TV Dramedies Don't Get Much Better Than the Sublime and Soulful 'Reservation Dogs' From Start to Finish

This Taika Waititi-produced series just wrapped up its third and final season — and television is all the better for its 28-episode run.
Sarah Ward
Published on October 12, 2023

There's only one thing wrong with the third season of Reservation Dogs: it's the show's last. After three years and 28 episodes spent with Muscogee Nation residents in Oklahoma — and also on a journey to California and back — this coming-of-age dramedy says farewell as sublimely and soulfully as it's said everything else since 2021. When Reservation Dogs initially arrived, including on Binge in Australia, its debut season delivered one of the best new TV shows of that year. Next, its second spin served up one of the best returning shows of 2022. The show's swansong achieves the same for 2023, and in a ten-episode run that takes many of the series' own messages to heart.

There's a skill in recognising when something's time has come, as Reservation Dogs knows. As co-created, executive produced and written by Sterlin Harjo (Mekko) and Taika Waititi (Thor: Love and Thunder), this series is also well-aware that little lasts in life, but anything that's truly great always leaves an imprint and makes an impact. And, the show lives and breathes the idea that doing the best that you can with the time that you have is one of the noblest of purposes. Accordingly, while the teen-centric comedy about restless Indigenous North American adolescents feels like it could (and should) keep telling its stories forever, it wraps up with a season that's a rich and resonant goodbye — and continues to expand its slice-of-life tales, hero its distinctive perspectives and sink into minutiae that's seen nowhere else on television.

Waititi gave Reservation Dogs its biggest name when it began with four Okern residents, aka the titular Rez Dogs, stealing a Flaming Flamers delivery truck to try to sell it to raise cash for their dream escape to the west coast. On the filmmaker's resume, it's one of a trio of brilliant half-hour comedies, premiering after the What We Do in the Shadows television spinoff was already a couple of seasons in and preceding pirate rom-com Our Flag Means Death. It's Harjo who is Reservation Dogs' guiding force, however, steering a series that couldn't be more original — and perfect. The casting, the cinematography, the equal parts dry and offbeat humour, the mix of clear-eyed reality and deeply felt spirituality, the thoughtfulness that swells through every touch: episode by episode, including in its masterful last season, these elements combine to make outstanding television.

From its first-ever instalment, Reservation Dogs has hung out with its characters as they chase dreams and face truths, and realise that life is all about flitting between the two. So, it has enjoyed Bear (D'Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, Fitting In), Elora (Devery Jacobs, Rutherford Falls), Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis, Ghostbusters: Afterlife) and Cheese's (Lane Factor, The Fabelmans) company as they learn about the transience of existence at every moment, whether they're striving to see more than the place that they've always called home, grappling with loss or pondering what the future means. Of course moving on was always going to come for this show, then. Of course it's finishing on its own terms, too. And of course its final season is more moving, ruminative and mesmerising than ever. 

When viewers last saw the Rez Dogs at the end of season two, the OG quartet plus Jackie (Elva Guerra, Dark Winds), their once-rival and now somewhat-reluctant newcomer to the group, had finally made the trip to California that they'd been working towards their entire lives — but with added urgency after the death of their friend Daniel. Season three picks up with the gang still far away from home, and still journeying even when they do return. Elora considers both her past and her future, complete with an excellent guest appearance by Ethan Hawke (Moon Knight) in an episode that Jacobs directed. Bear goes wandering on his own, including through several revelatory encounters (and with the spirit of The Battle of Little Big Horn warrior William Knifeman, as played by another Rutherford Falls alum in Dallas Goldtooth, still popping up). Both Cheese and Willie Jack keep discovering new learnings within their community. All continue to utter and inspire the term "shitass", all while navigating everything from grief to hope. 

Harjo remains unafraid to depart from his leads along the way, whether sliding into history to explore myths, traditions or horrors inflicted upon Indigenous children; hanging with the Rez Dogs' parents and elders now as well as in their younger days; and taking the revenge-fuelled Deer Lady (Kaniehtiio Horn, Alice, Darling) out of folklore and into a denim jumpsuit. A true portrait of community — and, of it teens embracing what it means to be a part of it — Reservation Dogs finds a story, be it big or small, for everyone within its frames. In season three, Bear's mother Rita (Sarah Podemski, Resident Alien) contemplates a big promotion that'll take her away from Okern, Elora's forever-20 mum Cookie (Janae Collins, Killers of the Flower Moon) still has messages to send as a spirit, and Jackie's aunt Bev (Rutherford Falls lead Jana Schmieding) has a spark with Officer Big (Zahn McClarnon, No Hard Feelings). 

Indeed, Reservation Dogs floats between characters as skilfully as it jumps between genres, in a series that can be anything in any given episode. During this last stretch, it's a road-trip awakening and an adventurous magical-realist odyssey. Then it dives into horror akin to Jordan Peele's work (see: Get Out, Us and Nope), as well as workplace comedy. Reservation Dogs flirts with 70s-set Dazed and Confused territory after that, plus an Ocean's-esque heist and sincere family drama as well. Harjo and his creative team nail each and every one — and ensure that every turn reinforces the show's survey of Native American life. This is a series that revels in the daily specifics, including the triumphs and joys; honours cultural conventions and how they're passed down; parodies cliches; and never forgets for a moment the plight that First Nations Americans have endured since colonial times. 

Everyday facts, ghostly visitors, decrying the worst of history, watching the next generation find its own way while balancing tradition and modernity, championing Indigenous talents emerging and experienced (including Killers of the Flower Moon's Lily Gladstone, Dead Man's Gary Farmer, The Last of the Mohicans' Wes Studi and Dances with Wolves' Graham Greene in the latter category): that's the juggling act that Reservation Dogs couldn't handle better. As Atlanta also achieved while similarly musing on race in the US, serving up surprises in every single episode and proving a creative masterpiece, it sees the moment-by-moment scene and the broader view. That both pictures take in the Oklahoma landscape also helps Reservation Dogs look like little else, as well as feel it. The show's legacy is equally pivotal; Bear, Elora, Willie Jack and Cheese especially will be deeply missed, but Woon-A-Tai, Jacobs, Alexis and Factor shouldn't ever be far from screens after this exceptional breakthrough.

Check out the trailer for Reservation Dogs season three below:

Reservation Dogs streams via Binge. Read our review of season two, too.

Images: Shane Brown/FX.

Published on October 12, 2023 by Sarah Ward
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