‘Reservation Dogs’ Season 2, Episode 9 Recap: ‘Deals’

Reservation Dogs seem to be doing just fine, but as the opening montage shows, everyone is caught up in the same endless loop of daily routine. Bear seems to be splitting his time between two different jobs and school, and the daily grind is starting to wear him down. Elora works at the local gas station, mops the floors and god knows what else. Cheese seems lucky with his loop showing him eating a steady stream of homemade breakfasts prepared by his new adoptive grandmother. Everyone is in some kind of purgatory – not necessarily unfortunate, but they’re definitely not living their best life (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 about to graduate from high school. And as part of the process, students engage in a kind of self-reflection activity. All students wrote a letter to each other during the first year detailing their dreams, goals and aspirations. Now, outgoing seniors have just received 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 that later.) The real bombshell is Willie Jack getting his cousin at Daniel’s letter to himself. (Viewers should remember that Daniel is the Rez Dog who committed suicide prior to the events of season one).

Willie Jack decides to take the letter to Daniel’s mother, who has since been incarcerated. Hotki (played by Lily Gladstone, Blackfeet and Nez Perce) gets caught in her own loop as she tells another inmate that she feels like she’s living the same day over and over again while stuck in the inside. Prior to Willie Jack’s arrival, it is revealed that Hotki has a guardian spirit of her own (played by Muscogee artist-actress-activist Tafv Sampson, who is the granddaughter of the late Will Sampson Jr.). The spirit berates Hotki for not working with her medicine and ignoring her responsibilities as a lore keeper. The spirit also hints to Hotki that many other spirits are present that day, hinting that something big is about to happen. So it seems that Hotki is an elder with strong ancestor ties, but lost that tie recently (“I thought you were gone for good,” Hotki says in mind) or maybe at some time during his incarceration.

Meanwhile, Willie Jack has to endure going through prison security (“Are you currently incarcerated?” asks an unblinking security guard). While waiting for the start of visiting hours, she crosses paths with a stylish hippie cowboy who, between two acidic stories, offers quite incisive critiques of the prison system. He reminds Willie Jack that what she is doing is the right thing, even though her relative puts up 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 his aunt.

When Willie Jack presents Daniel’s letter to Hotki, Hotki immediately shuts down and refuses to look or even let Willie Jack read the letter to her. It seems that Daniel’s death had a significant impact on Hotki, enough that she actively avoided visits from booking dogs (“Damn it, that’s why none of you are on my visitor list – I look at you and I see it”). But Willie Jack pushes back against Hotki’s icy act, pressuring his aunt to open up. It turns out that before Daniel died, Willie Jack and Hotki were very close. And that line in Willie Jack’s letter to herself about being a wizard? This appears 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 doesn’t help anyone, especially when younger people actively seek guidance from their elders.

Eventually, Willie Jack breaks through to Hotki (with the help of the spirits). Hotki advises Willie Jack that the proper protocol to follow when seeking advice from someone is to bring an offering – this can be in the form of medicine, or you can even bring food. It’s then, over the “sacred” offerings of an energy drink Skux, Cheez-Its and Flaming Flamers, that Willie Jack explains to his aunt that the peaceful front that Elora and Bear have been putting up lately doesn’t only separates the Rez Dogs, preventing them from truly solving their problems and truly coming together. In response, Hotki offers to pray for Willie Jack.

What follows is an amazing scene – a powerful depiction of intergenerational knowledge passed down from generation to generation by dedicated guardians and healers, knowledge that lives on in our communities even after elders have moved on. Right there, in the middle of the prison visiting room, Hotki reveals to Willie Jack that there are dozens of spirits watching over her. We knew our girlfriend Willie Jack was strong, but it’s a little big power right there! It’s an important reminder for Willie Jack, especially given the trajectory of the season so far. So far, all of the Rez Dogs have felt disconnected and alone – Willie Jack admits this when she shares with Hotki the feeling that she and all of her friends are trapped in darkness. But young people are not alone, and neither are their living elders. Every day they are still surrounded by the spirits of their loved ones, those who fought to carry the next generation into the present. And they also have access to all their knowledge – all they have to do is learn to listen to them. It’s the reminder that Willie Jack has been waiting for all season.

