‘Reservation Dogs’ Co-Creator on How Robert Altman’s ‘Nashville’ Inspired the Series Finale

“Reservation Dogs” ended its three-season run on Wednesday with a funeral — but also with a lot of joy. In bringing almost all of the show’s characters into one place for one final gathering, co-creator Sterlin Harjo said his goal was to show how “Reservation Dogs” was much bigger than just the kids at its heart.

“It’s not just for kids on the rez,” Harjo told Variety. “It is their whole community. And we see that by going back into the past with some of the elders. We see that by learning more about the other characters. I wanted to illustrate that in the finale, which is all of them coming together for a goodbye to one of their own.”

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As the episode (“Dig,” written by Chad Charlie and Harjo) draws to a close, the town celebrates as they pay tribute to the passing of Fixico (Richard Ray Whitman).

“I thought that it would be the way to show the beauty of this community, in one episode with all of the characters,” Harjo said. “Everything you see on that episode is something that my community does [when someone dies]. We dig by hand, we fast, people cook for you for when you break the fast in the morning. You sing songs when you’re transporting the deceased body. People just come together, there’s a lot of jokes, a lot of fun, a lot of sadness. It’s all of that. “

And the finale is also about how that community will continue to exist far beyond the confines of the rez, no matter where the characters end up. In the case of Elora (Devery Jacobs), she’s off to a new adventure in college. For Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), it’s learning to become independent as his mother takes a job in the city and he creates his own path — perhaps with Jackie (Elva Guerra). Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), having apprenticed under Fixico, has turned her attention to helping others on the reservation. And Cheese (Lane Factor) has a sharper view on life — thanks to his new glasses.

Harjo, who directed the finale, said he was particularly inspired by the films of Robert Altman.

“I spent a lot of time rewatching some Robert Altman films whenever I was prepping this,” he said. “Because there are multiple characters, there’s lots of things happening in the foreground and the background. There’s zooms, and you’re kind of telling this layered story that has movement. It felt like a moment to show some ‘Nashville’ love.”

RESERVATION DOGS —“Dig”—Season 3, Episode 10  (Airs Wednesday, September 27th) Pictured: Lily Gladstone as Hotki. CR: Shane Brown/FX.
Lily Gladstone as Hotki, “Reservation Dogs” (Shane Brown/FX)

Also back for the finale is Lily Gladstone as Hokti, whom Willie Jack visits again in prison. Gladstone’s appearance comes on the eve of her starring role in Martin Scorsese’s drama film “Killers of the Flower Moon.”

“I’m so excited for her,” Harjo said of Gladstone’s upcoming marquee release. “She loves her ‘Reservation Dogs’ character. We didn’t know if it was going to work because of her schedule. But she fought, I fought to make it work and so glad that she’s in the finale.”

Season 3 spent several episodes exploring the reservation elders who were the Rez Dogs of their time — and how one of them, Maximus (Graham Greene) had fallen out with the group. When Fixico falls ill, it’s up to the new generation of Rez Dogs to break Maximus out of a psychiatric hospital and bring him home.

“It was a total ‘Ocean’s 11,’” Harjo said of Episode 8 (“Send It”). “I wrote that in a fever. I wrote that in one night, the first draft. I surrounded myself with heist movies for a bit.

“Part of the point of the show is, yes, you see these kids come of age, you see them learn these lessons. You see them learn how to grieve their friend Daniel,” Harjo added. “You see them learn a lot, but then, our native communities are about passing knowledge on to other generations. It’s about giving back. An interesting take for me it was, what if the young people are giving back to the elders? That is a theme that runs throughout the show: Young people also have knowledge, and elders also have problems. And you have to be there for each other to learn. The third season was about them giving these lessons that they learned back to their community.”

RESERVATION DOGS —“Elora’s Dad”—Season 3, Episode 9  (Airs Wednesday, September 20th) Pictured: (l-r)  Devery Jacobs as Elora Danan, Ethan Hawke as Rick. CR: Shane Brown/FX.
Devery Jacobs as Elora Danan, Ethan Hawke as Rick, “Reservation Dogs.” (Shane Brown/FX)

Last week, in Episode 9, “Elora’s Dad,” Ethan Hawke made a surprise guest appearance as Elora’s absentee father. Harjo called Hawke “a friend’; the two have collaborated previously on a script and have other projects they’re working on together.

“In the midst of our friendship, ‘Rez Dogs’ came out,” Harjo said. “At one point, he made a little comment about being on the show. I was like, say no more. I immediately thought, ‘What if he is Elora’s dad?’ I also wanted it to be sort of a Richard Linklater homage, to those ‘Before Sunset‘ series, two people talking and awkwardly stumbling through their feelings.”

Harjo admits to getting a bit emotional about the end of “Reservation Dogs.” There are a lot of goodbyes in the finale, including the moment when Elora hugs Bear and tells him, “I’m gonna go, but it’s going to be OK.”

“I feel like that’s us talking, and the moment when William Knifeman [played by Dallas Goldtooth] says, ‘We don’t have a word for goodbye. It’s always, ‘we’ll see you later.'” Harjo said. “I’m very proud of what we did. Almost every character in the show is people that I know or family that I grew up with. And stories that I grew up with. It’s very personal to me and the other writers and filmmakers. I just really honored to be able to tell it and end it as well.”

Of course, Harjo is also just saying “We’ll see you later,” as he’s already brainstorming the future of the “Rez Dogs” universe — including, potentially, a film.

“I do want to do spin offs,” he said. “I’m already trying. As soon as we announced the ending, I was like, ‘I think I know of a great feature film that I could do, a Rez Dogs return.’ So, I’m already plotting. It’s just that this story needed to end. This story was about loss and grief and coming of age. And this was the arc that we wanted to tell. It doesn’t mean we can’t pick it back up. But there is not a continuation right now. It could easily come back, but it’ll be something else. And it will be later.”

Among the possibilities: A road trip with Uncle Brownie (Gary Farmer) and Bucky (Wes Studi), or a further look at the Deer Lady (Kaniehtiio Horn).

Said Harjo: “I’d watch a Deer Lady spinoff any day of the week!”

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