This article contains spoilers for Reservation Dogs season 3 episode 10.
Many television shows try to be about community. Hell, one series tried so hard that it violated SEO best practices to just go ahead and name itself Community. I would wager, however, that no TV program ever has better understood the concept of community, nor articulated what it means more effectively than FX’s Reservation Dogs.
The series, which just finished its three-season run on Hulu, began as a simple comedy following four Indigenous teens in their small reservation town of Okern, Oklahoma. Just as those teens – Elora (Devery Jacobs), Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Cheese (Lane Factor), and Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis) – grew to realize that their world was much bigger than pilfered potato chips and petty rivalries, so too did Reservation Dogs grow.
Throughout its richly-realized third season, Reservation Dogs has carefully and empathetically communicated how little the youth sometimes realize that they need their elders. The show became as much about old-timers like Uncle Brownie (Gary Farmer), Bucky (Wes Studi), Irene (Casey Camp-Horinek) and the estranged Maximus (Graham Greene) as it did about the titular Rez Dogs. By broadening its storytelling landscape to treat its elders as co-equals, Reservation Dogs tapped into what makes community so important.
Like another great TV series once said, “all of this has happened before and all of it will happen again.” Rather than regarding that declaration as a cynical comment on of human frailty, Reservation Dogs celebrated it. Aho there young warrior, do not despair! All of the things that trouble you now have troubled someone else before. And you can talk to that person right now. That’s why we built this whole community thing in the first place.
That appreciation of intergenerational support and cooperation comes to a head in “Dig,” the utterly beautiful and affecting final episode of the show. From the installment’s very first scene, “Dig” is laser focused on proving once and for all that no one can do it alone. It’s certainly a strategically smart decision to open the episode with Hokti Jackson, the character played by Lily Gladstone (who is about to become one of the most famous actors in the world when Killers of the Flower Moon premieres). But it’s also a creatively sound one.
Like she did in season 2 episode 9, Willie Jack pays a visit to her aunt Hokti (who was also her friend Daniel’s mother before he died) in prison to achieve some piece of mind. Back then she wanted advice on how to deal with the apparent fracture of her friend group. Now, however, she needs direction. Community medicine man and Willie Jack’s mentor Old Man Fixico (Richard Ray Whitman) has passed away. Fixico’s passing leaves the reservation without a healer as Willie Jack believes she didn’t receive the right lessons from the man to continue in his stead.
Hokti, guided by her ancestor Gram, knows that this is not true. Willie Jack got what she needed from Fixico because everyone did. We always do from the ones we love. Using a bag of Flaming Flamers as a visual aid, Hokti demonstrates how we all inherit a piece from those whose lives we touch. Though Fixico’s “bag” may now be empty, the little chips of his soul live on in everyone else.
“And some day, you’ll do it for me when I go. And then someone’ll do it for you when you go. And we’ll all carry it on. All of us. We keep going,” Hokti says.
If there’s a more succinct definition of community, I have yet to hear it. “All of us. We keep going.” The definition is even enriched by Hokti’s use of something relatively crude like a flaming hot potato chip. One of Reservation Dogs‘ best features is its ability to blend the mundane with the profound. The flat planes of Oklahoma are so still and pristine that they look like something out of the heavens themselves. And yet, those planes are dotted with the vulgar machinations of mass produced capitalism like Flaming Flamer trucks and Sonic Drive-Ins. Rather than rejecting that part of the environment, the people of Reservation Dogs embrace it. Sonic tots might as well be mana. Here, Hokti uses potato chips as essentially a sacrament.
“Dig” is so named because of the ritual that makes up most of its runtime. The burial of Fixico operates as the perfect opportunity for Reservation Dogs to make its case for community and then send its characters off. All of the residents of Okern, young and old, gather at the church to do right by Fixico. Because that’s what you do. That’s what you owe your people.
The men dig the grave with their bare hands while the women prepare fry bread and zucchini dishes in the kitchen … and also gossip about Big’s (Zahn McClarnon) sex noises. It’s all really such a joy. For as didactic a tone as I’ve probably accidentally adopted in explaining the show’s appreciation for community (sorry), its depiction of it is anything but boring or academic. Even under the grim circumstances of a funeral it’s all quite fun.
Still, there are real moments of pain here as well – most notably Elora realizing that she’ll have to leave Bear behind to go to school just like his mother is to go to Oklahoma City – but the characters know exactly what to do with that pain. They share it with one another. Bear musters the courage to say something that would make his spiritual assistant William Knifeman (Dallas Goldtooth) proud.
“That’s awesome. Elora I’m proud of you. You’ve had it the hardest of all of us. And you’re still the toughest.”
Of course, that moment does literally make William Knifeman proud. After being “estranged” from his guardian angel since the second episode of this season, Bear listens to his elders and chooses to summon his old friend by whistling in the black of night. Befitting his status as a celestial goofball, William comes back to Bear not in an ethereal cloud of smoke but rather by just kind of stumbling through the woods.
William isn’t here to offer Bear any advice (if he ever was) but to say goodbye and assure him that’s he’s figured it all out on his own. His people don’t need a chief out of him, they just need another warrior. And that’s what Bear is happy to be for them.
“I’m proud of you little brother,” William says. “You deserve to be loved and you deserve to love. And that’s what all those people in there are offering you.”
An “offering” as something you give to a deity or fallen ancestor is a powerful concept in most faiths. We’ve seen it play out several times in Reservation Dogs, most recently in episode 7 when Bear’s mom Rita has to be reminded by the spirit of her friend Cookie to bless a bounty of fried catfish for her ghostly self to enjoy. What Reservation Dogs posits though is that an offering isn’t just something you give to the dead. It’s what you owe to the living as well.
“Dig” ends twice and in equally satisfying fashion each time. The first ending catches up with the Rez Dogs as they walk into the proverbial sunset together. Fixico has been buried, the “I love yous” have been shared, and now all that’s left for Bear, Willie Jack, Elora, and Cheese is to grab something to eat then get on with their lives. The show fades to black to share “Mvto,” the Mvskoke word for “thank you.” Then the second ending begins. The Rez Dogs of old – Brownie, Bucky, Irene, and Maximus – sit on a bench and reflect upon the day’s activities.
“We sent our brother off in that good way,” Brownie says
“Til the next one,” Maximus offers up as a toast.
In its final moments, Reservation Dogs once again proves why it understands multigenerational storytelling on such a deep level. Community is indeed all of those ooey-gooey concepts we’ve explored thus far. It’s elders and youth. It’s an offering. It’s love. But above all else it’s a circle.
As the old-timers begin to see their way out, the kids get started on their own journey – probably a journey where they’ll make all the same mistakes but find strength in each other all the same. And then when that’s all done there will be another generation of Rez Dogs there to start the cycle again. We keep going. All of us. With bits of flaming flamers in our hearts.
All three seasons of Reservation Dogs are available to stream on Hulu now.