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Erik Swann

How The Final Season Of FX's Reservation Dogs Is Filling The Atlanta-Shaped Hole In My Heart

D'Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai and Donald Glover on Reservation Dogs and Atlanta, respectively.

Spoilers for the first five episodes of Reservation Dogs lie ahead, so proceed with caution.

This time last year, I was preparing to say goodbye to one of the most entertaining TV shows ever to grace the small screen. I’m talking about Atlanta, the quirky and cerebral dramedy created by multihyphenate Donald Glover. The FX show is deeply missed for a plethora of reasons, and it’s honestly hard to believe it wrapped up its four-season run nearly a year ago. There’s been a hole in my TV-loving heart ever since but, thankfully, another excellent piece of programming has helped ease the pain. Fellow FXP offering Reservation Dogs has wonderfully grabbed the baton amid its final season. And there are several specific reasons why it’s filling the void for me. 

This particular stretch of time is bittersweet due to the fact that Reservation Dogs is also about to end its own run after three seasons. So in just a few weeks, I’ll have to bid farewell to yet another one of my favorite series. As sad as that is, RD has been at the top of its game since Season 3 kicked off. It’s always shared similarities with Atlanta but, now that the music-centric show is over, those familiar vibes are especially appreciated. So let’s discuss how this coming-of-age dramedy is carrying the torch during its final stretch of episodes.

(Image credit: FX)

Reservation Dogs Continues To Rely Heavily On Standalone Episodes

When it came to storytelling, Atlanta succeeded in allowing every episode to stand on its own. Each installment took all or a portion of the show’s main characters and placed them within a self-contained situation. And in rare cases, none of the core crew (consisting of Earnest Marks, Alfred Miles, Van Keifer and Darius) were featured. Instead, an entirely different cast of individuals would be present. Those kinds of one-off stories were particularly prominent during Season 3. This creative approach, on the whole, was exceptional and kept the show fresh. 

Reservation Dogs has done an equally admirable job of telling standalone tales during the course of its run, and that trend has remained consistent throughout the early episodes of Season 3. The premiere, for example, is a road trip-centric story that has the Rez Dogs travelling back to Oklahoma following their journey to California in the Season 2 finale. The two episodes that follow see the character Bear going on a walkabout of sorts, as she seeks to find purpose. What’s amazing is that while those two chapters have a throughline, I’d argue that they can still be watched on their own and be thoroughly enjoyed. Finally, Episode 4 flips the script, as it focuses on the entire group back in OK, dealing with the consequences of their Cali trip. Few shows can shift between genres so seamlessly, and that’s something Dogs and ATL do so well.

(Image credit: FX)

The Show Employs A Level Of Surrealism That’s Similar To Atlanta’s

Reservation Dogs has a number of elements that firmly ground it and make it feel like an accurate reflection of the real world. However, it also has a level of surrealism that deeply permeates the fabric of the series. That’s been on display in a big way during the final season, especially when it comes to Bear’s journey. The teen had some wild experiences after being left behind when he, his friends and adult supervisor (Teenie) stopped to catch a connecting bus to Oklahoma. During his travels, he was once again greeted by his recurring spirit guide, William Knifeman, who attempted to advise him. Along the way, Bear also encountered the spirit of a conquistador and was captured (and befriended) by an eccentric recluse, who grows eggplants for “moon people.” And his first encounter was wildly depicted in Episode 5's flashback story.

Then there's the third episode, which provides backstory for the previously introduced Deer Lady – a Native American spirit who has hooves and kills men (and sometimes women) who commit evil deeds. In what was likely her send-off installment, the beautiful entity meets a fearful Bear, who eventually accompanies her to the house of one of her former abusers – who she murders. 

Donald Glover’s show could be just as surreal if not more so. An invisible car, glowing chicken wings, a Black Justin Bieber and (the creepy) Teddy Perkins are just a few elements that convey the show’s off-kilter nature. The dream-like series finale put a fine exclamation point on that as well. Earn and co.’s trippy adventures are missed, but the exploits of the Rez Dogs are just as enjoyable.

(Image credit: FX)

Like Atlanta, Reservation Dogs Keeps Its Characters And Their Intimate Interactions At Its Core

All of the wildness aside, Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi’s show does a masterful job of handling its characters. All four of the titular Rez Dogs – Elora, Bear, Willie Jack, Cheese and honorary member Jackie – are layered individuals and remain the central focus. The people in their orbit, like the calm-natured Officer Big and the peculiar Uncle Brownie, are as well. Everyone on the show is thoroughly entertaining and, as was the case with Atlanta, the extremely personal interactions between them range from hilarious to gut-wrenching. 

There are still a number of episodes left to air but, even at this point, Season 3 has presented some standout moments. Bear’s conversations with the reclusive Maximus are not only totally strange but legitimately sweet. Also surprisingly poignant are his interactions with Deer Lady. It’s hard to say what’s better: the scene in which they become acquainted after meeting at a diner or their goodbye, where she encourages the wayward teen. The fourth episode has some particularly excellent moments. There’s Elora’s chat about her future with Willie Jack’s father, Leon, and Willie Jack’s own talk with artist and medicine man Bucky, who deems her his apprentice. And don’t even get me started on Big and Bev’s cringely funny flirting. In short, I’m going to miss character-driven moments like these.

(Image credit: FX)

Reservation Dogs Follows Atlanta's Lead In Telling Unique Stories About Underrepresented Individuals

What may be the biggest commonality between Reservation Dogs and Atlanta is that both shed light on experiences that aren’t typically highlighted in mainstream media. The latter series offered an intimate look into the music scene within the titular city. In doing so, it explored various facets of the Black experience in nuanced ways. Similarly, Rez Dogs examines elements of the Indigenous community in stunning fashion. There’s so much that can be said for that but, to sum it up, it’s just amazing that we have a show centered around four Native American teens.

The successes of both series in this regard can be greatly attributed to the fact that they have creative teams that can speak to the specific experiences they’re depicting. RD has an almost entirely Indigenous cast and crew, while ATL featured an all-Black writing staff. TV show like these two don’t come around all that often, so we must treasure them while they’re airing. It’s sad that Rez is the next to go, but I’ll continue to cherish this final season and appreciate how it’s been able to stand in for Donald Glover’s musical slow-burn comedy.

Reservation Dogs drops new episodes for Hulu subscription holders on Wednesdays as part of the 2023 TV schedule. You can find all four seasons of Atlanta on the same streaming service as well.

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