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Reservation Dogs Season 1 Finale: The Fear in Your Heart Will Guide You

This is it — 1.8, “Satvrday,” is the Reservation Dogs Season 1 finale. I’m not sure why I feel melancholy right now. Maybe it’s because over the last few episodes, it’s become extra apparent just how young these four kids are. As they’ve had to confront more of their individual histories, we’ve been reminded that the Rez Dogs are all still in their early teens. In the pilot, when they’re nothing more than four friends stealing a chip truck, there’s a fun recklessness to their actions — even as they start grappling with consequences.

But then Bear saw some hard truths about his father. Cheese learned there’s always a life-or-death decision waiting behind even the most innocuous relationship. Willie Jack faced her past and found her father willing to let go of her future if it would make her happy. And Elora took us back in time to the horrible truth about Daniel, because she’s the one who still struggles with it most viscerally.

This is a really good show, funny in unusual ways, often quiet, never afraid to poke at its (non-Native) audience or at itself. It’s about the end of innocence as much as it is anything else. So I don’t want its first season to end. And that’s a dumb way for me to feel, because FX renewed it three weeks ago!

Thank you for indulging my little therapy session; let’s get to the Reservation Dogs Season 1 finale.

We open in Bear’s bedroom. He’s asleep, just as he was a few episodes ago when Elora came to wake him up. This time, though, it’s the Spirit standing outside Bear’s window. He was prominent and great in the pilot, and I don’t think we’ve seen him since “NDN Clinic,” episode 1.2.

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I understand not wanting to overuse a good thing — particularly when that good thing is a quote-unquote Indian Spirit who mocks popular perceptions of what an Indian Spirit is “supposed” to do. If he shows up too often, he’s all the more likely to be misunderstood. But Dallas Goldtooth is just brilliant in this role and I hope he’s back next year.

The Spirit is standing at Bear’s window, eating a vending machine pastry. He throws some at Bear to wake him up. He tells Bear he had a vision — “Which is kinda crazy, ’cause I’m a vision already?” — of Bear’s ancestors telling him to go to talk to the “young warrior.” He also tells Bear that he’s got “colonizers” among his ancestors, on account of how his great-grandma Susie “liked to smash white guys like hot cakes.”

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Bear, however, is in no mood to be teased, because today is the big day: “Goin’ to California today.” Spirit is elated, and makes elated noises. And then he teases Bear for the second time without Bear knowing it: “Tell me more!”

This really should give Bear pause. For all the times he’s brought up California, and all the enthusiasm with which he’s brought it up, we’ve never heard him elaborate upon an actual plan. Turns out, that’s still the case. “We saved up money. A lot of it,” Bear tells his Spirit. “So” — hand clap forward — “we’re hittin’ the road.” The Spirit doesn’t even raise an eyebrow. “Looks like you got it all figured out there!” I am no longer giggling and let out a guffaw that would scatter deer for miles around.

But that’s not all he has to say. The Spirit also asks Bear if there’s anything else he maybe has to do before leaving. It’s essentially the same thing he said the last time he saw Bear; as then, Bear just naturally assumes he’s “supposed to fight the bad guy gang.” He calls them the bad guy gang! All season long, Reservation Dogs has used the two “gangs” to underscore how young and foolish all eight “gang members” are.

And the Spirit is quick to point out the flaw in Bear’s logic — to a point. “Woah, woah, hey, hey — slow down there, cowboy,” he says. “I don’t got any answers! Only questions.”

At Willie Jack’s house, it’s a quiet morning, presumably no different from any other. It’s Willie Jack’s parents’ anniversary, but her father didn’t remember it. She slips Leon something on the sly: it’s a $50 gift card for the casino buffet. He asks how Willie Jack got it. When she responds “I have my ways,” Leon instantly knows she stole it. Willie Jack doesn’t deny it, either. Instead, she calls out, “Mom! Dad give you your present yet?” Turns out her mom was equally unaware: “Oh! Is it? I forgot!”

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Leon reminds her it “falls on the same day every year.” He gives his wife the gift card, and she’s surprised and impressed by its $50 value. “Yeah,” Leon says, sipping his coffee, “but you’re worth it, baby.” Willie Jack just smiles and bobs her head.

