Reservation Dogs’ Third and Final Season Is a Loving Last Glance at Okern

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Reservation Dogs’ Third and Final Season Is a Loving Last Glance at Okern

The Rez Dogs have learned the truth the hard way: the magical, faraway land of California will not solve all their problems and make all their dreams come true. A stolen car, a visit with White Jesus, and one very cathartic swim in the ocean later, the teens are broke and stranded in California when the third and final season of FX’s Reservation Dogs begins. 

Throughout the first two seasons, Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Elora (Devery Jacobs), Cheese (Lane Factor), and Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis) are pushing their boundaries and trying to walk away from all the things keeping them in Oklahoma. But their family ties are like bungee cords, stretching and stretching until they inevitably snap back into place. The history of their hometown overwhelms each of the teens, and by the time they leave for California, the only thing they can imagine is running away from it all. The series navigates universal coming-of-age themes, like Elora’s contemplation over whether college is right for her, and still represents this specific Native American town with remarkable granularity. 

The gang might be starting to heal from the loss of Daniel, but there’s still a deep current of pain running through them and their families. Despite the series being billed as a comedy, it’s impossible to explore the richness of this—or any—Native American community without addressing the underlying pain and violence that white Americans have inflicted. Reservation Dogs has always balanced humor and heartbreak with stunning clarity. In Season 3’s third episode, “Deer Lady,” we witness mere moments in the long and bleak history of boarding schools in this country: kidnapped children forced to watch their own graves being dug, nuns screaming in indecipherable languages, physical and emotional cruelty designed to crush any sense of pride or personal identity. Shown through color-faded memories, we’re spared some of the worst violences, left imagining the further horrors inflicted on so many young children in our country. This kind of unflinching representation is the key to Reservation Dogs’ singular appeal. 

Whether spoken aloud or felt in the silence from lost loved ones, shared grief unites everyone living in Okern, and the teens feel the history weighing on their families in each story their grandmothers, uncles, or mothers tell them. Reservation Dogs doesn’t pose their desire to leave the reservation as an abandonment, but as a way of compartmentalizing the overwhelming heartache. There’s simply too much to remember here, too many faces that never came home, too many ghosts hiding behind every dark corner. But they’re growing up now, and as they arrive back in their hometown, they’re starting to realize the only way to dampen that pain is by staring right into it.

Throughout the four episodes made available for review, the primary cast of young actors are still consistently amazing, but further extension of the cast has solidified the heart of the series. A celebration of Indigenous actors, the ensemble cast boasts real-life sisters Sarah and Tamara Podemski (Anishinaabe/Ashkenazi), Lily Gladstone (Blackfeet, Nimíipuu), Jana Schmieding (Cheyenne River Lakota), and Kaniehtiio Horn (Kanien’kehá:ka). Horn has always been memorable as the mystifying Deer Lady, but her haunting role this season is worthy of extra praise. In addition to these formidable, hilarious, affecting matriarchs, there are so many more actors breathing life and energy into the series, like Jon Proudstar, who plays Willie Jack’s father, Leon. The depth of these characters builds up the realization of the fictional but utterly familiar small town of Okern, Oklahoma. 

While the undeniably charming community has felt lived-in from Episode 1, by now we feel like we are an integral part of the small-town antics, too. This feeling comes in part from the breadth of Indigenous voices that have come together behind the scenes to create this series. Historic for many reasons, Reservation Dogs is a truly one-of-a-kind production: every episode is written, directed, and produced by Indigenous creatives, in addition to its cast of all-Indigenous series regulars. 

As I think about the legacy Reservation Dogs will leave behind, I will remember the joy and care that surged through every character, every costuming choice, every on-site location in Muscogee Nation. I will remember the sorrow and the sadness that propelled the series, but I will remember the palpable sense of love that came out of it. Co-creators and executive producers Starlin Harjo and Taika Waititi have fostered an amazing team over the years, and they brought such a powerful series to life—one that will be dearly missed as this final season comes to an end. 

The final season of FX’s Reservation Dogs premieres August 2nd on Hulu.

Kristen Reid is a writer, covering television for Paste Magazine and Vulture. She’s been known to spend too much time rewatching her favorite sitcoms, yelling at her friends to watch more TV, and falling in love with fictional characters. You can follow her on Twitter @kreidd for late-night thoughts on whatever she’s bingeing now.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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