But Hotki’s lessons don’t end there – she warns Willie Jack that trying to force his friends to do anything can only make the pain worse. Hotki explains that with Daniel, she ended up taking her pain, making it her own, and becoming consumed by it rather than healing it. Also, she thinks she may have pushed Daniel too hard before he was ready to consider her feelings. Love, she explains, shouldn’t just be a reaction to pain.

I offer so much praise to the main scriptwriter of this episode, Migizi Pensoneau (Ponca and Ojibwe) for scripting this scene. There’s a lot to unpack in this sequence, but the important point I can’t stress enough is the sweeping intervention that occurs in choosing to place this act of sacred intergenerational connection in the space of a prison. Not only does the scene provide important insight into the experiences of incarcerated Indigenous women, it also shows that those who hesitate, people like Hotki, are still sacred and important to our communities, even when they make mistakes. Many people (Indigenous and non-Indigenous) see the people inside as broken, as incapable citizens who need to be rehabilitated before they can become “useful citizens” again. But what this scene explains is that we must cling to each other’s complex humanity – even when we falter, even when we make choices that hurt, that doesn’t mean we suddenly lose everything. what we are. People are not just good or bad; we are a complex spectrum of grays. Although Hotki has struggled and made imperfect choices, she is nonetheless a powerful lore-keeper. What this shows is that living in a good community does not mean that there is an absence of failure, conflict or criticism. Instead, what a good community means is everyone doing their best to be accountable to each other, especially when they make a mistake.

What Willie Jack took away from the visit is that she can’t force her friends to get back together, but what she can do is to create a space where they can feel comfortable enough to resolve their conflicts. And that means cooking lots of wild onions in an amazing-looking omelette (the offering) and inviting everyone to join in. At first, Elora and Bear brush off Willie Jack’s sightings, just like Aunt Hotki did. Elora and Bear see their lack of conflict as a good relationship while their mutual silence is just a facade that prevents them from reckoning with the truth (“It’s okay!” they say, halfheartedly). Willie Jack tries to show them wits like Aunt Hotki did, but it doesn’t quite work. So she plays her ace and shows the group the letter Daniel wrote to himself in first grade. Together, the group silently reads the contents of the letter, leaving the audience in suspense as to its contents. And that’s our end of season cliffhanger! Together, the Rez Dogs agree that they have to do something which is detailed in Daniel’s letter “because he can’t”, but it’s unclear exactly what it is. Is this the trip to Cali? Another smart truck heist? Either way, all of the Rez Dogs seem to be on board with the plan, and with just one more episode in the season, we’ll have to wait until the finale to find out what lies ahead.

• If you want to learn more about the experiences of Indigenous women navigating incarceration, check out the book by Chickasaw researcher Dr. Shannon Speed Incarcerated Histories: Migrant Indigenous Women and Violence in the Capitalist Settler State. If you’re more into fiction, another great book that this episode reminded me of was Coeur d’Alene, Ktuaxa and the Cree Writer Janet Campbell Hale The Imprisonment of Cecilia Capture.

• Favorite joke of the episode? When Hotki’s spirit berates her, smiling at Willie Jack, “I’ve walked the Path of Tears and smiled more than you!”

• In what might be the biggest cameo of the season (and of all?), the former United States Poet Laureate Joy Harjo (Muscogee) stars as the gas station manager. Her appearance is brief – she’s on screen just long enough to inform Elora of a “big mess in the shit”. Chef’s kiss.

• Another fun cameo comes from Steve Mathis, who plays that little old hippie cowboy that Willie Jack talks to in the prison. A brief analysis of Mathis’ IMDb page shows he’s done a tremendous job as the behind-the-scenes electrician to many of your favorite movies. His credits include the original Halloween (1978), Back to the future (1985), Honey, I reduced the children (1989), as well as several recent Marvel films and the first season of Reservation dogs!

• Another huge revelation – Willie Jack’s name is short for… Wilhelmine Jacqueline! Does that mean I should change the title of this section?

About Michael B. Billingsley

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