Cheese is playing chess with his grandma. Of course, it’s still not his grandma. It’s the woman he visited with in the clinic back in episode 2, who thought he was her grandson. He’s been visiting her all these weeks. Cheese is great. He’s naïve as hell and great. But now that he’s about to go to California, he confesses that he’s not really related to her. The woman laughs a kind laugh. “Sure you are! Even if you’re not.”

And Elora sits in her living room, holding her grandma’s car keys, not knowing what to say. Finally she tells her, “Thanks for everything, Grandma.” Grandma doesn’t look up from her crossword puzzle, and just tells Elora to “put gas in it when you’re done.” So Elora didn’t tell her grandma about the California plan because she needs to steal the woman’s car to get there.

And that’s all four friends — the pieces are in place. The season finale is the first Reservation Dogs episode where we see every one of the Rez Dogs at home (or, in Cheese’s case, the place that feels most like home). Everybody brought up California except Willie Jack. Bear only brought it up to the Spirit that visits him occasionally, and the Spirit is the only character all season to have pointed out that these four don’t have any plan beyond Go To California.

Speaking of going places! Uncle Brownie is driving down the street on a riding lawnmower. He asks his nephews and nieces if anybody wants a ride, tells them he “borrowed it from the hardware store.” What he really wanted was an axe: his hand is shaking, and that means a tornado is coming. “Y’all got an axe? I can stop it,” he says. “I know a tornado ceremony. Just need an axe and some tobacco.” Everyone is incredulous; Willie Jack thinks Brownie wants to throw an axe at a tornado.

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The gang was on their way to the hideout anyway. They’re counting up their money and working up their enthusiasm for the big trip. Willie Jack pops a hole in that right away, telling them she’s not going. Bear and Elora can’t believe what they’re hearing; Elora does a head count to make sure no one else is bailing. “This place eats people,” she reminds Willie Jack. How does she respond? By telling them “Fuck, just ’cause I’m not goin’ doesn’t mean you gotta act like that.” She takes her cut of the gang money out of her sock and hands it to Elora. “You guys are still my fuckin’ friends. You guys are like my siblings, nevermind.” She says she’ll try and visit them when they make it out. Things start to get heavy.

Bear, weighed down further by the threat of unfinished business, reveals his Spirit conversations and says they have to fight the NDN Mafia “once and for all.” Elora is immediately hesitant, so it looks like we’re about to find out whether she became friends with Jackie. But Willie Jack and Cheese are into the idea, so it’s off to the big showdown!

Unaware of the world of hurt they’re about to be in, the NDN Mafia sits outside a house, totally exposed to the coming wrath of the Rez Dogs. Jackie wants something to do — anything. Bone Thug Dog tries to get her high. White Steve freestyle dances in the driveway.

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Brownie, still riding the lawnmower on the street, talks with Mose and Mekko. They don’t believe he can stop a tornado with an axe, either. He scoffs at their skepticism, tells them they “don’t know the powers” he has, that he can “flatten their tires with a single whistle.” Big pulls up behind Brownie and gives his siren a single toot.

Bear, embracing his self-appointed role as Leader of the Rez Dogs, strides up onto the NDN Mafia’s front lawn and lays into the time-honored tradition of every good fight: shit talking. It’s four-on-four shit talking, so much cross-talk you could watch this scene two dozen times and not untangle every word. No punches thrown. Elora looks terrified. Cheese looks increasingly concerned. He shouts: “HEY!” He points to the sky, where a gigantic, ominous cloud is indeed moving ever closer. “There’s a tornado coming.”

Everyone looks at him for about two beats. Cheese is the best. He’s totally right! That cloud looks nasty as fuck. That’s a seek shelter cloud for sure. But then Jackie says “Man, who the fuck asked you?” and the shit-talking fight is back on. Until a hailstone the size of X-Man Roy Kent’s fist lands at her feet.

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The hailstorm starts and everyone scatters. They’re headed for the church — not to, as Brownie puts it, “pray to the white man’s God” — because the church has a big enough basement to fit most of the cast.

