Reservation Dogs is unusual enough to stand out, but patient and well-observed enough to actually mean something, at least if the first two episodes are anything to go by.
This recap of Reservation Dogs episode 1, “F*ckin Rez Dogs”, and Reservation Dogs episode 2, “NDN Clinic”, contains spoilers.
Taika Waititi’s new FX on Hulu series Reservation Dogs has a lot less in common with Quentin Tarantino than a first glance might suggest, which is probably for the best in the long-term. The title evokes Reservoir Dogs, obviously, and at one point the four Indigenous friends, whose low-level criminal activities in their small Oklahoma hometown form the crux of the series, walk in slow-motion while wearing suits. There’s another unlikely nod to Tarantino’s filmography in how the quartet all imagine the distant land of California as a kind of mythical faraway place of possibility, like Red Rock, Wyoming in The Hateful Eight. But the joke – and a lot of the drama – is in how the kids never quite pick up enough momentum to find themselves in a Tarantino movie. When a rival “gang” pulls up for a drive-by, they get pelted with paintballs, not bullets, and the closest the first two episodes come to gore is a bloody nose.
Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Elora (Devery Jacobs), Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), and Cheese (Lane Factor) are Waititi characters through and through, but not in a typical madcap Waititi world. This setting has some elements – particularly the spirit of a Native American warrior who Bear sometimes sees – that will be recognizable to fans of What We Do in the Shadows or even Thor: Ragnarok or Jojo Rabbit, but everything else is more grounded. That’s part of the problem the kids have. An opening heist scene that sees them hijacking a truck full of spicy chips isn’t exactly a major haul – they spend all of the first two episodes trying to sell them and end up eating so many that Elora has to be told by a guest-starring Bobby Lee that if she continues at the same pace she might die.
The fact these kids have so much free time that they can eat a life-threatening amount of spicy chips is entirely the point. They have nothing else to do, and no means of getting anywhere that might interest them. The fallout from the group’s de facto leader Bear getting a bloody nose is that he has to spend almost an entire episode making sure his mother doesn’t find out. Elora is obsessed with counting the group’s spoils, fully aware of how little they really amount to. But it feels a bit like that old saying about dogs chasing cars. Would this group even know what to do in California if they got there?
It’s the details that make Reservation Dogs. Waititi co-created and co-wrote it with Sterlin Harjo, a Native American filmmaker from Oklahoma, so that sense of lived experience is everywhere, especially in the achingly bored lead actors, all of whom are young and unknown, which is just how young Indigenous people in Oklahoma probably feel. That warrior spirit sometimes pushes Bear about whether or not he really wants to leave, and that’s a good question. The kids think they want to escape, but they’ve been beaten down by historical oppression, capitalism, and imperialism so much that they have partially resigned themselves to this nondescript fate.
Its unusual, laidback vibe, cultural specificity, and flirtation with mysticism make Reservation Dogs feel like nothing else airing right now, which is only ever a positive quality. After just two episodes, it’s hard to imagine the show’s future, to predict whether spicy chips will emancipate these kids or slowly poison them, but it’ll probably be worth finding out either way.