“Reservation Dogs” was always about death.
The FX series might open with a snack heist and teen shenanigans, but it’s quickly revealed that the four central characters are grieving the loss of a fifth. They make plans to leave home, they steal chips, and grapple with complex, painful emotions that don’t often make sense, but they find solace in each other.
In the series finale, which aired September 27 on FX, death looms large once more — but in stark contrast to how the Rez Dogs mourned and missed their friend for three seasons. When a local elder passes away, the community comes together to grieve, but also to eat, to laugh, to chide Cheese (Lane Factor) for hitting someone in the face with a shovel (by accident).
“Death and grief are so prevalent in all of our lives that sometimes I wonder how other artists or storytellers don’t focus on it more,” series co-creator Sterlin Harjo told IndieWire in a phone interview after the finale. “When you’re from a large community, there’s always someone passing away so you learn how to cope, you learn how to deal with it, you learn how to grieve.”
As he reflected on the series, these were ideas Harjo kept coming back to: Community, grief — and the innate beauty of imbuing something that seems sad with something loving and strong. It’s as much about losing a loved one as his and viewers’ relationship to “Reservation Dogs” — ended, but not gone.
“Agood show that has audience participation, that isn’t hitting you over the head with everything — I think it continues in us and moves into the future,” Harjo said. “We have our own ideas about what happens to these characters and I think that’s really beautiful, and also it will always be there. It’s a story; it’s a book, it’s a short story, it’s a novel — go back to it, reread it, you’ll get more out of it.”
Below, Harjo spoke to IndieWire about specific scenes in the finale, what “Reservation Dogs” means to him, and what the future holds.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
IndieWire: It must have been frustrating to have this final season come out when neither the writers nor cast could really talk about it. Do you want to discuss that?
Sterlin Harjo: It was tough. It was something that needed to happen. The writers and the actors would love to promote the show, but in solidarity with strikes, we couldn’t and that’s okay. All of them are so proud of the show and I get a lot of private messages. It was something that we will celebrate and continue to celebrate and have celebrated. I’m sure soon as everything (resolves), we’ll be hearing a lot from them.
Did you have any inkling when you guys set out to create the show and working on it in the beginning, that it was going to be this resonant with so many people?
I don’t think you can. And I think that if you go into it thinking that, you usually are disappointed. I had no expectations other than I knew I had this opportunity. It’s an opportunity that I always wanted to have, which is just to tell the truth and to show our community for what it is. When the response was coming back, and it was just a flood of positive love — and it wasn’t just Native, it was non-Native as well… I continue to be floored. The last couple of days have been really crazy, just the love from the critics and also people writing and thanking me is overwhelming and beautiful.
Death and grief have always been major themes on the show since the beginning, so what did you want the characters’ journey to be with that?
“Reservation Dogs” is this show about a community, and how we learn from each other on how to grieve. When we first see them grieving their friend Daniel (Dalton Cramer) and their sort of makeshift funeral, they are pretty destroyed, but they have each other. Through the that season and the next one, they will learn how to process and grieve their best friend.
Our communities are cyclical, they’re circular, and they’re about teaching. So in Season 3, they take what they’ve learned and they give it to their elders and these other generations, and that’s something that’s very beautiful. Usually you would think it’d be the elders teaching the kids, but it works both ways. The kids help their elders process but also make sure that they don’t leave anyone behind, and that their elders embrace Maximus (Graham Greene) back home.
You mentioned kind of the rawness of Daniel’s death and I do feel those parallels in the finale too. There’s a simplicity to this grief.
It doesn’t feel as fractured. Everyone’s together. There’s not as much despair.
And less unanswered questions. They aren’t directly juxtaposed, those two deaths, but there are so many parallels.
But it’s the end it’s about losing your friend. If you look at the pilot and you look at the end of this episode, there’s a shot that mirrors both of those, where all the kids have their arms around each other. They’re still doing and still learning, but it feels like they’ve come to a better place than when we met them in Episode 1.
I loved how much of a role the elders played this season and the flashback episode bringing them in as youngsters.
“Reservation Dogs” — it’s not the four kids. It’s the whole community. Everyone, all of them. The whole community is reservation dogs is where I wanted to end the show. So this season was about seeing the kids give back to their elders and also seeing elders processing things, seeing them figuring out also how to grieve and to to navigate loss. That’s what community is; it’s about elders and young people sharing and learning from each other. There’s a moment where Quannah (Chasinghorse, who plays young Irene) is talking about how fucked up boarding schools are, because of that fracturing of elders and young people; that cyclical teaching and learning and the nature of that is ripped apart by boarding schools. That’s the most important relationships in a community, are elders and young people… the show is just an illustration of that simple concept.