But not Brownie! The lovable doofus is still hunting for an axe. He rolls up to Bulldog’s house and bangs on the door, but nobody’s home. So he rolls up the garage door, finds a fireman’s axe, and says “My medicine is strong today.”

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It is at this point that I start to worry Brownie won’t make it to Season 2.

In the basement, Bear is worried about his mom, who hasn’t responded to his texts. He’s moved on from the big NDN Mafia showdown pretty quickly. Which is all the more impressive since he, Willie Jack, and Cheese are literally sitting next to their rivals in paired-up pews. That’s odd. It’s almost like a big showdown isn’t what his Spirit has been guiding him toward at all!

Mose and Mekko are freestyling. At first I thought this was maybe to distract everybody from the tornado, but now I’m pretty sure they would be doing this regardless and the fact that they have an audience is just a bonus. These guys have set the bar too high for future Greek choruses. If your chorus can’t top “Pop Pop Pop” or “Problem,” which I’ve had in my head for weeks, I’m not interested. Shoutout to Lil Mike and Funnybone, maybe the funniest of all the hilarious & wonderful side characters on Reservation Dogs.

Then White Steve starts freestyling.

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I guess this is the logical extension of his driveway dance earlier. But he’s actually OK at it; Reservation Dogs isn’t interested in putting a spotlight on him just to mock him. The highlight is “Standin’ next to y’all got me feelin’ so tall, makes me wanna say ‘Yo, you’re killin’ me, Smalls!'” Big applause from the room. Even Bear gives him a high five.

Back outside, Brownie is looking for the right venue to confront the storm. He’s stumbling about some side yards, struggling against the rain and hail, and passes a house with two dudes sitting in chairs on the roof. They wave at him. This, it seems, is the right idea. Brownie picks up an extension ladder and climbs to the roof of the house next door. The music is upbeat, but please, Brownie, don’t get killed. Don’t get blown off the roof or plunked by giant hail or struck by lightning. It’s an aluminum ladder as well. Do you have to do the tornado ceremony on the roof?

Bear realizes Elora and Jackie are both gone from the basement. Willie Jack thinks maybe they’re working out the finer details of “trial by combat” to sort out the two gangs’ differences, but Bear remains suspicious. He, like Brownie, also goes to the highest point to find what he’s looking for…

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…and spots the two of them in the main hall, conferring too quietly for him or us to hear. They’re surrounded by plenty of beautiful stained glass, though. I hate to go all Cheese here, but I can’t help worrying about safety in the middle of a giant storm. With a tornado. Albeit one we haven’t actually seen.

Behind him, Bear’s Spirit says, “I wonder what they’re talkin’ about?” When Bear asks what’s he’s doing there, the Spirit drops the first of at least two big Growing Up Hints for Bear: “I don’t know if you realize this, but I’m called here by the fear in your heart.”

Bear remains focused on Elora and Jackie. And I would argue he’s also not showing the Spirit proper respect by appreciating the comedy of his absurd stories. And his presentation. Dude is sitting in Jesus lap eating communion wafers.

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The Spirit assures Bear he’s “doin’ good stuff out there. Helping the people — so that they may live.” (Is he?) But he also reminds Bear that “there’s still something you haven’t taken care of.” In this instance, Bear remains focused on fighting the NDN Mafia, and blames the tornado for cutting the brawl short. So the Spirit has to drop Growing Up Hint #2: “Like I said. I have no answers. Just stoic wisdom. But maybe — just maybe? That’s not what the fuck I was talkin’ about.”

So Bear returns to the (safer, windowless) basement and winds up having a big showdown with Elora, instead. He wants to know why she was talking to Jackie; she turns his demands back onto him, telling him she’s getting more money for California by extending an invitation to Jackie. Bear says they have enough, but now it’s Elora’s turn to drop some wisdom on his head:

I have money. You spent yours on dick medallions and track suits, trying to live out your daddy dreams. I’m sick of it. I’m always cleaning up after you, Bear. Fixing things before you even knew they went wrong — I’m fuckin’ sick of it….I was the one saving the money. I’m the one who got the car. I’m the one who got the license. Where’s your fuckin’ license, Bear? You know you never really wanted to go to California in the first place, and now we’re gonna go there and you’re gonna mooch off me the entire way. Your dad would be fuckin’ proud.

