‘Reservation Dogs’ Was a Coming-of-All-Ages Masterpiece

Where do you find enlightenment? In a meditation room? On a solitary mountaintop? The series finale of “Reservation Dogs,” FX’s astonishing series about Native teens and elders in rural Oklahoma, dispenses a great truth of life from a prison vending machine.

Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), despondent over the death of Old Man Fixico (Richard Ray Whitman), the medicine man she briefly apprenticed with, visits her incarcerated aunt Hokti (Lily Gladstone). Studying Fixico’s “wizard ways” had given Willie Jack purpose; now she feels lost, cut off after too little time with him.

Hokti opens a bag of Flaming Flamers chips, setting one aside as an offering to the spirits, and starts arranging other snack-machine treats around it in a circle. Fixico, she says — indicating the bag of chips — is gone but also not gone. Inside him, he carried pieces of everyone he ever knew. And everyone who knew him — she places a single chip on each of the arrayed containers — now has something of him.

“That’s how community works,” she says. “What do you think they came for when they tried to get rid of us? Our community. You break that, and you break the individual.”

That, in turn, is how “Reservation Dogs” works. In its irreverent cosmology, the sacred is inseparable from the mundane, profundity from comedy, spiritual sustenance from junk food. And its finale, which arrived Wednesday on Hulu, capped three too-short but brilliant seasons that depicted a community as a living organism.

When I reviewed “Reservation Dogs” in its second season, I called it a coming-of-age story, which is both accurate and, in retrospect, misleading. It’s true that it focuses on four teens in small-town Oklahoma — Willie Jack, Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Cheese (Lane Factor) and Elora (Devery Jacobs) — at a crucial moment in their development.

But “coming-of-age story,” as it’s usually imagined in American pop culture, carries some assumptions that “Reservation Dogs,” created by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi, gloriously confounds. That type of story tends to focus on young people among other young people, discovering what makes their generation distinct from others, rebelling against family and elders.

In “Reservation Dogs,” maintaining and restoring the bonds among generations — the young and the old and even the long-dead — is itself a radical act.

The series is rooted in a broken connection between the four youths and their friend Daniel (Dalton Cramer) — Willie Jack’s cousin and Hokti’s son — who committed suicide. But Daniel is not the only loss the core group has suffered. Bear is estranged from his father, an aspiring rapper who left the family. Cheese is growing up without his parents. Elora, maybe the most unmoored of all, recently lost her grandmother, who raised her after her mother died and her father left town when she was small.

The defining theme of the final season is that these broken generational bonds are more than individual misfortune. They are the legacy of a colonial strategy.

This is terrifyingly clear in the origin story of Deer Lady (Kaniehtiio Horn), an avenging spirit with hoofed feet who punishes abusers. Generations ago, we learn, she was a Native girl forced into a boarding school (a setting also examined recently in the “Yellowstone” prequel “1923”). The nuns in charge speak an English that is rendered, horror movie-style, as a harsh gibberish, and they violently punish the children for speaking their own language.

If you want to make a people forget who they are, you cut them off from who they were. This is the injury that “Reservation Dogs” works to reverse. In style, it has a lot in common with comedy-drama hybrids like FX’s “Atlanta.” But where that series became increasingly eclectic and anthology-like over its run, “Reservation Dogs” stayed rooted, building out its setting and library of characters like a cycle of connected short stories — or, maybe, a cultural restoration project.

Another Season 3 flashback revisits the last day of boarding school in 1976, when some of the series’s elders, still teenagers, are dropping acid. By now, the vibe is less horror show and more “Dazed and Confused.” Irene (Quannah Chasinghorse), a young would-be activist whom we know as the grandmother who takes Cheese into her home, talks about the “anti-Indian” social structure of the schools: “Our societies are a lot stronger when there are elders and children.”

The episode ends with one of the teens, Maximus (Isaac Arellanes), having an alien close encounter — maybe real, maybe hallucinatory, like many things in “Reservation Dogs” — that has overtones of a family reunion. “I’m your relative,” the space creature tells him. “I just came to look at you.”

The community may scatter like stars, but gravitational forces inevitably bring it back together. Sometimes it’s the children who force the grown-ups to reconnect and confront their emotions, as when Elora tracks down her white biological father (Ethan Hawke, perfectly cast as a screw-up trying to make good). The stunning episode, written by Jacobs, is a remarkably subtle sketch of a tough but vulnerable child and a prodigal but sincere parent taking the first steps toward having an adult relationship.

From left, Devery Jacobs, Alexis, D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai and Lane Factor in the finale, set at a funeral in which the young characters bury a beloved elder. Credit…Shane Brown/FX

Other times the elders, and in some cases spirits, step in to fill the parental roles, however imperfectly. Throughout the series, Bear is shadowed by William Knifeman (Dallas Goldtooth), the pontificating spirit of a warrior who died when his horse stepped in a gopher hole at the battle of Little Bighorn. In a Season 3 episode, several elders take Cheese out to teach him about fishing and manhood; he ends up leading them in a talk-therapy session where they work through their own guilt about failing to support Maximus when he suffered from mental illness.

What’s distinctive about “Reservation Dogs,” for a show about youth, is that the adults are just as well fleshed out as the young leads. (Often in very little time; Gladstone makes Hokti a full, complex being in just a handful of scenes.) They may be eccentric — like Big (Zahn McClarnon), the tribal policeman who’s both a dogged pursuer of miscreant kids and a moony romantic — but they’re not ridiculous, or at least no more ridiculous than anyone else.

Elders, after all, are just kids who have lived long enough; the kids are just elders who haven’t, yet. As “Reservation Dogs” depicts it, community makes possible a kind of time travel: Through those who come before you, you visit the deep past, and through those who come after, you live in times that your eyes will never see. As the elder Maximus (Graham Greene) says, “We are just echoes of things that came before.”

That idea pervades the emotional finale, which is built around Fixico’s funeral, in which Fixico is buried and the young characters figure out their next moves in life. But it was also prefigured in the unforgettable Season 2 episode “Offerings,” in which Willie Jack visits Hokti for the first time.

Hokti has resisted seeing family while in prison; seeing Willie Jack reminds her too much of her dead son, Daniel. But pushed by Willie Jack — and by the nagging of a chipper ancestor spirit who once walked the Trail of Tears — she gives in and talks her niece through another rough time, asking her to imagine the generations that came before her. Willie Jack closes her eyes, and a tableau of figures fades in behind her, ancestors of different eras and traditions.

For a series that ran only three short seasons, “Reservation Dogs” left an inordinate amount of unshakable moments like that. And even though it ends by its creators’ own choice, it is easy to feel, as Willie Jack says of Fixico, that we didn’t get to spend enough time with it.

But I trust that its run was just about enough. It’s a story about young people in a transitional period of their lives, and it didn’t, like some past teen series, contort itself to keep them in place longer. Like Fixico and his wizard ways, it will stay with us long after it’s gone.

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