Reservation Dogs 1.7, “California Dreamin’,” is the first episode this season to open with a title card: “The following episode contains sensitive material. Viewer discretion is advised.” Without spoiling anything, I’ll just say that if you haven’t yet watched last week’s episode, “Hunting,” you’re going to want to see it before you see this one. And if you have seen it, then you know right away what that warning confirms.
In an echo of “Hunting,” “California Dreamin'” opens on a flashback to a year ago. The Five Friends — which I’m calling them because their future “rivals” are the “NDN Mafia,” and because they won’t be the Rez Dogs for a full year — are walking along, talking about wonky Bible camp experiences, and just being teenagers for a minute.
It is a little strange to see Daniel with them. He totally fits in, and Dalton Cramer, the actor who plays him, does a wonderful job. It’s just that after hearing about him in snippets for five episodes, we *met* him last week, and we see even more of him this week. This is his first scene together with the friends who mourn the one-year anniversary of his death in the pilot episode. It’s jarring, that’s all.
As they approach Daniel’s house, we hear a man and a woman shouting at each other. A dish breaks against the wall. The moment is over. Daniel looks distressed, angry, a bit frightened; Elora immediately suggests they go for a walk. But none of the other friends can go with, so the group, with goodbyes and promises to message later, just…separates. The way you do when you’re a kid and you’re with your friends and then all of a sudden it’s dinnertime or family time or just obligation time. You don’t realize until much later that this was the last time Willie Jack, Cheese, and Bear ever saw Daniel alive.
Back in the present, Elora is in the shortest DMV line of all time. She’s staring at a poster urging her to “Visit Sunny California!” Right next to it is a poster urging people to become organ donors, with the slogan, “Put Your Heart in the Right Place.” Is that a little heavy-handed? Yeah, but it’s also a nice parallel with the good angel/bad angel Bear’s mom Rita had on her shoulders in “What About Your Dad” a few weeks ago. And it makes me think of a car crash victim, down to his last few breaths, leaning forward and pulling his heart out of his chest, then handing it to a paramedic and saying, “I’ve lived a good life.” Anything hilariously gruesome is OK with me.
Elora is there to take her driver’s license test. It’s her fourth time; she failed the other three. She also had her learner’s permit revoked (twice) and once got a ticket for driving without a license. That’s an impressive driving record for someone not legally eligible to be on the road. (Plus, there’s no adult with her, meaning Elora drove herself.) The woman who takes her paperwork implies that this is the last time Elora can take the test, so naturally she’s a picture of calm.
Outside, Elora’s driving instructor emerges, and it’s Bill Burr! Or rather, it’s Bill Burr doing what to my untrained ear sounds like a pretty good impression of an Oklahoman. He calls Elora by her last name, “Postoak” (a massively underappreciated tree, by the way), and immediately regales her by recalling some of her exploits from a high school basketball game. (Or maybe it’s supposed to be late middle school?) Elora’s former coach-turned-driving-instructor laments that she had to drop out of school: “You were good.”
When he asks why she left, Elora tells Coach Bobson she “had to work” at “the casino.” Cut to a quick montage of Elora swiping cigarettes from unsuspecting gamblers, then selling them to other unsuspecting gamblers in the parking lot. In the last thirty seconds, we’ve learned that Elora is a dropout and that thieving is her livelihood, which means she takes it more personally than Bear and helps explain why she had no empathy for the chip truck driver in the pilot episode. Reservation Dogs is not an exposition-heavy show by any stretch, so these character details feel kind of like a huge reveal. It’s a credit to the show’s storytelling that we’re only learning these things in the seventh episode out of eight, that we didn’t need them at all before now, and that we only get them now to illuminate Elora’s thinking as she decides whether to actually head off into the sunset toward California.
Of course, Bobson is quick with the impracticalities of the idea: “California? In this car? You ain’t makin’ it to Tulsa in this piece.” It’s Elora’s grandmother’s car, and it’s not in much worse shape than Big’s Lighthorseman cruiser in “Come and Get Your Love,” but it’s also making a fair few noises that cars shouldn’t generally make.
While they drive around and converse — god damn, but this show is good with its driving around and conversing — we find out that Bobson knows Elora’s grandmother because he knew Elora’s mother. Elora cuts Bobson’s reminiscence right off. I would say her quick reaction is akin to the most famous element of Chekhov’s gun, but we’re about to get a more literal demonstration of that famous rule.
