“Hunting,” Reservation Dogs’ sixth episode, opens on a pickup pulling off alongside the forest just as the day is dawning. A camouflaged man takes a sack of feed from the bed and walks into the woods. It’s Leon, the man Bear first asked for fighting tips in episode two, “NDN Clinic.” It’s too early for the light to even be dappled. Leon takes out a knife, cuts the bag open, and starts shaking corn out onto the ground. Something starts breathing. And then, in a shot you know from a million horror movies (and a million more parodies), the man looks up.
A dense-black figure with glowing red eyes stands not more than a few dozen feet from him. Its breath is a low, deep, infrequent wheeze like that of a predator judging its prey. The camouflaged man takes a step back. He asks, “Can I help you?”
He says, “I don’t want any trouble.” He asks, “Who are you?” The red-eyed creature cocks its head: you want to say “almost like a dog” except it’s nothing like a dog. The man steps back again.
And then, in a cut so simply beautiful I want to ask it for a date, we’re in Willie Jack’s bedroom and a title card informs us it’s One Year Later and the creature’s red eyes have become the red glow of an alarm clock.
The alarm goes off at 4:30 in the morning. Willie Jack just stares at it. I was wondering why any of the Rez Dogs would be up so early, until I remembered that this episode is called “Hunting.” How does Willie begin this particular day? With a cup of coffee and a conversation with Daniel, the fifth member of the friends’ circle. He hasn’t been mentioned much since the pilot episode, when the Rez Dogs commemorated the one-year anniversary of his death.
Willie tells the portrait of Daniel hanging above the table that she hopes he’s having lots of fun “up there, wherever you are.” When she says she’s about to take her dad hunting to take care of some “unfinished business,” the portrait becomes the actor himself. “Chunk’s still out there,” she says, and Daniel smiles. “Help my bullet go straight, bro.”
She also mentions California, continuing the tension Reservation Dogs maintains between its title characters really wanting to get up and go and finding all sorts of reasons to stay. At the end of the pilot episode, Bear was pretty adamant in his refusal to be run out of town by a rival gang (the NDN Mafia, which also — like the Rez Dogs themselves — isn’t a real gang; this is another of the tensions the show maintains). It’s been interesting to see California come up from time to time since then, usually by one character and not the whole group, and almost always as a sort of nebulous goal, one none of them — except maybe Elora — have a clear idea how to achieve. Since Willie Jack restates that she heard California “was [Daniel’s] idea,” keeping that idea alive is one way of keeping his memory alive, too.
Willie rouses her dad, Leon. He’s the man we followed into the woods in the first scene. Leon is, understandably, less interested in getting out into the woods than she is; he didn’t even know it was deer season. On the way out, he reminds Willie to check her boot supports, to not swerve if an animal runs out into the road, to clean her rifle thoroughly. She chalks all this up to his OCD — says it’s “been flaring up for about a year,” and adds that he hasn’t been hunting in a year even though it’s his favorite thing. So Leon never told his daughter what he found in the woods. If you weren’t getting an ominous vibe before, you sure are now. The “No Trespassing” sign on the barbed wire fence isn’t helping, either.
But it turns out that Willie Jack hasn’t talked to her father about those California plans, either. When she tells him they’ve got to get their hunts in because she won’t be around forever, he’s taken aback.
They walk for a while, to a familiar spot, passing a long rusted-out deer stand — another reminder that even though you’re in the woods, you aren’t alone. Willie Jack starts putting on her “warpaint,” which is actually some crimson face paint she got at the Halloween store. Her father chides her for letting it touch her face when there are so many unpronounceable chemicals on the label: “Probably get some kind of face tumor from it.” Willie responds, “What’s a face tumor?” which is probably the thing that got Leon to follow his daughter’s lead.
And then they sit, and wait, because when you go hunting you do a lot of sitting and waiting. There are three logs for sitting, though it’s just the two of them.
