Season 1 of Seminole Nation showrunner Sterlin Harjo’s “Reservation Dogs” won a Peabody Award for not only being one of the very, very few authentic depictions of Native Americans on TV but also for presenting their lives in rural Oklahoma with real-world specificity while maintaining the deadpan humor shared by the show’s executive producer, Taika Waititi. Over eight episodes, Elora, Bear, Cheese, and Willie (Devery Jacobs, D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, Lane Factor, and Paulina Alexis, respectively) did their best to deal with the suicide of their best friend Daniel (Dalton Cramer), ending with Elora deciding to leave for California — just like Daniel wanted — while Willie Jack believed that the friends are cursed.
“Reservation Dogs” is still a comedy in Season 2, but as the Dogs seek individual identities the show shifts to a more downbeat tone. The first four episodes made available to press present a rapid descent into sadness: Willie Jack blames it all on “bad medicine,” but that same bad medicine plagues Elora and newfound friend Jackie (Elva Guerra), whose presumably life-changing trip to California isn’t what they’d hoped. Hell, even their clubhouse — where Daniel committed suicide — is about to be razed so a Texas rancher can build a megachurch.
Daniel’s death was the series’ inciting incident, but this year it’s all about the fallout. Hit hardest is Bear, the series’ de facto protagonist. His spirit, William “Spirit” Knifeman (Dallas Goldtooth) — the self-proclaimed warrior who didn’t fight at the Battle of Little Big Horn, but died there after his horse stumbled on a gopher hole — becomes a more frequent character with reminders that Bear is still acting very much like a kid and won’t move on until he processes Daniel’s death. He manages to speak with Daniel’s dad, who regrets his choices as a father. “It’s on the adults,” he said. “We didn’t see it.” He also says Bear should have gone to California: As the adults keep telling the kids this season, there’s nothing in Oklahoma. Best to make a clean break.
Not that Elora is having an easy time of it. Her path in the first four episodes is nothing short of wild, to the point that it threatens to dominate the series at the other characters’ expense. (Poor Lane Factor as Cheese does not get enough screentime!) She and Jackie end up having to hitchhike, leading to a series of bizarre encounters with white people, including a country-music loving religious nut named Victor, who may be trying to kill them. There’s a lot of moments on Elora and Jackie’s trip that feel isolated from the main series, akin to bottle episodes of “Atlanta.”
Elora is drawn back to Muscogee Nation for a funeral that forces her to open up and unleash all the sadness she’s felt over Daniel’s passing as well as the loss of her parents. Elora prides herself on being a loner, but what happens when you are all alone in the world?
While Elora is the season’s dominating force, some tertiary characters take a more central role. A subplot sees Elora’s Uncle Brownie (Gary Farmer) bar-fighter-turned-hermit team with Bucky (Wes Studi, who appeared in one memorable episode) as they discuss a legendary feud they’ve had for years and culminates with them singing Tom Petty by the water. In Episode 4, “Mabel,” the town’s residents come together to honor a life and it becomes an opportunity for the younger and older actors to represent the show’s generational impact.
For all of the mourning this season, it also carries an assurance as the creative team and actors inhabit their roles and the world they’ve created. The humor may take a backseat, but it’s in service of more complex storytelling. The Reservation Dogs may not know who they are yet, but this show certainly does.
“Reservation Dogs” airs every Wednesday starting August 3 on FX.