We arrive at the most infamous part of the driving test: parallel parking. Bobson selects an impossibly difficult spot to park in. As I’ve said before, I am only good at three things in the entire world, but one of those things is parallel parking. I therefore feel qualified to say that Elora would have been both sensible and well within her rights to tell Bobson to go fuck himself after being presented with this puzzle:
Can Elora’s grandmother’s car be fitted into that spot? Yes, it can. Should any sensible driver parallel park right there? Not outside of like ten major cities worldwide, and definitely not in rural-ass Oklahoma. How silly is this notion? That screencap is from Bobson’s attempt at parking it, after Elora has already hit one car and started freaking out over her complete failure. Bobson, ever the coach — he really is semi-Lassoesque in the best sense — helps her calm down and offers to give her “a quick lesson” in the art.
After he hits both cars, Bobson gets a phone call. All we know is that “she’s there now. At the motel.” Doins are most definitely a-transpirin’. “Gonna take a slight detour here,” he tells Elora, adding, “Buckle up.”
After the act break, we pull up at the aforementioned motel. We watch a nondescript woman walk into a motel room where there must be, in Bobson’s words, “definite criminal activity.” He parks his former student’s grandmother’s car while still administering a driving test…
…and pulls a six-shooter out of his sock. It doesn’t look like Bobson had it in a holster; it’s just a good, old-fashioned snub-nosed revolver, hanging out there in the man’s sock, waiting for him to need it. “You had that the whole time?” Elora asks, to which Bobson replies, “It’s an open-carry state. For protection.” OK, but it sure doesn’t seem like you intend to use that defensively, Coach. Elora sends her location to Bear, Willie Jack, and Cheese, “In case I die.”
While Elora waits for whatever’s going to happen, we cut back to a year ago. In last week’s episode, Daniel told Willie Jack’s father Leon that he and Elora had been out at a “honky-tonk”; this is the honky-tonk. He tries to break into cars in the parking lot, Elora looking on, before she suggests they go in. There’s a honky-tonk band on stage. It doesn’t take long for Elora to suggest that the two of them dance. Daniel’s protest is as halfhearted as they come. She shows him how to two-step. They dance, badly, happily. They laugh. In another show, this would be the scene where they start to fall for each other.
By the end of the night, it’s a slow song, but Daniel is all by himself on the dance floor, Elora watching from one side. He’s filled with the same frenzied energy that led him to scream curses at the hidden deer while on the hunt with Willie Jack and Leon. And Elora has the same quiet disappointment: Willie Jack wanted to just enjoy the hunt with her cousin and her father; Elora clearly wants a connection that Daniel is too overwhelmed to notice.
Daniel’s energy belongs in the pit at a metal show. And he winds up bumping into an old cowboy, who tells him, “Be careful there, son!” Daniel: “‘Careful’? Why don’t you go fuck yourself.” He and Elora leave, Elora apologizing after him.
In the parking lot, Daniel admits that he can’t go home. He’s just going to walk around awhile. He and Elora say what would be their final goodbyes to each other, but for this exchange after she’s already begun to walk away:
“Hey Elora. Would you ever…want to go to California with me?”
“Yeah. Always wanted to go.”
“…Yeah. I’ll go to California with you.”
It’s never clear if California was a real aspiration of Daniel’s. Based on everything else we know, this may well have just been a spur-of-the-moment thing he said to his friend to prolong the good part of the night before the inexorable, excruciating transition into the bad. Regardless, this is where the idea comes from. Everything Elora and Bear, Willie Jack, and Cheese are maybe building up to this season, the whole reason behind their maybe-departure, comes back to the last thing Daniel told Elora on the night he died. That, and the cycles of uncertainty perpetuating all around the Rez Dogs, of which Elora is reminded every time she thinks of her lost friend.
A “Fuck you!” and a gunshot interrupt Elora’s thoughts in the present. Bobson runs out of the motel room, shouting at Elora to go, while a crack shot from Stormtrooper Academy fires at Bobson and hits the pavement plenty of times (plus Elora’s grandma’s car’s taillight). Bobson shot his pursuer in the leg: “He was reaching for his gun.” When Elora points out that Bobson brought a gun, he responds with an all-time common sense classic: “Well, you always bring a gun to a gunfight.”
The post-motel gunfight lull leads Bobson to open up about how his daughter, Ashley, got mixed up with the wrong people in the first place. “You know, one day, these little humans that you’ve been keeping alive all those years start running with the wrong crowd,” he tells Elora. “I couldn’t stop it. It’s like a train. Methamphetamines; opioids. I mean, I haven’t seen or heard from her in weeks. Worried she might be dead.” I am the parent of a tiny child and years away from worries like these but this was almost the hardest part of the episode to watch for me. The confluence of Coach Bobson — a parent looking back in confusion at all the decisions he made and didn’t make — and Elora — trying to essentially earn herself a passport so she can get away from everything familiar and terrible and trade it for something unknown and maybe better — is simply overwhelming.
Which is probably why, when Elora asks Bobson, “What are you gonna do?” he says about the only thing he can: “Nothin’. I mean, I just shot someone in the leg; I better pump the brakes.”
