In the Greek myth of Prometheus, the deity brings light, creativity, and knowledge to humankind, but in return he is punished severely. The gods see his act of kindness to humans as a transgression, and so Prometheus was forced to endure an endless cycle of torture, isolated from humans and gods alike. A lesson from the story is this: Sometimes our actions have unintended consequences that we cannot predict. And sometimes acts of curiosity that are carried out with good intentions can still take a tragic turn.
We’re officially halfway through the third and final season of Reservation Dogs, and this week we’re taking a detour away from the trials and tribulations of Bear, Elora, Cheese, and Willie Jack in order to examine the larger social dynamics at play within the town of Okern. An ongoing theme throughout the series has been the interconnection between the past lives of the adults in town and how those experiences shape the present conditions of the Reservation Dogs. Earlier this season we were introduced to the character of Maximus, the isolated elder whose tragic past has led him to abandon humankind and turn his focus upwards, towards the mysteries of the galaxy. We know where he ended up, but how did he get there? In this episode, part of Maximus’s past is illuminated, and we learn that elders like Bucky (town wanderer, copper thief, and ding-a-ling sculptor), Mabel (Elora’s grandmother who walked on last season), Brownie (not yet having achieved the title of Uncle), and Irene (Cheese’s adoptive grandmother) have also struggled — and perhaps some are still struggling — to carve out a place for themselves in this messy world.
We’re back at the St. Nicholas Training School — yep, the very same boarding school that Deer Lady went to. Over time, the school has been transformed; now at least some of the staff are also Indigenous, there’s no more required uniforms, and students can come and go a bit if they have a car. It’s more like the traditional high school many folks have attended, but there are still dorms for students who need somewhere to be. This is where we find Maximus. It’s 1976, and he’s just a young man. It’s the end of the school year (the conclusion of Maxiumus’s junior year), and it looks like he’s going to be spending the summer in the St. Nicholas dorms, being without anywhere else to go. Bucky invites Maximus to stay with him for the summer, but Maximus insists that he’s got enough reading and movies to keep him busy while he’s all alone.
But before the long, isolated summer begins, Maximus and his buddies are planning a big, trippy blowout party in the woods. Irene and Mabel are relying on Maximus to pick up some acid for the party. He heads out back behind the school to see if he can score from some buddies, but they tell him that he’ll need to talk to Fixico (yup, that Fixico, the medicine man who we’ve seen selling his wares out front of the IHS). The problem is that Fixico is Maximus’s cousin and they haven’t been talking recently because of some recently boiled-over conflict between the two. Mabel is one piece of the conflict — Maximus is dating her now, but she recently broke up with Fixico. Everyone in town thinks that this is the extent of the beef between the two boys, but there’s something more serious that’s causing Maximus to give his cousin the silent treatment.
Brownie, Bucky, Maximus, Irene, and Mabel cruise over to the sacred Sonics, and the gang gives Maximus an earful for failing to score for them. Things only get more embarrassing for Maximus when Fixico drives up and Brownie decides to score some tabs from him, disregarding Maximus’s wishes to avoid any dealings with his cousin. When he finally breaks and ponies up the cash for the tabs (“for Mabel”), the crew make their way out to the end-of-year celebration in the woods.
Unfortunately, even out in the woods with his friends and his girl, Maximus can’t escape his problems: Fixico is at the party too. After some gentle coaxing, Mabel gets Maximus to open up. He explains to her that “he’s said some stuff that’s hard to take back” and that Fixico often fails to acknowledge the privileges he has (money, family, a prominent place in community because of his role as a medicine-man-in-training) when he is around Maximus: “he doesn’t acknowledge that I don’t have those things.” Maximus is jealous that his cousin has secured a place in the community, but his jealousy isn’t entirely irrational, and Mabel acknowledges as much, telling Maximus, “I get it — don’t make it right, but yeah, I get it.”
Over joints, the kids share what each has planned for the future. At this point Brownie has already dropped out of high school and is traveling as a welder, and he wants to use the money he saves up to start a “dojo.” Irene has her eyes set on joining AIM (the American Indian Movement) and snagging a man along the way. Mabel wants to be a mom. And our little
Maximus Chebon wants to be a filmmaker (as evidenced by the home movies we’ve seen in this episode and back in episode two of this season). The group tease Maximus, and he doesn’t receive their jokes very well, confronting Irene and Brownie saying that they always try to tear down folks with big dreams (“like crabs in a bucket”). They let up a little after being called out, but it seems that Maximus is starting to grow impatient with his friends.
