Part of what made “Reservation Dogs” one of the most exciting new shows of 2021 was the sense that anything could happen on the FX dramedy — a quality it shares with “Atlanta,” along with that series’ deceptively laidback sensibility and ability to establish a sense of place that goes beyond the geographical.
A storyline that might have seemed pleasantly aimless at first would veer into more urgent territory, and then loop back around to the amiable hijinks of the Rez Dogs themselves: Elora (Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs), Bear (D’Pharoah Woon-A-Tai), Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis) and Cheese (Lane Factor). The mundane could turn to the surreal; the transcendent, downright goofy. This was a coming-of-age story like no other, except when it was — coursing with alienation, frustration and all the feelings that the concept of “home” stirs up. And at the center of it all was the palpable heartbreak felt by four longtime friends dealing with the loss of their fifth (Dalton Cramer as Daniel).
Few series have arrived as fully formed as “Reservation Dogs,” a show that, by its nature, resists easy categorization. Brimming with Indigenous talent, it offers multidimensional stories and winning performances in place of the historically flat on-screen depictions of Native Americans. Harjo, who serves as showrunner as well as writer and director, could have taken his series in just about any direction for Season 2 and ended up somewhere rewarding. And he does expand the world of Okern, the fictional town in Oklahoma’s Indian Territory, to great effect, layering secondary characters, adding key new ones, and tapping into their rich, interconnected history, all without losing sight of the core quartet.
The central question of Season 1 was whether or not the four teens would make it to California, a move they were making in honor of Daniel, whose death by suicide they blamed on reservation life. Amid all the hustling and declarations of needing to be anywhere but there, the friends debated their group dynamic. Bear saw himself as the leader — why else would their rivals, the NDN Mafia, jump him? — which Elora and Willie Jack were quick to refute. But it was Elora who emerged as the Rez Dogs’ leader, taking charge of the money, determined to fulfill a promise to a friend and save herself from his fate.
Season 2 begins in the aftermath of a tornado, as the reservation deals with the surprisingly minor damage wrought by the storm. There’s considerably more fallout from a different type of maelstrom: Elora’s sudden departure with Rez Dogs nemesis Jackie (Elva Guerra), which has left Bear feeling bitter, Willie Jack, guilty, and Cheese in his usual state of affability. Though Willie Jack reluctantly declares Elora their “sworn enemy,” something that would have been unimaginable last season, life otherwise goes on in Okern: families struggle to make ends meet, the Indian Health Services clinic remains woefully underfunded, and out-of-state developers encroach on tribal land.
Harjo and his fellow writers — including Dallas Goldtooth, who turns in a riotiously funny performance as William Knife-Man, a long-dead warrior and Bear’s guide — deftly split the storylines, with Jackie and Elora embarking on an almost picaresque trip, while Willie Jack and Bear go on more figurative journeys. Bear tries on the mantle of “man of the house,” and (briefly) finds an unexpected mentor. Convinced that the curse she put on Jackie in Season 1 has been “flipped” onto the Rez Dogs, Willie Jack tries out increasingly unhinged ways to break it. Cheese is mostly on the sidelines in the four episodes screened for review, but he’s more than happy to help Willie Jack undo the curse.
The world of “Reservation Dogs” gets bigger, as the teens’ family members and other Okern adults come to the fore. Season 1 episodes “Come And Get Your Love” and “Hunting,” which offered a closer look at other residents like tribal cop Big (a hilarious Zahn McClarnon), laid the groundwork for this expansion. Now we get an even more detailed picture of the reservation and what — or rather, who — keeps it going. Hollywood (and even lots of literature) tends to depict Native American life as waning. Okern is beset with problems (most of them, the lasting consequences of colonization, which continues to rear its head), but Harjo and directors Erica Tremblay and Danis Goulét capture its vibrant, often messy life, making the question of leaving home or staying just as complex here as it was in the first season.
Season 2 further explores why someone would leave, why someone would stay, and why they might not have a choice either way. The seventh generation philosophy (an Indigenous concept that’s unfortunately been hijacked by cleaning product marketing) guides both the people of Okern, and the show’s storytelling. Bear and his friends are reminded throughout of their responsibility to each other, and how taking care of one another lays the foundation for future generations. But the adults also acknowledge their responsibility, as in one exceptionally moving scene with Daniel’s father, and the need to let the kids just be kids.
“Reservation Dogs” is anything but didactic in imparting these lessons — William Knife-Man and Big continue to be delightfully absurd in sharing their insights. The new season has fewer playful interactions between the Rez Dogs themselves, but it’s often even funnier than the first. There’s a moment late in the fourth episode, “Mabel,” (which Jacobs co-wrote) that will leave viewers wondering if McClarnon isn’t an ace improviser along with a reliably affecting actor. Then there are all the visual gags, like a car bursting into flames or a kid in a luchador outfit falling off a roof (both curse-related incidents, according to Willie Jack). An impromptu Tom Petty singalong adds an extra dose of whimsy at home, while guest stars like Megan Mullaly lend an unhinged vibe to the road trip story.
Their world is expanding and they’re at odds with each other, but the Rez Dogs remain the core of the series. Woon-A-Tai, Alexis, and Factor all shade their characters with their newly gained knowledge and the latest round of disappointment. Elora’s role as a leader (though not necessarily the group’s leader) is solidified, and Jacobs rises to the occasion with her, finding ever greater reserves of courage and vulnerability. As the season reaches its midpoint, it poses yet another question, one that could encompass the entire series: How do you reconcile your desires with your responsibilities, especially when you’re still learning what those are? If any show can figure it out, it’s “Reservation Dogs.”
“Reservation Dogs” Season 2 premieres with two back-to-back episodes on Wednesday, Aug. 3 on Hulu.