Before long, Leon returns to California. “Way better there,” Willie Jack says. Her father responds, “How is California better than here?” All Willie can rebut with is a list of celebrities. “But it’s fun here,” Leon tells his daughter. “There’s things to do here. You know, eat catfish, walk around, and you can ride your bike. You know, just walk around and look at things.” That may sound comical, but Reservation Dogs has a way of giving a very simple presentation to complicated things. The absence of glamour in Leon’s answer underscores a specific point: there’s familiarity for Willie Jack where she is. If you go somewhere else, you might be able to become someone else, but you’ll have to give up that familiarity, that comfort.
Giving that up is, of course, what she says she really wants: “The stuff I want to do, you can’t do here.” She reveals she wants to become “a deadly MMA fighter,” “a gourmet chef,” or “a dog rescuer.” The last of those three is accompanied by a shot of Willie Jack in Animal Rescue uniform asking for and getting a high-five from a collie. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that I would devour a full Reservation Dogs episode of Willie Jack rescuing dogs and then befriending them.
Leon is a little saddened and a little impressed by the breath of his daughter’s ambition. But he tells her that he never left because everything he wanted is right where he already was. “You’ll see. You know, people leave here all the time. They come right back. ‘Cause this is where their people are. This is their home.”
And then we come right back to those ominous vibes again. Willie Jack says she’s hoping to take down the infamous Chunk, a “big buck” she and Daniel named on a hunt several years earlier. When Leon has no memory of such a deer, Willie shows him the photo she printed off on his laser printer — she got the photo from his trail camera. Except he doesn’t own any trail cameras, and, furthermore, this isn’t their land. Willie Jack is confused: “Don’t we own this land?” Leon just laughs. “No. We’re Indian. We don’t own land.” He says his great-grandfather sold it “sometime in the 30s” and the current owners are a couple of Texas ranchers. Willie Jack is optimistic that maybe the Texans would just give it back. Leon scoffs, “Texas ranchers don’t give shit back.”
He tells Willie Jack to show him the trail cam, and we cut to a found-footage montage that should be hilarious and heartwarming and is instead mostly disturbing. As Willie Jack and Leon walk through the woods, their movements are tracked on a whole network of trail cams. Because of course there wouldn’t be just one. Judging by the identifying markers in each shot, there are at least 24 different cameras. No self-respecting Texas rancher would let land like this go unsurveilled; if there’s one thing we’ve learned about Texans in the last few days, it’s that they need to exert control.
Willie Jack and Leon dance and gallivant. They pretend their rifles are fully automatic and shoot up the trees, in the most overt Predator homage to this point in the episode. They get followed by a pesky wild turkey who just won’t leave them alone. And the whole thing is set to “Daddy and Home,” a bittersweet song about a man returning home to be with his father near the end of his life. Tanya Tucker recorded the best-known version on her 1988 album Strong Enough to Bend, but the version Reservation Dogs uses is the songwriter Jimmie Rodgers’ original, from 1928.
In sum, it would be a beautiful scene if you didn’t spend the whole thing holding your breath worried that a bunch of adrenaline-charged Texans are about to charge out with guns blazing.
As they wind down, Leon brings up California again, this time conflating it with the state’s most well-known city: “Why do you want to go to LA?” He says the trees will bring Willie Jack back. So maybe he’s already accepted that her departure is a foregone conclusion. Willie Jack thinks about it, then says, “Daniel wanted to leave. Maybe if he left, he’d still be here.”
The two of them reminisce further. They’re happy, but it turns out Daniel was not the best hunting companion, and not only because he scared off all the deer with his “atomic farts.” It seems he was pretty easily bored, and not shy about declaring that in the middle of a hunt.
When Willie Jack tries to calm him down, reminding him that there *are* deer out there — like the infamous Chunk — Daniel loses it in that special, attention-grabbing way made most infamous by teenaged boys. He stands up and starts shouting for the deer to come out “so we can kill you already,” except Daniel also swears so much he makes Willie Jack sound like White Jesus. The three of them are sitting at the same three-log spot Willie Jack and Leon used in the present, but you start to see how Daniel’s log didn’t get used as much.