After pulling a gun during a test and then shooting a stranger in the leg while his student waits outside, Bobson is resigned to getting fired from his job as a driving instructor. Elora, though, assures him she won’t tell: “Fuck that tweeker.” Bobson also insists on getting the broken taillight fixed. And where do they go for that?
That’s right: the salvage yard! The best running joke of the show. Kirk Fox, best known as Sewage Joe from Parks and Rec, is a scene-stealing machine, the perfect mix of whitewashed Native pablum, absurdity, and genuine goodwill. His Kenny Boy is a doofus of the highest order. His nunchuck-wielding associate Ansel is a gold mine of turd phraseology. We are living in a Golden Era of Television Idiots, and these two belong in the hall of fame.
While Bobson and Elora wait for their repairs, they play basketball and talk more, upon Elora’s request, about “what happened to [her] mom.” It turns out she died in a car crash; the driver was drunk, and Bobson witnessed the fight for the keys that led to the driver storming off. Elora is still trying to process all this when Bobson tells her that Elora’s mother used to call him “Chukogee,” which Bobson believes means “Great White Warrior.” So we can automatically assume that that is not really what “Chukogee” means.
It’s a moment of levity, but one that quickly dissipates. “It’s just, you know, we grew up together,” he tells Elora, whose face throughout all this is a map to a place she’s only thought about before. “I mean, there’s Before They Died, and After. Ripples in between.”
Which brings us, finally and terribly, to the morning after the night before, one year ago. Elora goes to Daniel’s house with some catfish for him, but he doesn’t come to the window. Bear texts that he’s not in class. Elora checks the hideout, but he isn’t there either. She walks to an outbuilding on the property. Her face turns. Gasping and crying, she runs to the body, hanging from an unseen rafter, visible only from the knees down. Elora hugs it at the ankles and tries to lift it up. She wails like a person who’s lost something irreplaceable. Through a hole in the ceiling, a water oak sways in the wind.
In the present, at the salvage yard, Elora sniffs. Coach Bobson, like any good mentor prevented by age from knowing half of what Elora is thinking, just puts an arm around her. It’s not everything she needs in that moment, but it is one thing. Elora reaches up and squeezes his hand. It’s a simple moment, and a lovely one, and “California Dreamin'” is now the third Reservation Dogs episode in a row to feature just incredible performances from an older actor and a younger one paired together and tasked with giving us in about twenty-six minutes a complete, cinema-depth relationship.
Elora drops Bobson off at his house. He tells her he’ll file the paperwork tomorrow, and congratulates her on getting her license. As for California, he has just one thing to say: “Be careful.” Elora, though, doesn’t want to talk about California. She’s ready to deliver the punchline to the joke her mother set up a generation ago. “‘Chukogee’ doesn’t mean ‘Great White Warrior,'” she tells Bobson. “It means ‘toilet.'”
Bobson laughs, good-naturedly, and tells Elora that her mother had a great sense of humor. And that’s it.
It’s a gentle ending for what was a quiet but nonetheless extremely busy episode of Reservation Dogs. In terms of character development and plot potential this was probably the busiest episode of the entire season. Believe it or not, there’s actually a ton of detail work and a whole boatload of jokes that I didn’t even try to include in this recap because it’s already long enough to choke a circus python.
Two other quick asides to wrap up. The first is that I noticed in early promotional materials and TV listings this episode was originally called “California.” Not really sure why they changed the title. It was also labeled 1.8 — meaning this was maybe intended to be the season finale. I only say “maybe” because it’s possible that was just a mistake — the last three Reservation Dogs episodes have all been bottle episodes, focused almost entirely on one character, and we have yet to see one for Bear. We’ll know after next week whether the season finale ends with a big moment, in which case “California Dreamin'” really was just mislabeled, or whether what’s now 1.7 was originally intended to conclude the whole season.
The second aside is that this is the week’s second major TV show to make suicide a major plot point. Look away if you’re a Ted Lasso supporter but haven’t seen 2.8, “Man City”…just killing time here so you can avert your eyes…filling in a bit more space…and there we go. In “Man City,” we finally find out why Ted stopped playing darts with his father when Ted was just 16: he killed himself.
That outcome, though long suspected among Ted Lasso fans, was nonetheless startling to have confirmed. (It was doubly startling for me, a person who loves both shows, given that Daniel killed himself at almost exactly the same age Ted was when he lost his father.) But Ted Lasso is a show about a man who uses goodwill, politeness, and optimism as defenses against his demons. The Rez Dogs are just now understanding exactly what their demons are, where they live, and how they can be dealt with. Fleeing Oklahoma for what sounds like the promised land might sound like a no-brainer. But so far, only Elora seems to have taken Daniel’s idea to heart. Next week, we’ll find out whether her friends feel the same way.