It is far more likely that a person encounters the FX series Reservation Dogs than reads what I have to say, but, if you haven’t, or haven’t watched, I’ll tell you what you’re missing. Tons of spoilers to follow.
I few days ago I took mushrooms. I’ve done this many times in my life. On the whole it has been pleasant, but there are times when it is very difficult and how you get through these difficulties is often revelatory.
One good strategy for navigating these difficult experiences is to think about a person, thing or event that you deeply love, at which point you (hopefully) receive a gift, which is an aching gratitude. This time it was Reservation Dogs that I held onto.
Big claim: Reservation Dogs is the most important thing on TV.
To speak about it broadly, it’s a comedy. It’s not just a comedy, but the first thing a viewer encounters is humor.
The chief protagonists are Bear, Willie Jack (played masterfully by Paulina Alexis, who I would happily watch eat potato chips for at least a half an hour) Elora Danan and Cheese, who are all hustling to put money together to leave their reservation hometown in Oklahoma for California, a place that the viewer senses they know not very much about.
It becomes clear almost immediately that they are living in the aftermath of the death of a close friend, Daniel. The viewer knows from the beginning that Daniel died by suicide, and this event is the crux of the story.
The viewer is primed for a conflict at the start of the season. There are other kids on the reservation who are direct competitors in the copper piracy and other petty crime that the protagonists engage in to fund their departure. Their clique is dubbed “the Reservation Dogs” by Mekko and Mose, hip-hop artist twins who cruise around the reservation on low-rider bicycles and who serve as a kind of informational conduit.
Where the show truly shines is in the fifth, sixth and seventh episodes.
A recurring member of the supporting cast is tribal patrol officer named Big. Big is a lot of things, but his two most obvious qualities are 1) that he’s kind, which makes him a bad cop, which makes him a good cop, and 2) that he’s pretty dumb.
In episode five Cheese goes on a ride-along with Big. Interspersed with their passage through the reservation are scenes from Big’s childhood, and this is one of the points at which the beautiful economy of the storytelling shines: In a few moments we understand that in childhood Big was a good boy who was raised by his grandmother. His recollections are focused on a thing that no one else saw (or perhaps noticed): A female hitchhiker with the hooves of a deer. Then, a pair of hooved feet appear below a bathroom stall to hand him toilet paper. And this hooved woman killed two men robbing the convenience store in which Big was picking up cigs for his grandma.
These recollections are interspersed with Big trying to impress upon Cheese the dubious glory of life as a “Light Horseman”. At the end of the episode, Big shares with Cheese the pivotal moment that set him on his path in life: At his grandmother’s funeral, at what is no doubt the crux of his young life, the Deer Lady taps him on the shoulder. She says that she grew up with his grandmother (which is a brilliant piece of writing- how deep does that go!), then asks him if he knows who she is.
“The Deer Lady,” he replies.
She asks him if he knows what she does.
“You kill boys,” he replies, fear all over him.
“No,” she says. “I kill bad men.”
She goes on to instruct Big, with a simple and elegant flourish: All Big has to do to never see her again is to be good. Then she takes off with another man in a fast car, presumably to take revenge on behalf of all the indigenous women who have gone missing on the roads of North America.
We viewers surface from this memory and Cheese circles the square for us: He tells Big that he thinks he’s alright. Not very brave, or smart, or cool, but alright, and this is the point. Big doesn’t need to be brave, or smart, or cool. Big does not need to be great. He needs to be good. That’s all that we can reasonably ask of anyone.
The episode ends with a funeral song, a group of men and women in the sun, singing for the passage of a person who was, if not great, then certainly good.
The episode that follows is tightly focused on Willie Jack. Up until this point we haven’t been given much insight into her. She is enigmatic in gender expression and in intent- whether she is incredibly ironic or incredibly sincere isn’t clear (or it wasn’t until I reflected on her age, and remembered that adolescence is a time in a human life when a person is both, often at the same time).
The opening scene consists her father encountering a very large bipedal humanoid covered in hair, with glowing red eyes. Then we turn to the present tense of the story.
Willie Jack rises before the sun is up, makes coffee, cleans a rifle, then gently wakes her father, who hesitates on the edge of his bed and tells her that he ‘isn’t feeling it.’ We get the sense that this is not just an early morning thing- he’s weighed down by something deeper. But Willie Jack insists and he acquiesces and then they are hunting in woods that no longer belong to them but to some shithead Texans.
Two related statements pass from Willie Jack to her father. The first is that she’s leaving- travelling to California to be, maybe, an MMA fighter, or a chef, or a dog trainer (at which point we get more insight into what a ‘reservation dog’ is). The second is that California was Daniel’s dream before anyone else’s. Emerging with these statements is the nature of their relationship to Daniel. He’s a blood relative. Her cousin. His nephew.
His pain surfaces. He is a good father. He knows that it isn’t his place to hold her back from anything. But it hurts, and so he tells her that the things she wants don’t have to happen in California. And he makes a beautiful and devastatingly true observation that many of us only realize in our best moments. When she asks what there is for her to do on the reservation, he answers: “There’s things to do here. You know, eat catfish and walk around… and you can ride your bike, and you know, just walk around, look at things…”
I mean, that’s it, right? What are any of us, all the way down, besides matter that has the opportunity to observe other matter? It’s hard to truly know that, and even harder to marvel at it, but it is a foundational truth, and it leads us into another truth, which is that they both truly and profoundly miss Daniel, for related but dissimilar reasons, illustrated in a flashback. They are out hunting the year prior, waiting in a blind. I’ve never hunted anything other than rabbits, and I failed at that, but I’m under the impression that it involves a lot of waiting. Daniel is making Willie Jack laugh, and making his uncle exasperated. There is the barely restrained energy that is addictive to the young and worrisome to elders- Daniel cannot take the tedium, and explodes in shouting that is unrestrained enough to make us worry.
Returning to the present, we see the two faces of pain. Willie Jack loved Daniel in the way that the young love their closest elders. It’s raw. Meaning and hope have been severely wounded and she wants to keep going down a road he barely described to her.
For her father the pain takes a different form. He says, “Goddam Daniel. I couldn’t help him in the way that he needed to be helped. Y’know, did I… did I fail him?” This is the question of an adult who is responsible. His pain is real but it is a real question to be answered. Willie Jack reassures him- he did his best.
That kind of death leaves us grabbing for a cause that satisfies. It is a profound failure, something deeply wrong in the world, and who exactly is responsible is never clear. They’re being dragged along in the wake of an event, a detonation casting their shadows on the wall. They grab onto each other. Things stop moving so fast. Some meaning is reestablished, and that large spirit in the woods serves as an anchor. It might be “Tall Man”, or it might be Daniel’s spirit.
This theme, the suicide, continues through the remainder of the season. We realize that Daniel’s desire to go to California may only have been voiced once, in his final hour with Elora Danan, before he passed his uncle as he walked to the place where he would hang, and that his friends grabbed onto it for lack of anything else to ground themselves in. Because they are, under all of it, still children. The agony and ambiguity of the suicide is impossible to grasp and they need to make sense of this event. And so for us, it is not enough to say that the world was too much, and it is not enough to say the world was not enough.
So yeah, I liked the show. Bonus: There’s no fight at the end. It deserves an Emmy for that too.