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With 'Mabel,' Reservation Dogs Proves It Understands Death Better Than Most

The FX show's latest episode feels moving and real — even with a ghost on screen.
  • Devery Jacobs in Reservation Dogs (Photo: Shane Brown/FX)
    Devery Jacobs in Reservation Dogs (Photo: Shane Brown/FX)

    This writer has been to a funeral where a family member controversially wore sweat-shorts to a graveside service. There was also a visitation where stories about the deceased got people laughing so hard they had to step outside. There was a shocked and nearly silent ceremony for a high school classmate who died in a car crash, and there was a soft goodbye in a hospital room, where everyone laid hands on the departed while she took her last breath.

    There’s no separating the memory of these people from those tiny details, even though they weren’t there to experience them. Hospice pioneer Cicely Saunders said, “How people die remains in the memory of those who live on,” and she could’ve added that we're just as likely to remember the people around those who die. Your little cousin happily yells “Flowers!” when they carry the wreaths out of the church, and for the rest of your life, you can say the word “flowers” to certain relatives and get a laugh. It brings your grandmother back a little. It’s nice.

    Reservation Dogs understands all of this. In “Mabel,” episode four of the FX dramedy’s outstanding second season, the entire cast is gathered at Elora’s house, where her grandmother Mabel is about to die. What’s unusual, at least for Elora (Devery Jacobs), is that it’s a good death this time. Mabel’s in her own bed. Everyone she knows has turned out to sing and eat and tell tales. People who haven’t seen each other for years are remembering why they like each other, and people who’ve been fighting let it slide.

    That’s different from the other deaths Elora has survived. She’s still just a teenager, but she’s already lost her mother Cookie and found her friend Daniel swinging from a rafter. She’s been running from those losses since Episode 1, so it feels especially generous for the show to let her be part of Mabel’s smooth transition. She gets to start a prayer at dinner time and help her friend wash the dishes. She even talks to Mabel’s spirit, who appears to Elora in the back yard and tells her she did good.

    The episode also has the big, dramatic moments you’d expect from this type of story – people crying, people running out of the room – but by layering them inside a thousand details about the food, the conversation, and the people who turn up late, Mabel’s death feel less like a sensational plot point and more like a natural part of the community’s experience. If Daniel and Cookie's deaths both play like symbols of capital-L loss, Mabel's comes across as a somber, but regular, event.

    In TV terms, maybe that’s what makes her death so good. It’s certainly one of the things that makes Reservation Dogs stand out.

    Reservation Dogs airs new episodes Wednesdays on FX through September 28.

    Mark Blankenship is Primetimer's Reviews Editor. Tweet him at @IAmBlankenship.

    TOPICS: Reservation Dogs, FX, Devery Jacobs