is adequately informative while keeping crucial components secret. Kaniehtiio Horn brings her back to life with exquisite composure, and she bursts off the screen even when she is eating pie alone.
When Bear finds her on his way back home, he becomes unintentionally entangled in her current quest. While the flashbacks that inform this are heartbreaking in their exploration of the past tragedies perpetrated by boarding schools, the episode is honest without ever becoming overdone. Even the usage of sound, as characters talk in a warped language our heroes don’t comprehend, as well as the twist on a familiar tune, succeeds because of the attention to detail.
It thus serves as a nice contrast to when Bear returns home and everything appears to return to a more ludicrous sense of normalcy. The fact that the show can go through such drastic tone shifts without losing its grip is a credit to how well-written and played all of these characters are. Even a ridiculous dialogue between Big, portrayed with great gusto by Zahn McClarnon of Dark Winds’ outstanding forthcoming second season, and Bev, played by a happy Jana Schmieding of Rutherford Falls, crackles with hilarious intensity. As we build to a finale that is building up to be something remarkable, there is never a wrong note.
Even while there is a recurring sense that this final chapter might have been the beginning of so much more, there is also a sense that we are winding down to something magnificent. As this narrative comes to a close, Reservation Dogs is as sharp, smart, and empathetic as ever. While we wish it could continue, we will treasure it anyway. What a genuine television gift this show has been. From the beginning, when these teenagers hurtled down the road in a stolen chip truck with sparks flying behind them, until the present, it has never been anything less than visionary in a media landscape starving for it.