Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi's Reservation Dogs has always been unpredictable, despite debuting as one of the most fully formed comedies of the 21st century so far. A show centered on (and created, directed, and written by) Indigenous people, the FX dramedy gives the impression of being able to go just about anywhere, displaying the same searching spirit as its core foursome. For three seasons, the show has adroitly ventured into other genres — teen show, hangout sitcom, even a picaresque jaunt — with hairpin turns in tone and a deep understanding and respect for its characters. It’s surreal, incisive, and often heartbreaking, but it never fails to be funny, not even when confronting the harrowing effects of U.S. imperialism that are still seen today.
From the outset, Harjo (who also serves as showrunner) and Waititi underlined how important humor has been for the survival of Indigenous people, from Oklahoma to New Zealand. They set out to defy expectations by being leading with comedy and with joy — you won’t find any one-note sad stories in Season 1 (or anywhere else, for that matter). When the show begins, Bear (D’Pharoah Woon-a-Tai), Elora (Devery Jacobs), Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), and Cheese (Lane Factor) are reeling from the loss of their friend Daniel (Dalton Cramer). To honor him, they hatch a plan to go to California, which quickly (and hilariously) goes awry. These teens aren’t waiting for tragedy to strike again; they’re paying homage to their favorite films, battling with other headstrong adolescents, and keeping hope alive — for themselves and their people in Okern.
Harjo then flipped the script in Season 2 by depicting Okern as a community beset by problems but still teeming with life, a poignant yet forceful rejection of all the flat renderings of Native people in literature and media. And he continued to push the limits of what the show could do, balancing developments in the lives of the Rez Dogs with expanded roles for the adults of Okern, played by Zahn McClarnon, Sarah Podemski, and Jon Proudstar, among others.
With Season 3, Harjo and his team, including directors Danis Goulet and Tazbah Rose Chavez and fellow writer Erica Tremblay, subvert expectations yet again. They quickly resolve the question of how Elora, Willie Jack, Bear, and Cheese will get home from California, and dive right back into life in Okern. The show resumes its exploration of the push-pull of home, as some of the Rez Dogs recommit to their village while others contemplate new directions. There are more fantastical moments, including Bear and William Knifeman’s (Dallas Goldtooth, also a series writer) journey into the spirit world. And there are absolutely gutting scenes, as when Bear encounters Maximus (Graham Greene), who’s as much a potential new guide for the wandering teen as a cautionary tale.
Episode 4, the last one screened for critics, offers a compelling ellipsis, one that could very well point to how the series will conclude later this year. But nothing speaks to what this cast and crew have accomplished, and will continue to accomplish, quite like the third episode of Season 3, “Deer Lady.” Reviews like this one are typically published before the season premieres, but “Deer Lady” so aptly captures the appeal and potential of Reservation Dogs that a broader assessment of the season would have felt incomplete without poring over what makes this week’s episode such a stunning half hour of TV.
Directed by Danis Goulet and written by Sterlin Harjo, “Deer Lady” marks a bold departure that still dovetails with the larger story. Kaniehtiio Horn returns as Deer Lady (also known as Deer Woman in Native mythology), who’s acted as both a benevolent and vengeful spirit in previous appearances, and is now thrust into the show’s spotlight. She crosses paths with Bear, who’s making his way from Maximus’ compound in Lawton back to Okern. Bear’s wrestled with his potential for good and ill throughout the series, worrying that his father’s flaws have been passed down. So, when he realizes the true identity of the kind stranger who’s offered him some pie, he fears it’s judgment time — Deer Lady knows who he is, after all, and the stories he grew up hearing about her tell of her righteous anger.
“Are you a good man, Bear?” she asks. “I try to be,” is his honest reply. The tension that’s been building since the episode’s opening, when we watched Deer Lady clean her antler weapons, recalling the Indian boarding school (also called “training” or “residential schools”) where she and other Indigenous children were abused or outright killed, dissipates as a smile spreads across her face. She’s rooting for this wayward teen as much as we are. But the suspense returns throughout, as Reservation Dogs becomes a short horror film, complete with ominous score and viscera.
There’s no better lead for this foray into revenge movie territory than Horn, who starred in the 2017 action-survival film Mohawk. She’s always played Deer Lady with a mixture of playfulness and sorrow, showing compassion for sh*t asses like Big (McClarnon) and Kenny Boy (Kirk Fox). Up till now, aside from the occasional glimpse of her hooves, Reservation Dogs has primarily kept Deer Lady’s supernatural powers at bay. But in “Deer Lady,” Harjo mines her underlying rage, which is a rage shared with other Indigenous people, and how it’s also inextricably tied to the joy that suffuses the show.
This is another rejection of the depiction of Native people in stories crafted by those in the dominant culture. As Harjo told IndieWire before the Season 3 premiere, "I don’t want to show us as victims. I want to show rage that I think has been put inside of a Native person who knows their history."
Harjo and Goulet take several calculated risks here, not just in experimenting with genre and tone, but by challenging their viewers with this unique interpretation of a revenge story. They conceal as much of the horror as they reveal, obfuscating the harsh words of the nuns at the boarding school by playing the dialogue backwards, which has a chilling effect. But they leave no doubt about the atrocities wrought by white Americans seeking their “manifest destiny,” a genocidal agenda promoted in the 19th century with the phrase: “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.”
When the time comes for Deer Lady’s retribution against the rancher (Jon Getz as James Minor) who stole her and countless others from their homes, the episode once again upends expectations. The man Deer Lady takes her revenge upon is wizened, vulnerable, waxing nostalgic. He seems harmless until you stop to consider what he’s reminiscing about. A picture of the children and nuns at the boarding school offers a stark reminder of who this man is, though: a “human wolf.”
“Deer Lady” taps into the same “get the bad guys at any cost” sentiment in Nazi-killing movies and series like Inglorious Basterds, Sisu, and Hunters. But it goes a step further, presenting an enemy who is much closer to home, one who’s not only never fully gone away, but whose culture and symbols still surround us. The episode challenges viewers to consider if they feel the same catharsis or derive the same pleasure from watching this old man, who remains unapologetic about killing innocent children, meet his end.
It’s like nothing you’d expect from any TV series, let alone a comedy, and yet it’s right at home in a show like Reservation Dogs, which has always tested the boundaries of its medium. But it’s not the end of the episode; Deer Lady gets Bear home safely, leaving him with the same words Koda once shared with her: “Remember, they can’t stop you from smiling.” That directive is a form of wisdom, similar to Maximus’ parting words — “Life’s tough. We should be proud that we can still love” — and reflects both the joy and rage that are part of Native life.
The best gut punch is saved for last, when Deer Lady assures Bear he won’t become like his dad. It’s a gift — she’s telling him he’s still able to write his own story. And that moment re-centers us in the Reservation Dogs ethos: that there’s unimaginable power in storytelling. The Deer Lady is that notion incarnate, but Reservation Dogs has the same potential to live on well past its time on FX.
New episodes of Reservation Dogs drop Wednesdays on Hulu. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.
Danette Chavez is the Editor-in-Chief of Primetimer and its biggest fan of puns.