The group dose together, and Bucky quickly realizes that this is Maximus’s first time doing the drug. Bucky then tells him “you don’t realize you’re feeling it until you’ve already been feeling it for a while … and then you can’t recall feeling any other way.” This statement describes both the feeling of being high on acid and the ways that grudges (like the one Maximus has been holding against Fixico) can take over one’s perception of things. You stay mad at someone long enough, soon all you can recall is that anger. We’ve seen where Maximus’ feelings have landed him (in isolation), which adds an additional sense of foreboding of Bucky’s words.
Later that night the crew are getting ready to head out when Fixico approaches Maximus. Fixico says that their grandmother is worried, and he shares that Maximus is welcome to stay at her house if he needs someplace to go. The stoned, still-kinda-high-on-acid Maximus refuses the offer, insisting that he’ll be fine going it alone this summer. Then, Maximus finally explodes on his cousin, cursing and shouting and telling him that his medicine is actually poison. With Brownie too wasted to drive, Maximus takes the wheel of the old black rez car and speeds off into the night.
Maximus is struggling to keep it together and get everyone home safe when things get weirder. Suddenly, Brownie’s car is illuminated by a strange light, and the road becomes covered in fog. Maximus slams on the brakes and exits the car, only to find himself face-to-face with a Star Person. Floating above the being is a gigantic glowing ship and a hovering geometric object. The visitor speaks directly to Maximus, telling him “I’m your relative” and that they’ve come down to Earth to have a look around. Then, just as suddenly as the Star Person appeared, they’re gone, leaving Maximus standing alone on the side of the road. The rest of the crew, who were seemingly frozen during the Star Person’s visit with Maximus, exit the vehicle and ask what’s happening. When Maximus explains what he saw, Bucky, Irene and Brownie dismiss the event, attributing it to the acid. Mabel, who says nothing either way, tries to comfort Maximus, but he pushes her away.
In a close-up shot, we see something in Maximus break. He remains silent as his friends begin to make jokes about what he’s claimed to witness. If you recall back in episode two, Bear tells a grown-up Maximus that he also sees spirits that others can’t perceive, and the first thing Maximus asks the boy is if his friends believe him when he says that he can see spirits. This moment on the side of the road still haunts Maximus: His friends have not only failed to take his aspirations to be a filmmaker seriously, they have also dismissed his visit from the Star People as mere hallucinations. As their car pulls out into the darkness, the group is now completely silent.
We know where all these choices have led Maximus, and it’s tragic. Maximus is like the Prometheus of Okern: While he’s been chosen for a visit by the Star People, his gift of knowledge is summarily rejected, and he’s punished both physically and emotionally for what he has seen (remember that in episode two he says that he’s been subjected to electrotherapy and institutionalized against his will). But his fate isn’t the result of some evil force intent on punishing him — Maximus is where he is because of simple indifference and ignorance. He has turned his back on a world that refuses to acknowledge what he can see. And yet in spite of what he has been made to endure, we know that Maximus refuses to let go of love.
So, what are we to make of all of this? Clear parallels have formed between Bear and Maximus: Both want to escape Okern, both see things that others don’t, both have hot tempers and some problems dealing with their feelings (especially when it comes to male family members). How will this story tie into the latter half of the season? Will we get another visit from the Star People? From Maximus? Perhaps now that Maximus’s old friend Brownie has seen his own spirits, will he accept the truth of the Star People? How does this flashback to the past connect to Fixico’s prophecy of his own passing? If Mabel’s death wasn’t enough to bring Maximus home, maybe the passing of Fixico will be what leads the stray man back to his community.
Willie Jack’s Deadly Meat Pies
• At one point in this episode, Bucky hands Maximus a book titled Mirrors Made of Millenia: A Novel. I could hardly make out the author’s name, but it looks like it was written by someone named T. Sampson. All of my searches for a book under that title came up with nothing, but that language of mirrors comes up again in Bucky’s high ramblings that he shares right before the Star Person visits with Maximus. (Bucky says, “In the book, there’s a passage: ‘When you look out across the length of the open road, you are a person who deserves to pursue as many firsts as it takes to determine your self-worth.’”) My best guess is that the last name Sampson is an allusion to Will Sampson, a Muscogee actor many of you would recognize from his role as Chief Bromden in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Throughout the series, books have appeared over and over as clues (I’m thinking about the text on “man moons” that circulated around town last season, and Deer Lady’s poetry book from earlier this season) and because of this, I suspect that this won’t be the last time we catch sight of this particular novel.