The second episode of Reservation Dogs kicks off with … well, an ass-kicking. At the top of the episode, Bear is jumped by members of a rival gang, forcing him to spend the rest of the day trying to get checked out at the rez’s Indian Health Service clinic. Indian Health Service clinics IRL provide medical care to over half of the estimated 5.2 million Indigenous people living in the U.S., especially those in rural reservation communities. Writer Sterlin Harjo uses this bottle-episode setup to flesh out some of our main characters and introduce viewers to the minutiae of the small town of Okern, Oklahoma.
So of course, let’s talk about the hilarious cameo by comedian Jana Schmieding (who is Cheyenne River Lakota), whose deadpan performance brings out much of the humor in the bleak and dingy hospital setting. Schmieding is a writer and star of another Indigenous-led show, Rutherford Falls, which would make for an excellent weekly pairing with Reservation Dogs. When Elora also ends up at the clinic complaining of stomach pains (caused by eating massive amounts of stolen hot chips), Schmieding’s receptionist character writes down that her issue is “something else,” a subtle reference to that time Native Americans got relegated to the “something else” category during a CNN breakdown of presidential-election statistics (these “something else” votes, by the way, were key in flipping several swing states). Her back-and-forth banter with the Reservation Dogs throughout is hilarious, and she rocks some amazing beaded earrings.
Another standout is Bobby Lee as Dr. Kang, the sarcastic and tired “everything doctor” (“toes, backs, assholes …”). After spending ten years working at the clinic and being stretched thin, Dr. Kang is a bit exasperated and isolated, personifying the type of character folks who grew up on the rez may be familiar with. Despite his short temper with the Rez Dogs, Dr. Kang seems to actually care about this little town and smiles as he smokes a cigarette and eats a bag of Flaming Flamers he has apparently confiscated. Harjo is clearly drawing from experience in developing these kinds of dorky yet round characters, and these little details shine throughout the episode.
“NDN Clinic” also establishes Cheese as the most softhearted member of the group when he starts playing along after an elderly patient mistakes him for her grandson. Cheese can’t see after having his eyes dilated during an examination, but he comforts the stranger nonetheless, going so far as to take her for a spin outside for some fresh air. On the rez, it’s not unusual for youth to refer to adult women and elders as “auntie,” and Cheese’s plotline offers some moments of levity among the episode’s otherwise goofy setups. We also find out in a back and forth between Cheese and one of the nurses (played by Creek, Colville, Salish-Kootenai, and Cherokee actress Nathalie Standingcloud, who also happens to be an amazing tattoo artist) that both of Cheese’s parents are dead and he has been living with one of his uncles, who has a bit of a reputation among the women on the rez. It’s some great subtle character development that gives the episode a little sense of forward momentum, and I’m interested to see how Cheese’s home situation influences the group’s plans to run away to California. In the previous episode, we saw two different attitudes developing: Bear’s guilt over leaving the rez and his belief that the group is just running away from their problems was put up against Elora’s bitterness and desire to get out of Dodge. Cheese’s shaky family connections make it seem as if he’ll fall more onto Elora’s side, and the details we get in this episode clarify why he’s onboard with the plan to skip town and head west.
Not much happens here in terms of the season’s larger plotlines — Bear, Cheese, and Elora wander around the clinic while Willie Jack shills her questionable meat pies outside — so it works best as an episode watched back-to-back with the more nimble series pilot (which makes sense, since the first two episodes were released simultaneously on Hulu). Aside from a couple of brief standoffs with rival gang members at the top and end of this episode, nothing really develops regarding the Reservation Dogs’ brooding rivalry with the other gang. Will the violence escalate and take a more serious turn? Will Bear’s mom shut down the whole gig? And I have so many questions about the mysterious bleached-blonde leader, Jackie! At the end of the episode, we also see that Bear’s mother is the object of much male attention in town, made very clear by Dr. Kang’s and Big’s obvious attempts to snag her, much to Bear’s irritation. The second episode is a little quiet but serves to give viewers a bit more insight into the reservation’s inner workings and push along some character development, especially for Cheese.
Willie Jack’s Deadly Meat Pies
• This episode is directed by Sydney Freeland, an Emmy-nominated trans woman Navajo filmmaker. Check out her feature Drunktown’s Finest for a more dramatic take on reservation life and keep an eye out for her forthcoming Netflix feature, Rez Ball, which is in preproduction.
• We get another appearance from Dallas Goldtooth as William Knifeman, and more and more this character reminds me of the ones Goldtooth used to play in 1491s sketches like “The Indian Store” and “New Moon Auditions.” It’s a welcome and silly takedown of the stoic-warrior trope, and it’s long overdue. Let’s start taking bets to see how long it takes before he appears in one of Bear’s visions playing a pan flute.
• “Okay, you could die, all right? Sometimes, Native eyes, they just fall out.”
• This show is revealing that Zahn McClarnon — known for his more serious roles in shows like Westworld and Longmire — has amazing comedic timing! His line about “organ-tic” energy drinks was this episode’s laugh-out-loud moment, second only to his shouting match with Willie Jack. (“We’re sellin’ meat pies!” “Well, then, go over there and sell ’em! Shit!”)