Eventually, even Willie Jack is frustrated by Daniel’s outburst. Now that the hunt is ruined, she and Leon get up to go. “Thank you,” Daniel says. “Finally. Speaking my language.” “Always actin’ up,” Willie Jack says to him; Daniel responds, “Got to.” Given the general hunters-become-the-hunted theme of this episode, and the creature of unknown origin doing the hunting, Daniel’s screaming and shouting reminded me of Dutch trying to lure the Predator into his trap in the 1987 Schwarzenegger classic. But it didn’t work for Dutch, and, while it gets him out of the woods, it didn’t really work for Daniel, either.
It’s not entirely surprising that the first time Reservation Dogs actually shows us Daniel, he’s… kind of a dick. He’s only been talked about lovingly, even reverently, but death colors memories more than we realize.
The memories are interrupted by the arrival of the actual Texas ranchers. But, as Reservation Dogs so often does with white characters who pose a threat (the city cops in last week’s “Come and Get Your Love,” the clerk who “catches” Cheese stealing in the pilot), these two are just buffoonish. They march through the woods taking turns reading off a laundry list of conservative gripes, culminating with “And don’t forget the gays,” never noticing the two other hunters not any farther away from them than Leon was from the red-eyed beast in the first scene.
And about that: after the Texans pass, Leon describes his encounter to Willie Jack for the first time. He says he “thought it was Tall Man.” One of the many things this show does well is introduce Native beliefs like this — the Deer Lady last week was an amazing example — with no context. Partly this is because you don’t really need any more information to understand what Leon is talking about. But more importantly it’s because, as co-creator Sterlin Harjo has said in multiple interviews, it’s not the show’s job to hold the hands of its non-Native viewers and guide them through or otherwise explain every Native reference.
This leads to Leon telling Willie Jack that if she needs to go to California, he’ll still be there for her. He tells his daughter he’s sorry he couldn’t “be there” for Daniel in the way Daniel needed him to be. Willie Jack starts to cry; father and daughter acknowledge how much they miss Daniel.
From here, we get one final scene break. It’s a flashback to a year and a day ago: the night before the episode’s first scene. As Leon loads bags of corn into his truck, to take to the “mighty hunting grounds,” Daniel walks by. He says he’s been at a honky-tonk with Elora and is headed home. He asks if he can help, but Leon is pretty much done loading the truck. Daniel starts to leave, but Leon gives him a coat, telling Daniel he’s “running around like a savage,” and will “catch [your] death of cold.” Leon asks if he’s OK. Daniel takes a pause that’s just a beat short of a long pause before saying “Yeah.” Leon’s side of the exchange is friendly, but something about Daniel is off — like he’s set something in motion he can’t stop, like he’s already decided to do something and has to see it through.
An instant later, we’re back to reality: Chunk wanders into view. Those tears are forgotten. Willie Jack has the shot. Leon reminds her to breathe. The scene cuts to black for the rifle shot.
And then it’s a joyous reveal: Willie Jack smiling at the truck bed, which contains not only Chunk but that pesky turkey, who’s decided to join them for the ride home. Evidently the Texans either didn’t hear Willie Jack’s shot or didn’t catch her and Leon dragging the carcass back to the truck (both plausible options).
At Daniel’s grave, Willie Jack shares the news about Chunk. She also tells Daniel about California and gives us still more information about this missing character and the death we haven’t gotten many details about:
Everyone wants to leave to California, but…. It’s really hard. Leaving everyone here. I don’t know how you did it. Maybe you didn’t know. I’m not mad at you anymore.
So the implication is that Daniel killed himself. I think it’s safe to assume that that’s been true all along and I’ve just been too dense to notice it. “Hunting” gave us by far the most Daniel we’ve gotten all season long, and the most talk of California since the pilot. It’s easy to be drawn in by the promise of someplace new: when you don’t think you want to be where you are, anywhere else could be better.
Reservation Dogs doesn’t feel like it’s building to a will-they-or-won’t-they climax, though; instead, the show seems to want to show its characters coming to a fuller understanding of what they would leave behind if they go. And to remind them — and us — of just how young they are. The dates on Daniel’s grave make him fifteen years old. The Rez Dogs don’t know how much time they have left, because they know how quickly it can vanish.