In the debut season of the Taika Waititi and Sterlin Harjo-created FX series Reservation Dogs, we got to see the richly realized characters of Elora (Devery Jacobs), Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Cheese (Lane Factor), and Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis) all hanging their hopes on the goal of going to California. It provided a captivating, yet somber, core to the show as we began to realize this was not actually their dream. Instead, it was one held by their departed friend Daniel (Dalton Cramer) that the friends had rallied around as an unspoken act of remembrance. Even with all the wonderful side stories and characters we got introduced to, this was the thing the group was all looking ahead towards. However, when a big storm complete with a tornado and enormous hail swept through their Oklahoma reservation, many reevaluated what they wanted to do. It became clear not all of them were ready to leave their home. Now, in Season 2, we pick things right up where we left off with the characters scattered and separate from each other. Elora has hit the road with the group’s once-enemy Jackie (Elva Guerra), leaving Bear profoundly hurt after being left behind by his closest friend.
While this significant shift in the story makes the season’s first two episodes a bit uneven, it is done in a manner that serves a purpose. There had always been the painful yet poetic feeling that this journey may be a pipe dream of young kids seeking escape from both their past and the future facing them down. All the plans and schemes they hatched to get the money to get there were entertaining, though ultimately wrapped in a suffocating sense that it may be unattainable. When we see Elora and Jackie encountering those struggles head-on outside the only world they’ve ever known, it can feel quite grim in a way the show doesn’t entirely have a handle on. One moment where they are chased by men on trucks evokes some rather horrific imagery, leaving a reeling feeling about where this is all going to go. It hammers home that such travel is not without risk even as the tone and music to the scene feel slightly out-of-step with what we’re seeing play out. Thankfully, the show quickly hits its stride once more and proves that it remains as riveting as ever in the quieter character moments that cut through the noise.
What makes this second season of Reservation Dogs such an achievement once more is how it quietly sneaks up on you with both joyous jokes and more ruminative reflections. Getting to spend time with these young kids as they grow provides plenty of opportunities for heartfelt humor as well as more emotional exploration. Of the four episodes given to critics, it is the third and fourth episodes where we really begin to see the show getting back to this strong sense of tone that offers a promising glimpse of the story ahead. Most interestingly, each of these episodes is almost entirely confined to a single setting without ever feeling restricted. One involving Bear takes place primarily on a roof with a delightful appearance by a certain viral skateboarder who fits right into the story. The sharply written dialogue combined with delicate pacing found in these episodes is where the show manages to be both silly and sentimental. It can go from a comedic conversation in neighboring portable bathrooms with Dallas Goldtooth as the sassy Spirit to ones where Bear begins to understand more about himself. The comedy and drama shift from one to the other with ease, capturing the slice of life experience of growing up perfectly. It is a show overflowing with charming and charismatic characters that you could spend ten seasons with only to wish for ten more.
In the fourth episode, we get to see all of these characters new and old gather under one roof. Not only is there the great supporting actor Zahn McClarnon, who was also recently remarkable in the intriguing series Dark Winds, but there is a familiar face I won’t give away here that viewers of the underrated show Outer Range will recognize. All the joy you feel in the texture of the conversations and interactions these characters have is delicately tempered by a looming loss. It creates a beautiful sense of balance as people reunite and join in the community while all knowing what is coming. This episode, one of its very best yet, also serves as a perfect encapsulation of what the show does so well. It can bring in a variety of characters with vastly different personalities and make everything feel so alive that you can’t look away from any of them for even a second for fear of missing out on a great moment. When characters run around the back of the house or all gather in a bedroom, the storytelling feels so naturally honest that you almost feel like you are seeing a real family gather together. It all comes together to gently yet firmly grab you, ensuring you are along for the ride no matter where these characters end up going next.
Where that next destination is remains an open question that the show is rightfully posing. Bear in particular has a lot of growing up to do and the way the show navigates his self-discovery continues to be quite compelling. Part of this is that Woon-A-Tai has similarly grown as an actor, hitting more subtle notes with just a simple change of expression. Jacobs is similarly strong in every scene, capturing the overwhelming sadness and uncertainty that has dominated almost all of Elora’s life. When the show slows down and lets each of these young actors shine, it really makes for something rather special. One moment in particular that Elora has to herself in the yard outside makes use of perfectly timed jokes that enhance the crushing loss that she is facing down. Frequently, the way the show uses magical realism further enhances the development of its characters. Whereas last season contained one such moment with what clearly felt like a reference to the film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Season 2 of Reservation Dogs offers up a vision all its own that feels more unclassifiable. What makes this all work is how the rich characters are interwoven into everything, drawing us deeper into what is both a gorgeous and tragic tapestry of their lives that are still unfolding before us.