It’s been tough for the Rez Dogs all season. After being nearly assaulted, robbed, and stranded, it seems like things couldn’t get worse for Elora — but they do. This week, things take an especially tragic turn when Elora’s grandmother Mabel (who has been taking care of Elora since age 3, ever since her mother Cookie died) falls deathly ill. Elora puts the trip to California on pause in order to hold space for her grandmother during her transition into that other place only to be caught up in more community drama than she can handle.
Bear, Willie Jack, and Cheese are still reeling from Elora’s choice to leave them behind and head for California, and the group’s sudden reunion (with their enemy Jackie in tow) isn’t making things any easier. Elora is already working at max capacity trying to hold it together in front of the whole community, and all of the Rez Dogs seem to be aware that this isn’t the place for them to try to talk through everything else that’s been going on with them.
Bear is once again subjected to a spirit lesson when Elora sends him outside to put out the “spirit plate.” Spirit plate is a practice conducted in many different Indigenous communities. I’m Lakota, and most of my knowledge about the practice and its meanings comes from reading the works of Dakota ethnographer-storyteller Ella Delora, so I’ll offer some context through this tribally specific lens — feel free to share in the comments if your community practices spirit plate, too! Deloria explains in her novel Waterlily that the practice of a spirit or ghost plate is part of a larger grief ceremony conducted after a person has passed on and is a way to celebrate the generosity of the deceased. Food is placed outside the tent of the deceased and refilled whenever the plate is eaten up. Anyone in need is welcome to partake of the offering without judgment.
Okay, now that we’ve had that extended NDN aside, let’s get back to the recap! Spirit tells Bear a story about how his bloated testicle fell off, weaving in a message about how simply being physically present at this event doesn’t mean that Bear is actually “being there” for his friend. Bear seems to shrug off the warning and spends most of the episode caught up listening to the adults at the event, although curiously enough, he and Jackie end up asleep together on the couch. Out of the whole group, it seems like Bear has the least amount of animosity pent up toward Jackie despite being the one who was left behind from the Cali trip against his wishes.
The sudden arrival of long-absent Auntie Tini (portrayed by Tamara Podemski, which brings the total Podemski count of the show to three at this point, with Sarah playing Bear’s mom Rita and Jennifer acting the part of Willie Jack’s mom Dana) throws Elora for a loop. Tini, we find out, took off from town shortly after Elora’s mother Cookie died and has been away from the community ever since. Elora sees much of herself in Tini (both of them have made the choice to skip town after the death of someone very close to them). Even more painfully, Tini can’t help but see Cookie everywhere in Elora, even stopping cold in her tracks to remark that Elora “looks just like” Cookie. Later on, after a solo heart-to-heart in the kitchen where Tini advises Elora to sell her grandmother Mabel’s house and use the money to get out of town, the two share a strained, perplexing hug. It’s clear from their behavior that they have yet to move through their grief over Cookie in a good way.
Willie Jack and Cheese can barely conceal their disdain for Jackie, which forces Elora to take on the role of mediator. Willie Jack bitterly remarks to Elora that Jackie should be helping out at the event, but much to Elora’s relief, Tini steps in and tries to get everyone working together. Throughout the episode, Willie Jack and Cheese seem to have fallen into the same trap as Bear, thinking that their presence alone counts as a show of support.
Throughout this season, the Rez Dogs have watched the adults in their life struggle to come to terms with their past mistakes. Now that the adults in the village are seeing their own mistakes reflected in these kids, everyone is scrambling to act before things escalate further. At the funeral, everyone’s personal history is put on full display: Leon, Willie Jack’s low-key father, is outed as a notorious partier and dryer-pee-er-in-er. Tini’s stories of her and Cookie’s drunken exploits elicit a chuckle from Elora. However, things take a more emotional turn when Tini shares that Cookie’s death took a lot out of Mabel, hence her more prickly present personality. Elora’s starting to see how profoundly the community is shaped by their collective grief, and now she’s faced with her own choice to stick it out or run.
Last week, I expressed on Twitter my wish that my own Lakota mother, who passed away eight years ago, had been able to watch a show like Reservation Dogs. Like Tini and Elora, my mom left home when she was young (barely 19). Seeing her favorite actor Wes Studi getting a chance to inhabit the complex, grounded, and funny role of Bucky was very special, and I couldn’t help but think of her during the whole episode. My mother grew up away from her home community at a time when being Indigenous wasn’t cool, a time when folks were still shamed for wanting to learn more about their cultures and languages. In talking with other Native people, I see folks across many generations connecting with the stories each week.
This season, Reservation Dogs has worked to depict, with much care and generosity, the impact of intergenerational trauma across families and communities. And I’m glad to see these efforts recognized within the communities impacted most. I, for one, see a lot of myself in characters like Elora — women who have to try to hold together multiple generations of family while dealing with their own unique experiences under ongoing colonization. Honestly, this week’s episode was especially hard to watch with that personal context, and the episode’s final sequence, where Mabel returns as a spirit for a final exchange with Elora, was especially heart-wrenching (Mabel’s “Don’t give away my Blue Willow dish set — I’ll haunt you!” was a perfect way to cap off the episode). Up until shows like Reservation Dogs and Rutherford Falls rose to prominence, I never imagined seeing a woman who looked like my mom on TV. But now they’re here, I’m so thankful, and I hope things never go back to the way they were.
Willie Jack’s Deadly Meat Pies
• In this reviewer’s humble opinion, Reservation Dogs’ strongest episodes have always been those that showcase the series’ fantastic female talent — both in front of and behind the camera. “Mabel” was co-written by Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs and directed by amazing Cree-Métis filmmaker Danis Goulet. Together, along with co-creator Sterlin Harjo, these Native women have produced a striking portrait of community and Indigenous matriarchy the likes of which have rarely (if ever) been visible in mainstream American popular culture. Indigenous women are rarely portrayed with this level of care and depth on television — if they are depicted at all. If this episode doesn’t score the show some awards, I’m personally going to start some fights. I’m seriously floored by the writing in this episode. I can’t wait for Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs to write and direct her own film.
• For those wanting to check out more of Danis Goulet’s work, her 2013 short film Wakening is available on YouTube to watch for free, and her full-length feature Night Raiders, a science-fiction action epic about an Indigenous mother trying to protect her daughter in a postapocalyptic Canada, is currently available to stream on Hulu. (Night Raiders would make for a seriously good double feature with Prey, the newest installment of the Predator series!)
• Cheese’s delivery of the dinner prayer and blessing is such a classic moment for his character. Give Lane Factor some more screen time, please!
• Zahn McClarnon is also excellent in this episode. His character Big is truly all over the place here — one moment he’s handing Willie Jack a squash and sharing his thoughts on the history of alien-human sex relations with Cleo, another he’s bragging about snagging at a church camp with the other Uncles. His exchange with Tini is especially touching. At one point, Big tells Tini that it “seems like we all should’ve gotten together before something like death.” That this observation comes from the most bumbling guy in the community makes it clear that the adults in the village are starting to see things unravel for the next generation just as things fell apart for them. Maybe Big’s been listening to more than just conspiracy theory podcasts?