There’s a desperate restlessness at the heart of the first, fantastic season of “Reservation Dogs.” Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi’s FX series, which premiered last August, kept a watchful eye out for the strange, and strangely beautiful, moments woven into each hazy day for four best friends reeling from the sudden death of their fifth. It took no time at all to understand Bear (D’Pharoah Woon-A-Tai), Elora (Devery Jacobs), Cheese (Lane Factor) and Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), nor to slip into the show’s world where the banal could meet the surreal at any given moment.
The same holds true in Season 2, which opens just hours after Elora’s not only skipped town with laconic bully Jackie (Elva Guerra) and all their money, but has also left a furious, confused Bear behind. The implosion of the group’s California dream, seemingly the only thing keeping them going after such an inexplicable tragedy, introduces a new kind of movement to the show that keeps it from becoming too much of a Season 1 retread. Now that the fantasy of leaving their Oklahoman reservation behind has been left in the dust — or, for Elora as she stubbornly chases it, now looks nothing like the image she had in mind for so long — the Res Dogs have to figure out what the rest of their lives might look like in actual reality.
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The first two episodes of the season, premiering together Aug. 3 on Hulu, have a fair amount of legwork to do in order to unpack the full implications of Elora’s decision. Bear, broke and at a loss, tries to fill his days with something that might satisfy himself, his mother (Sara Podemski), and the spirit of a slacker warrior who’s still following him around (writer Dallas Goldtooth, whose singular comedic performance, continues to keep some of the show’s best and funniest scenes afloat, especially as he gets more chances to act opposite Gary Farmer’s Uncle Brownie). Even though the first four episodes take place only over a few days, Woon-A-Tai rises to the challenge of embodying Bear’s shift from aspiring tough guy to more earnest teen boy trying to make good. Meanwhile, Willie Jack, who committed to staying with her family by the end of the first season, doubles down on that choice in the second, while Cheese…well, Cheese is basically fine and unusually wise, as ever.
As for Elora, it’s not long before she realizes how unprepared she actually was to leave her hometown and its comforts of community she took for granted — not that either she or Jackie, portrayed as an increasingly tight coil of tension by Guerra, would ever admit it. Jacobs — one of the series’ strongest actors and now one of its writers, too — has such a solid handle on her character that watching Elora crumble where she was sure she’d soar becomes just as painful as she seems to feel it herself. The fourth episode, which Jacobs co-wrote with Harjo as Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs, gives her a showcase (and Elora closure) like never before.
For all the show’s strengths, though, maybe the most persuasive argument in its favor is that for the hundreds of shows premiering every year, there’s still simply nothing else on TV quite like “Reservation Dogs.” Yes, it gives voice, time, and flawed dirtbag humanity to Indigenous Americans, who have long been little more onscreen than one-note punchlines. But it also does so with an approach that could only have come from these writers, actors, directors and production crew members. This is a show so self-assured in its own voice and perspective that it’s not just gratifying to watch, but a welcome relief.
“Reservation Dogs” Season 2 premieres Wednesday, August 3 on Hulu.
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