Wow. That leveled me; I can only imagine what it did to Bear. He tries to throw Daniel in her face, saying Elora only thinks about the fact that he’s dead. Elora almost tells Bear that’s because she was the person who found his body. Instead, she scoots away.

Willie Jack sees this. She asks for everyone’s attention, then stands up in front of the whole group. She announces it’s her parents’ anniversary, and thanks them for being the best parents in the world to her, to her cousin Daniel, and to her friends. She hasn’t seen them happy since Daniel’s death. And that’s why she’s staying.

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We already knew Willie Jack wasn’t going to California. But making it public like this, drawing specifically on community to try and keep her friends with her, to try and keep them friends for each other… Willie Jack is the MVP of the group, without a doubt. And of Reservation Dogs Season 1. She really is the heart. Elora kind of wants to be the heart, even though she’s the brain. Bear really wants to be the heart, but with the amount of shit he’s still got to work through he’s really more like the lower intestine. (Cheese is the nervous system.)

By the way — this is also when Cheese announces he’s staying, too. Nobody really responds, except for Willie Jack, who bobs her head and smiles.

Up on the rooftop, Brownie is now actively fighting the storm…

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…and then, after the break, the storm is gone. “Must’ve missed us,” Big says, surveying the minor damage we never get to even see.

Bear acknowledges — to Willie Jack and Cheese — that he said some “stupid shit” to Elora, but that they’ll probably just “talk about it in the car.” Oof. Bear didn’t get a bottle episode this season, but he’s doing a lot of growing up this week.

Back at Bear’s house, his mom is just getting out of her car. He asks where she’s been, then gives her a huge hug and tells her he loves her. When she tells him she’s going inside to make dinner, he also gives her the hugest little kid smile. It’s the perfect encapsulation of what adolescence pulls us both toward and away from.

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Then he sees the bags he’d packed and left outside. Bear sits at the curb on the shaggy lawn with his California luggage, his hands pushing up his cheeks as he weighs what’s about to happen.

Mose and Mekko walk their bikes past. The front tires on both are “flatter than a Indian booty.” We still haven’t seen what happened to Brownie.

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And then we get a beautiful bit of editing. The sound of a car engine rises. Bear looks to his left. Elora pulls up outside a house with a shaggy lawn, honks twice… and a slow pan reveals Jackie coming out of her house carrying a bag and a suitcase.

She assures Elora she has gas money, and gets in. Right away, she starts shit-talking their “stupid town.”

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“Everything in the city is better,” she tells Elora. “Everybody sticks to themselves; nobody fucks with anybody else.” And they drive out of town. Oh, Jackie. You’ve been painted as the street-smartest kid on the show, and you probably are. But you are in for a very, very rude awakening.

And to close out the season we get Brownie, naked, in a field.

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He stands up, bewildered. He picks up his axe; the head turns to dust and blows away. Across the field, Bear’s Spirit calls out to him. Brownie asks about his clothes; the Spirit tells him they “went to the place where the spirits go. You know, you put up that prayer,” he explains. “We heard you! So, we had to take something from you, in return. It was either your clothes… or your life.”

Brownie isn’t entirely convinced: “You here to take me with you?” The Spirit tells him no, he’s there “to guide you.” He lets out a piercing double-cry, cuts himself off when he starts to cough. He coughs and coughs. And then he says, “A’ho.”

And that’s the season. I almost don’t know what to say, which usually means I’m about to ramble. So I’ll keep it tight in closing if nowhere else. Reservation Dogs‘ first season gives us an ever-expanding world. Every episode highlights new elements of that world and new people who live in it, while deepening and enriching what we already know. This season ends with its main characters literally pushing outward and inward at the same time. It is, in sum, really good. I look forward to revisiting it and to seeing its cast & crew all dolled up to receive their awards at next year’s Emmys ceremony, hopefully just in time for Season 2 to drop.

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Written By

John is a former academic and lifelong overthinker. He's written many short things and abandoned many long ones. He grew up in the Midwest, currently lives in the South, and would get lost in a different forest every day if he could. He is trying very hard.

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