‘Reservation Dogs’ Season 3 Review: A Bold Beginning of the End
This review was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the series being covered here wouldn’t exist.It is unlikely there is ever going to be a show quite like Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi’s Reservation Dogs. This is not merely because the series has consistently featured complex Indigenous characters, something television can and should work to elevate instead of diminish as is too often the case. Rather, it is the way these stories were so beautifully and boldly expressed that made them so consistently transcendent. Achieving more in a few seasons than many do over a decade, playfully exploring the expectations of adulthood with raucous wit in one episode and the emptiness of influencers in the next, each new layer that was peeled back revealed a work as effortlessly funny as it was quietly revelatory. It has always been about drawing us in closer with its surreal flourishes that could be as silly as they were sentimental, never being content to play it safe and becoming all the better for it. Whenever we look back on the standout works of television from this era, Reservation Dogs will always and forever remain at the absolute pinnacle with the very best of them.
It was, in many ways, too good for this world, though that didn’t stop the news that this third season would be its last from being a bittersweet one. Still, as it seems that the show is going out on its own terms, it is hard to imagine a better beginning with which to say farewell to some of the greatest characters ever put to screen. Though there is still much to face down on the road ahead for the ragtag group of Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Elora (Devery Jacobs), Cheese (Lane Factor), Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), and the rest of the community living their lives on the reservation in rural Oklahoma, the beginning of this end is already a bright one even as it delves even further into darkness. Following the conclusion of last season where they successfully made their way to California to say goodbye to the departed Daniel, the friends are now making their way back and reflecting on their futures anew. Of course, in true Reservation Dogs form, life is full of complications both sharply comedic and subtly crushing, with the two becoming interwoven into a rich tapestry of television whose only flaw is that we’ll soon have to say our goodbyes.
The Final Episodes of ‘Reservation Dogs’ Make Room for New Reflections
Relying on a bit of narration from the series’ standby Spirit, knowingly embodied once again by a delightful Dallas Goldtooth (who also writes the season’s first episode along with Harjo), we briefly pick up with the friends in California. That doesn’t last, as they are retrieved by Teenie (played by Tamara Podemski of everything from the spectacular Outer Range series to the upcoming film Fancy Dance), who is tasked with bringing them all back home. This doesn’t go quite according to plan as Bear is separated from the group following an event that is acknowledged as being a bit of a contrivance with a fun wink. Many of the first four episodes shared with critics end up being centered around him, but they never feel narrow in their explorations. Rather, we are going to places the series has never been before, both geographically and thematically, while the story still remains an extension of what came before.
In the second episode, written and directed by series regular Tazbah Rose Chavez, we see Bear meeting up with someone new in what begins on uncertain footing. The new character, played by the great Graham Greene (who is always a joy, even in small parts — like when he recently appeared in The Last of Us), is a lonely one with demons that he is battling alone. Even as this can be played for laughs through Bear’s eyes, Greene brings a quiet grace to the performance that cuts deep the longer that we just get the chance to sit with him. It sets the tone for a measured progression of episodes that aren’t afraid to push us further into melancholy while never losing sight of the mirthful moments alongside them.
This also includes the darkest episode of the series yet, where we get a fuller look at the history of the Dear Lady who has always been an integral yet more elusive part of the story. Rather than rob her of her mystery, this descent into her past proves to be appropriately illuminating while still keeping key elements hidden. Brought to life once more with a perfect amount of poise by Kaniehtiio Horn, she leaps off the screen even when she is eating pie alone. When Bear encounters her along his journey back home, he gets unwittingly wrapped up in her latest mission. While the flashbacks that inform this are devastating in how they delve into the historical horrors that were wrought by boarding schools, the episode is unflinching without ever falling into being excessive. Even just the use of sound, as characters speak in a distorted language our protagonists don’t understand as well as the twist on a familiar score, works because of how committed it is to all the little details.
It then provides a fitting contrast to when Bear arrives home and everything seems to mostly return to a more goofy sense of normal. The fact that the show can go between such big tonal swings without losing a handle on them is a testament to how well-written and acted all these characters are. Even an absurd conversation between Big, played with real verve by Zahn McClarnon of the stellar upcoming second season of Dark Winds, and Bev, played by a joyous Jana Schmieding of Rutherford Falls, crackles with comedic energy. There is never a wrong note as we build to a conclusion that is shaping up to be something special.
Farewell, ‘Reservation Dogs,’ You Were One of the Best Ever
Even as there remains a persistent sense this closing chapter could have been the beginning of so much more, there is also a feeling that we are starting to wind down to something beautiful. As we now find this story drawing to one final close, Reservation Dogs remains as cutting, clever, and compassionate as ever. While we wish it could continue, we’ll cherish it all the same. What a true gift of television this show has been. From the beginning, where these kids hurtled down the road in a stolen chip truck with sparks flying behind it, to now, it has never been anything short of visionary in a television landscape in desperate need of it.
The Big Picture
- Reservation Dogs continues to be a transcendent series that beautifully explores complex Indigenous characters, elevating television storytelling writ large.
- As this last season gets underway, the ensemble cast of characters faces new challenges that push the boundaries of the show geographically and thematically.
- The tonal swings of the series are executed flawlessly, showcasing impeccable writing and acting from the talented cast in their final episodes before we must say farewell.
The final season of FX’s Reservation Dogs premieres August 2 on Hulu.