Going off of that, I love the device of bringing Maximus/Chebon in and using that character to thread the gap between the generations.
In community, you have people that are on the fringes. You could even say Fixico (Richard Ray Whitman) was on the fringe a little bit. To be able to tell a story, A) where it’s not all about screen time and close ups, it’s about telling the story of the world, and having some of these characters (come) back into the frame — that’s how our communities are. You have people that go away and then they come back. Elora’s (Devery Jacobs) going away at the end, but because of her community, she’s going to come back — and even if she doesn’t come back, she still has learned from them and still is a part of that community and takes it with her.
I’m so glad you mentioned Elora because the scene between her and Bear (D’Pharoah Woon-A-Tai) in the chapel is my personal favorite.
It destroys me every time I see it.
How, why, what — just tell me everything about that scene.
That scene is also kind of us talking to the fans. We’ve created this community, we’ve shown this to the world. They came along for the ride and we’re saying goodbye. When Elora is saying, “I’m leaving but it’s gonna be okay,” she’s kind of trying to convince herself. At the beginning of that scene, Bear says “It’s so strange; he was just here, and now he’s gone,” talking about Fixico. It’s kind of a farewell from us, but the show’s always gonna be there.
And just having them say “I love you” to each other too, for the first time — really, like that? Like without saying “I love you, bitch,” and making kind of a joke out of it like they didn’t really mean it? That needed to happen; it was these two characters that were kind of on this push-and-pull with each other, trying to navigate the loss of their friend, and I think that they needed to tell each other they loved each other.
I know that they can’t speak to the press right now, but do you want an opportunity to talk about this incredible cast?
They’re so beautiful, every one of them. When the four Rez Dogs first came together — a lot of the bad guy gang is made up of people that were very close to getting cast as the main Rez Dogs; Jackie, and even Daniel was close to getting Bear, so I just kind of just moved all of those actors — they’re so wonderful. They’re the best to be around. It was such a pleasure to work with all of them. We were a family, we are a family. The end of the show also means the end of our community as we know it. We’ll still work together, but we created a family making that show. There is grief as well, ending this. There is sadness. But just like those kids hugging each other at the grave without all the answers, but still choosing love over all of that — that’s how I feel about this show. I love this show. I would never want anyone to tell me to stop it. I wanted us to end it when it felt right. That’s what it all means to me. It’s sad, but it’s a community, and that’s a part of you now. It doesn’t go away.
Were you nervous about the finale, going in? There’s so much pressure these days about sticking the landing.
I just took the pressure off myself. I knew if we tried to do something spectacular, it wouldn’t work. We needed to tell the resolve of the story exactly how we tell every story in the show. It didn’t need to be more than that. There’s one moment where you kind of get more information than you ever have in the show, and that’s when Hokti (Lily Gladstone) tells Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis) “Why do you think they came for us? They tried to take our community, break our community, because if you break the community you break the individual.” That’s the first time we’ve ever really laid (it out) like that, and I think it was time. Other than that, it’s just a very simple story about a community coming together. It had to be about everyone though. It needed to be a living organism and it needed to be moving. That’s what that episode is to me. Everything you see in there is what we do whenever someone passes. It’s about all of us coming back together and playing our part. That’s what I wanted the finale to feel like.
And what’s next for you?
I’m already ready to make stuff. I have feature films in development, really excited about those. I have another show with Ethan Hawke that I might do and I’m hoping to do, and then there’s other shows outside of that. I’m producing shows, I’m EPing shows now at FX. There’s a project that I’m doing with Danis Goulet who directed “Mabel” and “Deer Lady.” She’s one of my best friends and a talented filmmaker and storyteller. That’s why I’m not super sad, because I know what’s coming. We’re going to keep creating this this stuff, and I’m excited to share that with everyone.
Does it feel easier or less daunting now to move on and juggle all of these different projects?
(long pause) It’s always daunting. It’s always daunting, but I’m just really happy that I got to tell this story. I was at a coffee shop a second ago and a Native woman walked out who I don’t know, and she just came to me and thanked me and gave me a hug. That’s sort of the feedback I get on this show, and I’m just really happy that I got to do it. I’ll probably make something better than “Reservation Dogs,” but I won’t make something as important. It’ll always be my best work for that reason.
“Reservation Dogs” is now streaming on FX.