It’s the best time of the Rez Dogs season — we get a Cheese-focused episode! Last season, we watched Cheese get a lesson on justice and Deer Lady while he took a ride with Big. This season, Cheese receives a bleak lesson on injustice when he is incarcerated in a youth-detention home after his uncle Charley (Nathan Apodaca) gets busted for growing weed in their house. Back in episode one, during Willie Jack’s exposition monologue, she foreshadowed that Cheese’s uncle would get him into trouble, and this week’s episode is the payoff of that prophecy.
With Uncle Charley in jail, Cheese has no legal guardian, so he is left in detention-home limbo until the state sorts out another arrangement for him. The home’s coordinator, Gene, is played by comedian, actor, and podcaster Marc Maron. His character is awkward, self-centered, incompetent, and, most troubling for Cheese, dedicated to an addiction-recovery plan that involves appropriating a mishmash of Native American spiritual and cultural practices. Gene claims that an interaction with a “Lakota medicine man” during a mental break motivated him to become sober, and as payback for being gifted this knowledge, Gene spends his days harassing and trauma-dumping on Native youth.
Locked up with Cheese are a handful of kids with their own quirks, resulting in various comedic clashes between the young folks. James (Kamron Alexander) habitually spends the entire “phone hour” talking to his girlfriend, preventing Cheese and the other boys from contacting their relatives. Tino (played by Navajo rapper Travis Thompson) doesn’t know how to pee and has a handful of kids out in the world whom he has been struggling to support. Tino’s big plan is to score a job at Red Lobster so that he can send some money to his kids’ grandmothers, but he explains to Cheese that while the boys locked up in youth detention can hold jobs, paradoxically they aren’t allowed to actively search for them while inside. Julio (played by actor and playwright Reynaldo Piniella), however, has managed to find a job, in part by having been incarcerated in the home longer than anyone else. Julio and Cheese eventually bond over their mutual love of 1980s musician Sade, and Julio offers to lend Cheese his cell phone.
Cheese manages to use Julio’s phone undetected to call his “grandmother,” the woman we met last season while the Rez Dogs were visiting the Indian Health Service clinic. Cheese doesn’t tell her that he’s been locked up, but she auspiciously offers to help Cheese in any way she can.
In a touching look inside the mind of Cheese, he explains to Tino and Julio that Daniel was “his hero” and that his uniquely therapeutic way of speaking is a way to honor Daniel’s memory: “I just thought that maybe if I treated others the way they wanted to be treated, they’d do the same … eventually.” Cheese’s optimistic outlook inspires Julio and Tino to overcome their differences, Julio agrees to help Tino get a job with him, and the two flip each other off in agreement and solidarity.
Meanwhile, Jackie witnesses the raid on Cheese and Charley’s house and kindly reports the news about Cheese’s arrest to Bear and Willie Jack. In return, Willie Jack makes a final reconciliation offer — as payment for telling the Rez Dogs about Cheese, Jackie gets one free punch to the head or stomach. Jackie chooses instead to fake Willie Jack out, but Willie Jack’s earnestness and bravery seem to convince Jackie that the Rez Dogs are solid. Now working together, the three kids head out to fill Elora in on the situation. On arriving at Elora’s house, they find her in the process of repainting her room. (Sidenote: Elora’s room used to be a dark-blue color and seemed to be the darkest room in the house. Now she’s repainting it to be the same yellow beige as the rest of the place. Does this mean that Elora’s following her Auntie’s advice and getting ready to sell the house, or is this signaling that Elora is trying to move on from her grief in some way?) Elora is surprised to see Jackie, Bear, and Willie Jack working together, and the three explain that it’s because of Cheese’s arrest that they’ve decided to join forces.
The newly reunited and expanded Rez Dogs then hatch a (bad, poorly planned) scheme to break Cheese out of the youth home. At first, Elora tries to convince Gene that she’s Cheese’s auntie (“Indians’ ways! I’ve got a niece who is 58 years old!”), and when that doesn’t work, she tries to bribe Gene into letting Cheese go with her. Gene doesn’t buy into any of it, so in a last-ditch effort, the crew tries to convince Cheese to just run for it, but Cheese declines. Eventually, it seems, through some creative planning with Big, the crew manages to convince Cheese’s “grandmother” to agree to be his guardian, which leads to Cheese’s fiery exit from the youth home, when he finally gets to “play tough” and make a show of his exit with Big.
By focusing the episode on Cheese’s experience inside the youth prison system, the episode draws attention to an important issue. According to nationwide data collected in 2019, Native American youth were three times more likely to be detained than their white peers. And in many states, these disparities are increasing. This issue follows youth into adulthood: Native Americans in the U.S. are incarcerated at double the rate of white people. In 2019, Native Americans made up less than 1 percent of the total U.S. population, but they were overrepresented in prisons at 2.1 percent of all federally incarcerated people.
This episode does a great job showing how broken the youth-incarceration system is — there are so many rules and policies (limited phone use, no access to job resources, removal from family and community safety nets) that prevent the boys from getting themselves out of this situation. The deck is stacked against them. And, as Julio shares with Cheese and Tino, having to live with the fear that your friend might be taken away at any moment trains you to emotionally close yourself off in ways that can deeply harm you.
The episode is certainly harrowing — it’s incredibly painful to see Native youth in handcuffs — but it feels like the bigger message or question worked through setting the episode at a youth-detention home gets lost in the writing’s attempts to include goofy humor (for me, Gene’s monologue about walking in on his wife just didn’t land). And there are ideological consequences. For instance, Gene’s incompetence is played more for laughs than situated in a larger system of colonialism that purposefully dispossesses Indigenous peoples by removing youth from their homes. In other words, characters like Gene make it seem like Indigenous peoples are targeted due to the state’s accidental negligence rather than the state’s statistically proven hyper-surveillance of Native communities. The choice to focus on the interpersonal relationships among the incarcerated youth is compelling, nuanced, and innovative. And it seems like a solid setup with some parallels: Cheese, Tino, and Julio come together inside while Willie Jack, Jackie, Elora, and Bear come together outside. I just wanted to see everything come together in a stronger way thematically. The show is certainly capable of balancing humor, serious situations, and broader storytelling arcs (see episodes like “Mabel” and even “Roofing”), but those elements aren’t balanced in “Stay Gold, Cheesy Boy.”
It feels like by choosing to split the episode’s focus between Cheese inside and the rest of the crew outside, the writers were forced to omit some important character and story development. For instance, there could have been more screen time dedicated to the newly reunited configuration of the Rez Dogs plus Jackie while they were advocating to free Cheese, which would have made the new alliance feel strong and important. A major theme of this season has been characters coming to terms with their own psychological uncertainties, in part because of the ways the community has become disconnected. The writers chose to stage the Rez Dogs’ reconnection around the especially important issue of the incarceration of Native youth, but such a big victory over systemic discrimination demands more airtime. It feels like the Rez Dogs’ triumphant reunion got truncated. While there are lots of great moments in this episode, everything ended up feeling a bit disparate due to all of its moving pieces. Things never quite managed to gel as they have previously this season. With three more episodes left and some of the Rez Dogs’ interpersonal beefs resolved, I hope that the remaining episodes have more breathing room.