In her Pulitzer Prize–winning book of poetry, Postcolonial Love Poem, Natalie Diaz breaks down the mathematics of Native American life in the United States: “Native Americans make up less than 1 percent of the population of America. 0.8 percent of 100 percent.” If one is the loneliest number, then how lonely is something less than one?
Near the end of this same poem, Diaz exclaims, “I am begging: Let me be lonely but not invisible.” Indigenous peoples are often reduced numerically into an invisible population through the magic of statistics like those mentioned above. It’s part of the reasoning often deployed to justify a lack of Native American representation in popular culture — some folks will argue that there just “aren’t enough” Native people around anyway, so why spend the time and money making a show just for them? It’s a way to make lonely people into invisible people.
This sense of loneliness and invisibility takes a heavy toll on Indigenous peoples, especially our young people, and part of the reason Indigenous people have been celebrating Reservation Dogs so vigorously, so visibly. Many of us are finally seeing Indigenous peoples represented publicly in an authentic way. And while Reservation Dogs is certainly giving us much to celebrate through its depiction of Indigenous joy and laughter, the producers and writers have not shied away from representing these more upsetting aspects of Native life. This week’s episode, titled “California Dreamin’,” is more a nightmare than dream, depicting the toll intergenerational trauma takes on Indigenous youth.
Like Diaz, I want to offer up some numbers to contextualize this week’s episode. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics say that, among Native Americans, 40 percent of people who die by suicide are between the ages of 15 and 24. Native adults aged 18–24 experience the highest rates of suicide — higher than any other racial or ethnic group. The CDC has since declared that the disproportionately high rates of depression, mental illness, and suicide among Tribal youth is a “crisis.” This crisis is the result of hundreds of years of genocide and colonization. During this time, the U.S. implemented policies like residential schools, relocation, and the reorganization of tribal governments, which were all intended to wreak havoc on Native cultures and families. It’s the tumultuous backdrop of Native life. And the thing that makes this history so burdensome is that it’s not just history — Indigenous dispossession is ongoing. Today’s Indigenous youth have been swept up in the wake of history.
In an instant, all of this grief and trauma can come crashing down during life’s mundane moments — for example, during a driver’s test. And that’s where we start with this episode, with Elora waiting to take her driver’s test at the DMV. Elora’s failed the test three times before, but she’s hopeful for a different result this time around: “Four is the sacred number,” she jokes with a DMV employee. She’s also just been daydreaming, staring at a picture of California tacked to the wall. At this point in the series, Elora feels isolated from her friends, each of whom has a more supportive network of direct family members. The fact that Elora shows up at the DMV alone, without a parent or community member to cheer her on, is telling.
After she steps outside to begin the examination, Elora is shocked to discover that her instructor for the test is Coach “Cukuce” Bobson (played by Bill Burr), and we find out that he used to be Elora’s coach (of course Elora is a former rez-ball star). After a brief exchange where Bobson inquires why Elora suddenly quit the basketball team (it was so she could raise money for the crew to take off to California), the two hop into Elora’s grandma’s car and head out.
Other important numbers that crop up in the episode include the number zero, which is how many rear-view mirrors Elora’s car has at the start of the test. Before heading out, Elora retrieves her the mirror from the glove compartment and duct-tapes it back in place, much to Coach Bobson’s dismay.
Try as they might, the two passengers of the vehicle can’t keep their trauma at bay. During a parallel-parking test, Elora breaks down into tears, admitting that the reason she’s failed the test so many times is that she doesn’t have anyone to help teach her to drive. But Coach Bobson is keeping a secret, too — we find out that he has been trying to track down his estranged daughter, who is struggling with addiction. In the middle of showing Elora how to parallel park, Bobson receives a call that his daughter has been spotted at a nearby hotel, and he hijacks the car. Shortly after, the two arrive at a nearby hotel, and Bobson runs in, guns blazing. Several gunshots and one busted taillight later, they speed off.
Another missing person casts a shadow over Elora and Coach Bobson: Elora’s late mother, Cookie. After speeding away from the shootout, the two head over to Kenny Boy’s junkyard to patch up Elora’s car. There, we find that the car accident Elora’s mom died in was caused by an intoxicated driver. “We tried to get Rodney [Cookie’s boyfriend at the time] not to drive,” Bobson tells Elora, and he mentions that her Uncle Brownie even started a fight with Rodney to attempt to stop the pair from leaving. It’s chilling news, especially given that it comes in the midst of Elora’s own driving test.
Throughout the episode, we observe Elora as she tries to keep her grief at bay. The sudden death of her friend Daniel has brought her feelings surrounding the loss of her mother crashing back, and she appears to be lost in a tsunami of grief that’s trying to drag her under. It’s crushing when someone is there, and then like that, they are gone. Everything suddenly becomes messy, and it becomes harder to imagine what it was like while they were still around. “There’s before they died, and after,” Bobson puts it to Elora, “and ripples in between.”
From there, we are pulled into the episode’s most devastating sequence: a flashback of the moments leading up to Daniel’s suicide and of Elora’s discovery of Daniel’s body. We’re witness to Daniel and Elora’s night at the honky-tonk, which begins nice enough and slowly disintegrates as Daniel becomes more on-edge. Daniel is impulsive, emotional, and stubborn … in other words, he’s a teenage boy. As the night wears on, he stops dancing with Elora and starts dancing by himself. It’s an act of desperation — he can’t go home, it’s not safe there, and there’s nowhere else he can go. Daniel finally explodes when he bumps into a cowboy dancing, screaming and cursing before running out the door. Daniel feels lonely and invisible, and he feels as though there’s nobody he can turn to.
After they exit the honky-tonk, we see Elora and Daniel’s final exchange and what we can only assume are the events that occurred right before Daniel ran into Leon (which we saw as a flashback in episode six). Elora makes Daniel promise to text her, but in the end, he never does. Later, she discovers him dead just outside the gang’s hideout. This is the reason why Elora is so angry, why she feels such a desperate need to get away — her life more closely resembles Daniel’s than Bear’s or Willie Jack’s or even Cheese’s. She must get out — before the town swallows her whole.
Despite the dark tone of the episode, the feelings of compassion we see between Elora and Coach Bobson are cause for hope. While the knowledge Elora gains about her mother’s death is painful, it sets up an opportunity for her and her former coach to bond over the shared loss.
Maybe in another timeline, Elora stays on the basketball team and becomes a kind of daughter figure to Coach Bobson. But, sadly, that’s just not the way things played out. This bittersweet, haunting feeling pervades the episode: the knowledge that things could have ended differently, if not for the currents of a history of colonization that never ends, which keeps all of us washing around at sea. For those of us caught in these currents, it’s hard to grab hold of other castaways. But we keep trying.
Willie Jack’s Deadly Meat Pies
• Can we just affirm how amazing all of the acting has been this season? Last episode Paulina Alexis and Jon Proudstar showed us immense vulnerability, and this episode Bill Burr and Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs are putting in the work!
• More numbers: Did you know that 73 percent of beach litter around the globe is plastic? You can thank the character Ansel (played by Matty Cardarople) for that one. Bless this show for offering us some much-needed levity.
• The last and perhaps the most important number to pay attention to is that there’s only ONE episode of Reservation Dogs left. What’s going to happen? Will Elora jump ship and join Jackie’s gang? Will Bigfoot make another appearance, and will we learn if he’s behind the spontaneous field catfish heads? Will Willie Jack curse some more? Okay, so that last one is pretty certain. But I can’t wait to see where we end up next!