Early on in Reservation Dogs’ season-two premiere, we peek in on Jackie and Elora, who are road tripping cross-country to Los Angeles together, the pair having made good on Elora’s plan to get out of town last season. They make a quick stop for gas only to be inundated by two massive stereotypical images of Natives: Outside the store sits a wooden “cigar-store Indian” making a salute and wielding a tomahawk at folks driving up, and behind him stands a plastic tepee. Inside the store, it’s even worse. It’s a straight-up Dances With Wolves acid trip: scary uncanny-valley-looking toy babies dressed in a mishmash of neon “regalia,” dreamcatcher replicas, acid-wash T-shirts adorned with stoic braves backed by howling wolves, and all of it watched over by a giant “authentic” headdress (great for Coachella). The sequence is striking. It’s one of those moments that (as a Native viewer especially) you suddenly find yourself holding your breath. All the robust, unique, life-giving elements of Indigenous cultures are reduced to a mishmash of cheap trinkets, now available for you to consume alongside your slurpee and beef jerky.
Wall to wall, the gas station is brimming with the very kind of simplistic, debasing representation of Indigenous peoples that Reservation Dogs satirized and challenged in its first season. And I’m glad to be able to write that in the year following the first season’s release, the show has been suitably rewarded for its efforts. Since the show’s initial premiere in August of last year, the series has received an AFI Award for Best TV Program of the Year, two Independent Spirit Awards (for Best Scripted Series and Best Ensemble Cast in a New Scripted Series), a Gotham Award for Best Shortform Breakthrough Series, a Peabody Award, and countless other nods and nominations for its grounded, honest depiction of Indigenous life from an Indigenous perspective. Reservation Dogs, along with recently released shows like Rutherford Falls, Dark Winds, Mohawk Girls, and Chambers, have helped facilitate a huge shift in American popular culture. (If you like this show, you should go watch all of these series right now, FYI!) And all this despite the ill-guided efforts of some critics to want to label the growing wave of Indigenous-led series a “microgenre.” (What does that even mean?! Gross! So gross!)
As Elora and Jackie exit the store, they exchange a knowing nod with another car full of Native teens, a look conveying in all its brevity the jumbled-up feelings of simultaneous hope, exhaustion, and acknowledgement that, yes, things are really messed up (and have been for a long time) but that maybe, just maybe, if we all keep pushing, it can get better soon, right? It’s the exhale after you’ve been holding your breath for so long. It’s these kinds of moments that kept me thinking about Reservation Dogs long after the end of season one, and so to see the series off to another strong start just makes me wanna shout a big SKODEN. Reservation Dogs is back! And I’m so glad.
A major theme of this episode is transformation, but not in the cool, positive-growth sense. It’s more like transformation when the ground gives away too fast right under your feet, and our main characters are struggling to find a safe place to stand. Last season centered the group’s various reactions to the suicide of their friend Daniel. This season, the material links they had to Daniel are slowly disappearing: Daniel’s father has moved away, and the old building hideout where the gang made a memorial for their friend has been torn down in order to make room for a megachurch. These events hit Bear especially hard, and he spends most of the first episode walking around in a total daze, slowly falling further out of touch with Willie Jack and Cheese. Spirit appears again to remind him that he needs to “grow up” and to start “working for the people,” but Bear doesn’t seem ready to process it all quite yet. It’s not clear yet whether Bear literally just can’t perceive that he has new adult responsibilities he needs to own up to, or if he just doesn’t want to take charge of his life yet.