Editor’s Note: Spoilers for the season finale of “Reservation Dogs” Season 2 are included.
The sophomore season of Sterlin Harjo’s “Reservation Dogs” felt a lot like the final season of “Atlanta,” with an emphasis on strong bottle episodes that ultimately compelled the Res Dogs to seek their own individual identities. But the season finale, appropriately titled “I Still Believe,” ultimately drew the foursome back together to find strength and faith in their friendship. A trip to California, a meeting with white Jesus, and a trip to the beach was enough for the Res Dogs to finally close the chapter on what sparked the series in the first place and enter Season 3 with an entirely clean slate. That’s exciting.
Having Bear, Elora, Willie Jack, and Cheese (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, Devery Jacobs, Paulina Alexis, and Lane Factor, respectively) have an imagined seaside reunion with Daniel (Dalton Cramer) was a strong decision. The first season mourned the immediate loss of their friend, while simultaneously having them critique how much of Daniel’s unhappiness was because he lived on the reservation.
“We can’t have the whole show every season be about them trying to get to California,” co-creator Sterlin Harjo told IndieWire, and while that’s true by Season 2, it became apparent that leaving the res wasn’t the answer for the characters. Fans have had glimpses into Daniel’s fractious home life before, and after watching the final two episodes of Season 2, it’s obvious that none of the group will ever know Daniel’s motivations for ending his life, but California might not have saved him at all. This awareness is never spoken, but watching Season 2 it’s obvious the friends needed to find their own goals and individual dreams that might, or might not, be in their own hometown.
Harjo said it wasn’t enough to keep grief at the center, and it’s the best move the show could take. No doubt Daniel’s death will always be at the periphery of these character’s mind, as it is in life, but this season felt firmly about the future, not the past. The Res Dogs will now enter their senior year, and Bear’s outburst that he wants to stay in California will no doubt be a large influence on Season 3. It’s actually ironic that Season 2 started with Elora having an aborted trip to California and culminates with Bear being the one to decide to stay. “That’s where we’ll find them in the next season, almost on an individual journey. They’re a group but it’s continuing to deepen and really look at their individual arcs,” said Harjo.
When a series transitions out of high school and into the real world it’s always tricky. Maybe because, as an audience, the nostalgia of high school and the multiple possibilities are better than the mundane things we actually do as adults. This season gave us a little bit of that, with Elora now living on her own and starting to make her own decisions with her grandmother’s house and Bear getting a job. Life will inevitably pull these friends apart, but how will the series navigate making the struggles of getting a job, paying bills, and crafting an adult life interesting? It could be by making a bigger effort to examine issues on Indigenous reservations. The series has always been able to balance social commentary with humor, though less so this season than in Season 1.
It’s exciting to see “Reservation Dogs” enter Season 3 with a clean slate. This past season stretched and showcased powerful individual acting, particularly in “Mabel,” the episode co-written by Jacobs, and “Offerings,” focusing on Willie Jack. Where Indigenous women are slowly getting opportunities to overturn the narrative of being perpetual victims on television, “Reservation Dogs” gave them opportunities to be strong, funny, and messy. On top of that, pulling the foursome apart gave actors like Alexis and Factor, who felt more peripheral in Season 1, opportunities to illustrate their acting skills. As the new season starts, no doubt new friends will continue to shape the characters and compel the actors to hone their skills to suit.
The possibilities seem endless for Season 3 of “Reservation Dogs.” They also feel hopeful. Where the first two seasons were an intense, if comical, exploration of grief and loss, the group had to move on at some point in order for them (and the show) to grow. That individual and collective growth will no doubt fuel another season that’s equal parts wacky and insightful.
Additional reporting on this story contributed by Eric Kohn.