Reservation Dogs Recap: Caught Up in Circles
Season 2 Episode 9 Editor’s Rating5 stars *****
Photo: Shane Brown/FX
The Reservation Dogs seem to be doing all right enough, but as the opening montage shows, everyone is caught up in the same endless loop of daily routine. Bear appears to be splitting his time between a couple of different jobs and school, and the daily toil is starting to exhaust him. Elora is working at the local gas station, cleaning floors and God knows what else. Cheese seems to have lucked out with his loop showing him eating a steady stream of home-cooked breakfasts made by his new adopted grandmother. Everyone’s in a kind of purgatory — not necessarily unhappy, but they certainly aren’t living their best lives (okay, maybe Cheese is since grandma-breakfast life is pretty unbeatable). However, this routine is quickly interrupted when the past that everyone is trying to repress through these acts of repetition comes back to confront them.
Willie Jack and Bear are set to finally graduate from high school. And as part of the process, the students engage in a kind of self-reflection activity. All of the students wrote a letter to themselves during freshman year detailing their dreams, goals, and aspirations. Now, the outgoing seniors have just been given their old letters to read. Little(r) Bear wanted to be a rapper like his dad, and Willie Jack wanted to be a … wizard? (More on this later.) The real bombshell is that Willie Jack receives her cousin Daniel’s letter to himself. (Viewers should recall that Daniel is the Rez Dog who took his own life before the events of season one).
Willie Jack decides to bring the letter to Daniel’s mother, who we find has since been incarcerated. Hotki (played by Lily Gladstone, Blackfeet and Nez Perce) is caught up in her own loop as she tells another inmate that she feels like she’s living the same day over and over again while she’s stuck inside. Before Willie Jack arrives, it’s revealed that Hotki has her own guardian spirit (played by Muscogee artist-actress-activist Tafv Sampson, who is the granddaughter of the late Will Sampson Jr.). The spirit admonishes Hotki for failing to work with her medicine and ignoring her responsibilities as a knowledge-keeper. The spirit also hints to Hotki that many other spirits are present on this day, foreshadowing that something important is bound to happen. So it seems that Hotki is an elder with strong connections to the ancestors but has lost this connection recently (“Thought you were gone for good,” Hotki tells the spirit) or perhaps at some point during her incarceration.
Meanwhile, Willie Jack must endure going through jail security (“Are you currently incarcerated?” asks an unblinking security officer). While waiting for visiting hours to begin, she crosses paths with a stylish hippie cowboy who, in between acid stories, offers some pretty incisive critiques of the prison system. He reminds Willie Jack that what she’s doing is the right thing, even if her relative offers some resistance to the visit. The two bond over existential philosophy and footwear, and eventually it’s time for Willie Jack to head inside to meet up with her auntie.
When Willie Jack presents Daniel’s letter to Hotki, Hotki immediately shuts down and refuses to look at or even let Willie Jack read the letter to her. It appears that Daniel’s death has impacted Hotki significantly, enough that she has actively avoided visitations from the Reservation Dogs (“Shit like this is why none of you are on my visitors’ list — I look at you and I see him”). But Willie Jack pushes back on Hotki’s frigid act, pressuring her auntie to open up. Turns out that before Daniel died, Willie Jack and Hotki were really close. And that line in Willie Jack’s letter to herself about being a wizard? That seems to be an allusion to Hotki, as Willie Jack uses the term to describe how she saw the elder when she was younger. Willie Jack also calls out Hotki’s refusal to heal, telling the elder that wallowing in her misery isn’t helping anyone, especially when the youth are actively seeking advice from their elders.
Eventually, Willie Jack breaks through to Hotki (with some help from the spirits). Hotki advises Willie Jack that the proper protocol to follow when you want advice from someone is to bring an offering — this can come in the form of medicine, or you can even bring food. It’s then, over the “sacrit” offerings of a Skux energy drink, Cheez-Its, and Flaming Flamers, that Willie Jack explains to her auntie that the peaceful front Elora and Bear have put up as of late is only keeping the Rez Dogs apart, preventing them from actually working through any of their issues and really coming together. In response, Hotki offers to pray for Willie Jack.
