‘Reservation Dogs’ Creator Sterlin Harjo on Why It Was Time to End the Show As the Characters Come of Age in Season 3

‘Reservation Dogs’ Creator Sterlin Harjo on Why It Was Time to End the Show As the Characters Come of Age in Season 3

Sterlin Harjo is surprised that you’re surprised “Reservation Dogs” is ending. The critically acclaimed FX series, which returns to Hulu on Wednesday with its third and final season, is a dramatic comedy about a group of Indigenous teens finding their place among family and friends as they grow up in Oklahoma. But the thing about coming-of-age tales, Harjo notes, is that eventually the characters come of age.

“It’s a story that had an ending,” Harjo tells Variety. “It’s a story about people going through transition, and specifically kids going through a very transitional moment and grief. I just don’t think that lasts forever. I think that we’re meant to be with them during this transitional time. To me, the show’s too important to drag out.”

From the beginning, “Reservation Dogs” was about Elora (Devery Jacobs), Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis) and Cheese (Lane Factor), four pals collectively coming to carry on after the death of their best friend, Daniel. Because Daniel dreamed of traveling to the California coast, the quartet vowed to follow through on that wish. At the end of Season 2, they finally made it — and in a cathartic moment in the ocean, they felt Daniel right beside them.

But California was never the final destination for “Reservation Dogs,” and Harjo says he knew he wanted to quickly return the kids back to Oklahoma.

“Back in Oklahoma is where we get to tell the story that we’re telling,” he says. “That’s where the magic happens. It’s also where this world is created. Being out in the rest of the world doesn’t feel as ‘Rez Dogs’ to me, so we needed to get them back.”

Of course, there’s a wrinkle to that plan. Bear, who is once again disappointed by the disappearance of his absentee dad, winds up on his own solo journey when he misses the bus taking everyone else home.

“Bear is in a big transition,” Harjo says. “Bear is dealing with a lot of the things that he’s put aside for the first few seasons. Things with his dad, things about who he’s going to be, about his future. And it’s all kind of coming to a head… He decides, ‘I don’t need my dad anymore.’ That he doesn’t need anyone. And I think that’s part of Bear’s journey — him figuring out what he does need actually and who he needs.” In the season’s second episode, he meets a character, played by Graham Greene, that gives him a glimpse of what his future might look like without the support of his friends and community.

As Season 3 of “Reservation Dogs” opens, William Knifeman (Dallas Goldtooth), the Spirit that Bear frequently sees, gives a bit of a recap of the story so far. Just as Spirit has appeared throughout the series as a guide to Bear, he’s now also here to give us viewers a nudge. But of course, this is William Knifeman, whose own story (he says he died at the Battle of Little Big Horn, yet didn’t do any fighting) has always been a bit dodgy.

“It was like, what’s the style of storytelling we haven’t used yet,” Harjo says. “Let’s break the fourth wall and have him talk directly to camera and be our narrator. And what more of an unreliable narrator than William Knifeman. He lies about his own journey. It felt like a good way to kind of frame that first episode.”

There’s more to come this season, including a powerful third episode, which adds some 1970s-style horror movie motifs to tell the terrible truths of U.S. Indian border schools, which attempted to stamp out all aspects of Native cultural traditions in the 19th and 20th centuries.

“We have an opportunity to tell some truths, and that’s what the show has been about — about telling the truth about who we are,” Harjo says. “And that part of history is very truthful, about what happened to our people. And I just wanted to make something that represented that experience, to show people what the reality was.”

Later in the season, “Reservation Dogs” will explore Elora’s journey, as she learns the truth about her father. “It’s so great having all these great characters people love because you could put something in their path and, bam, they’re on a new journey,” Harjo says. “That’s exciting. We’re definitely going to see more of Elora’s story and what happened to her dad. I wish I could tell you who her dad is and when it’s coming, but I can’t.”

FX shared the first four episodes of the season with press. Beyond that, Harjo is hesitant to share any spoilers. “There’s a lot coming,” he says. “You can kind of expect everything. You expect heartbreak and laughter and love. It’s all coming. That’s the dish that I think ‘Rez Dogs’ serves best, everything coming at you. The dance and the poetry of going back and forth between these tones and laughter and different stories. It’s the show. I’m really proud of the season, and proud to see where things keep going. I do think that we have a world and a universe that will keep going.”

Indeed, Harjo says that even though “Reservation Dogs” is ending, the series’ universe may still pop up in other ways. It won’t necessarily be “Reservation Dogs,” he says: “It’s not meant to evolve into some other story. I think that’s what we would have to do to keep the show going, it would have to be something else.”

But Harjo says he’s still kicking around what a sequel series or project might look like. Those conversations won’t resume until after the WGA strike, of course. “There’s something about being able to imagine where these characters go instead of me forcing it on people,” he says. “Being able to imagine what happens to these kids as they get older and go into life. And I’m not saying I would never revisit it. I’d love to. It’s just right now, this is the end of the show.”

As “Reservation Dogs” draws to a close, Harjo says he’s proud of what he and his team accomplished over three seasons. “The passion that people have for these characters and the stories are just so amazing, and so fulfilling, artistically,” he says. “The idea that I made something that people felt like they hadn’t seen before, not just Indigenous aspects of it, but just the way it’s told, that’s what we’re here to do. And I feel like I accomplished that. It was heartbreaking for me. I cried writing the last episode. Then, my producers and I read it back and finessed it some and read it together. All of us were in tears hugging each other. But we also knew that it needed to be the end.”

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