I’ve never felt more prepared to write about a piece of media in my whole life! For serious, this week’s episode of Reservation Dogs is a love letter to 1970s and ’80s exploitation/folk/action/horror cinema, and it’s packed with nods to several of my favorite filmmakers. I have a feeling that this week, NDN Dads and Uncles will be flooding Facebook with posts about how they “knew about John Carpenter’s music before Rez Dogs made it cool.”
So: Big is sent to the junkyard in order to find out if the owner, Kenny Boy (the dude who bought the stolen chip truck off the Rez Dogs in the series pilot), has been involved in the theft of several shipments of catfish from Cleo’s restaurant. Lately, it seems Big’s been receiving some dreams or visions from somewhere, as he’s visited not only by haunting memories from his past but also the image of a woman holding a snake while standing in an alligator-infested swamp. Last season, Big and Cheese spotted a whole pile of fish heads left in the middle of a clearing, and Big’s theory is that the missing catfish have something to do with Bigfoot (a.k.a. Big Brother).
Big doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to interrogate Kenny Boy, which gives the junkyard owner enough time to wrap up his latest scheme: dosing a bunch of Skux energy drinks with hallucinogens so that ravers can drink them at a party (Skux, by the way, is a slang term that crops up in several of executive producer Taika Waititi’s films, most significantly in Hunt for the Wilderpeople). Before anybody can stop him, Big chugs half a bottle, sending him on a massive first trip. (Remember, Big is a good boy!) Kenny Boy decides to join in, and the two men take off into the woods.
The next sequence is equal parts Sam Raimi and Panos Cosmatos: trees melt, images of flowers and dirt kaleidoscope across the screen, the camera rushes along the ground behind Big like an angry spirit, and in general things get real, real psychedelic. Big eventually finds himself standing in the living room of his grandmother Imajene (Jana Butler-Rhoads), who soon transforms into the ominous, threatening Deer Lady (Kaniehtiio Horn). Something has been eating at Big ever since Mabel’s funeral, and it seems like the visions that Big is having during this trip are going to force him to come to terms with it.
When Kenny Boy finally catches up to Big, the two men manage to stumble across the one thing you can find in the woods that’s scarier than Bigfoot or existential dread: a white-supremacist cult. In an homage to classic folk horror (think The Wicker Man, Lair of the White Worm, and The Devil’s Rain), we see a group of old white dudes, clad in purple robes and catfish masks, proclaiming their ownership of the land in a ceremony held in front of a giant wooden owl. They are the “Midstreamers” (a nod to Ari Aster’s contemporary folk-horror film Midsommar), a group of “oil execs and politicians” (even the governor is in on it) who think they’re the real owners of Native land. At least, that’s what Big claims to have learned on the YouTubes.
Disgusted at the sight of the men getting rather intimate with some beheaded catfish while they repeatedly chant that the village’s tribal land is theirs to take, Big decides to bust up the grotesque gathering. However, this plan soon falls apart as the two men are outnumbered and are easily overtaken by the governor’s security team.
We then return to the visions of a half-unconscious, half-stoned Big, who recalls the night that Cookie, Elora’s mom, died in a motorcycle accident. Apparently, Big was out on patrol that night, and he even managed to cross paths with Cookie several times before the wreck. When Big saw Cookie parked outside the local mini-mart, he offered to give her a ride home himself, although Cookie brushed off the offer and assured him that her ride home was sober. When Cookie’s ride stumbled out of the store, Big pulled the two over in one last attempt to keep Cookie safe. However, as we saw in the episode’s cold open, the bike’s driver dismissed Big and took off down the road. Ultimately, Big found the two crashed on the side of the road, motorcycle flaming and Cookie dead.
A tearful Big confesses this whole Cookie incident to Kenny Boy. It seems Big has been carrying the burden not only of Cookie’s death, but also of the the fact that he feels he’s let down the pair’s family and the community. Before Kenny Boy can reassure Big, Deer Lady arrives and dispatches the security holding the men hostage. In a fun twist, it seems like Deer Lady has been making some visits to Kenny Boy too, and surprisingly she doesn’t appear too bothered by his mild thieving and druggy shenanigans. It seems what really matters most to Deer Lady is that you try your best. A stunned Big asks her if this rescue is really happening, to which Deer Lady ominously replies, “It’s all real.” With Deer Lady’s help, the two men manage to call in for backup and arrest the Midstreamers.
This episode was a delight to watch, and its reinscription of genre conventions was cool and important. See, Indigenous peoples rarely if ever appear in the action/horror/exploitation genres (the Predator series being a rare exception) perhaps because we are not imaged to be the audiences of such works (if we are imagined to be an audience of any media at all). But we do watch this stuff, joyously I might add, and the kinship Indigenous audiences form with popular media is born out of creative reading practices we’ve had to develop as we struggle to exist within a mediascape that largely erases us.
“Growing up Indian, when the people up on the screen aren’t like you but you kind of like them all the same, the obvious thing to do, it’s abduct them,” wrote award-winning horror author Stephen Graham Jones (Blackfeet) in an essay titled “The Truth About Yoda.” In other words: Take ownership of non-Native characters if they speak to the Native experience. Take, for example, RoboCop, one of the pop-culture characters referenced in “This Is Where the Plot Thickens.” Although he isn’t Native, Alex Murphy was taken away from his family without his consent and had values other than his own forced upon him against his will, only to then rebel against the ideology of the quasi-fascist capitalists who did everything they could to “kill the man” inside of him. RoboCop’s struggles speak to something that, if you look at it sideways, feels a little bit like what many Native folks have had to go through. For a long time, sadly, this was one of the only ways Indigenous peoples could make space for themselves in the media.
So for those of us like Jones who grew up before bona fide “Indian heroes” (such as the Rez Dogs) appeared on our screens on a regular basis, a little creative liberty was needed. Rambo? Ours (although technically there isn’t much creativity required here because canonically, in the Rambo novels, his character is Cherokee). Yoda? Definitely ours. RoboCop? Ours now too. Think of it as a kind of imaginative payback.
While the episode is a bit of a ramble, it’s a highly enjoyable one. And it also manages to tie back to the season’s themes of grief and reconnection, with Kenny Boy and Big agreeing to call each other “brother” (just not in public). With two episodes left, here’s hoping that the storm is beginning to pass over the village, and that there’ll be more victories to celebrate.
Willie Jack’s Deadly Meat Pies
• Like I said, this episode is packed with references to ’70s and ’80s geek cinema. In addition to the folk-horror homage, we’ve got the theme to John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13, playing while Big cruises down the village streets; that cameo from Australian actor-director Angust Sampson (some may recognize him from his part in Mad Max: Fury Road); and also that final handshake between Big and Kenny Boy, which recalls the much meme’d shot from Predator featuring the giant arms of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Carl Weathers.
• We also get a brief shot of the reunited Rez Dogs reacting to the news about the catfish cult on TV. And it looks like they’re all hanging out together at Elora’s — does this mean the plans for Los Angeles are permanently on hold?