What follows is an astonishing scene — a powerful depiction of the intergenerational knowledge that’s been borne across generations by committed caretakers and medicine-keepers, knowledge that carries on in our communities even after the elders have passed on to another place. Right there, in the middle of the jail’s visiting room, Hotki reveals to Willie Jack that there are dozens of spirits watching over her. We knew our girl Willie Jack was strong, but that’s some big power right there! It’s an important reminder to Willie Jack, especially given the trajectory of the season so far. Up until this point, all of the Rez Dogs have felt disconnected and alone — Willie Jack admits as much when she shares with Hotki the feeling that she and all her friends are trapped in darkness. But the youth aren’t alone, and neither are their living elders. Every day, they are always surrounded by the spirits of their loved ones, of those that fought to carry the next generation into the present. And they’ve got access to all their knowledge, too — all they need to do is learn to listen for it. It’s the reminder that Willie Jack’s been waiting for all season.
But the lessons from Hotki don’t end there — she offers a warning to Willie Jack that trying to force her friends into anything can only lead to further pain. Hotki explains that with Daniel, she ended up taking on his pain, making it her own and becoming consumed by it rather than healing it. Additionally, she feels that she may have pushed Daniel too hard before he was ready to reckon with his feelings. Love, she explains, shouldn’t just be a reaction to hurt.
I offer so much praise to this episode’s lead writer Migizi Pensoneau (Ponca and Ojibwe) for the scripting of this scene. There’s a lot to unpack in this sequence, but the one big point I can’t emphasize enough is what a radical intervention is happening in the choice to set this act of sacred intergenerational connection in the space of a prison. Not only does the scene offer important insight into the experiences of Native women who are incarcerated, but it also shows that people who falter, people like Hotki, are still sacred and important to our communities, even when they make mistakes. Many folks (Native and non-Native alike) see people inside as broken, as incapable citizens who require rehabilitation before they can be “helpful citizens” again. But what this scene explains is that we have to hold on to the complex humanity of one another — even when we falter, even when we make choices that do harm, that doesn’t mean we suddenly lose everything that we are. People aren’t just good or bad; we are a complex spectrum of grays. Although Hotki has struggled and made imperfect choices, she is nonetheless a powerful knowledge-keeper. What this shows is that living in a good community doesn’t mean there’s an absence of failure, conflict, or critique. Instead, what a good community means is that everyone does their best to keep accountable to each other, especially when they make a mistake.
Willie Jack’s takeaway from the visit is that she can’t force her friends back together, but what she can do is create a space where they can feel comfortable enough to resolve their conflicts. And this means cooking a lot of wild onions into an amazing-looking omelet (the offering) and inviting everyone over to partake. At first, Elora and Bear push back against Willie Jack’s observations, just like Auntie Hotki did. Elora and Bear see their absence of conflict as a good relation when their mutual silence is just a front that keeps them from reckoning with the truth (“Everything is totally fine!” they say, unconvincingly). Willie Jack tries to show them the spirits like Auntie Hotki did, but it doesn’t quite work. So she plays her ace and shows the group the letter that Daniel wrote to himself as a freshman. Together, the group silently reads the contents of the letter, leaving the audience in suspense of its contents. And that’s our end-of-season cliffhanger! Together, the Rez Dogs agree that they need to do something that’s detailed in Daniel’s letter “because he can’t,” but it isn’t clear exactly what that is. Is it the trip to Cali? Another chip-truck heist? Whatever it is, all of the Rez Dogs seem onboard with the plan, and with only one more episode in the season, we’ll have to wait for the finale to find out what’s in store.
Willie Jack’s Deadly Meat Pies
• If you’re interested in learning more about the experiences of Native women navigating incarceration, check out Chickasaw scholar Dr. Shannon Speed’s book Incarcerated Stories: Indigenous Women Migrants and Violence in the Settler Capitalist State. If you’re more into fiction, another great book that this episode reminded me of was Coeur d’Alene, Ktuaxa, and Cree writer Janet Campbell Hale’s The Jailing of Cecilia Capture.
• Favorite joke of the episode? When Hotki’s spirit chides her into smiling at Willie Jack: “I walked the Trail of Tears and I smiled more than you!”
• In what may be the greatest cameo of the season (and of anything ever?), former United States poet laureate Joy Harjo (Muscogee) plays the role of the gas-station manager. Her appearance is brief — she’s onscreen just long enough to inform Elora of a “big mess in the shitter.” Chef’s kiss.
• Another fun cameo comes from Steve Mathis, who plays that little old hippie cowboy that Willie Jack chats with in the prison. A brief scan through Mathis’s IMDb page shows that he’s done extensive work as an electrician behind the scenes of many of your favorite movies. His credits include the original Halloween (1978), Back to the Future (1985), Honey I Shrunk the Kids (1989), as well as several recent Marvel films and season one of Reservation Dogs!
• Another huge revelation — Willie Jack’s name is short for … Wilhelmina Jacqueline! Does that mean I should change the title of this section?
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