Being a big fan of Taika Waititi, Reservation Dogs had been on my radar since its first season released in August last year. With an impressively quick turnaround, its second season released almost a year to the day later while receiving even more acclaim than its debut, which was enough to convince myself to finally clear my busy TV-viewing schedule for a two-season binge. While I’m still on the first season, I can say that Reservation Dogs already lives up to the reputation, with the sharp writing and acidic humour that is to be expected of a Taika Waititi production, while it features the direction to match. However, arguably the most notable aspect of the show is its four young and incredibly central actors, three of whom are Canadian.
This is despite Reservation Dogs being an American show set on an indigenous reservation in Oklahoma, centring on four teenagers who are known as the best thieves in the area. It begins a year after the death of their friend Daniel, which motivates them to collect enough money through their crimes to leave the reservation for California. The central leads are played by Devery Jacobs, D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, Paulina Alexis, and Lane Factor, the latter of which is the youngest of the central cast in addition to being the lone American.
Despite playing a teen, Jacobs is actually the oldest of the Canadian trio at 29, which is actually a smart casting choice, as her character Elora is depicted as the most mature of the friends. Jacobs is able to convey a sense of world-weariness beyond Elora’s years paired with an apparent yet sombre weight upon her shoulders, and I am eager to continue watching the show and see how the showrunners flesh out her background.
D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, who turns 21 later this month, is the next oldest lead actor, and once again his actual age plays perfectly into his role as Bear Smallhill, who seems to be the most conflicted character of the show thus far. He is on the cusp of manhood but still struggles with his maturity (something that Woon-A-Tai handles so effortlessly), not to mention he is struggling with guilt over the crimes he and his friends commit, often at the expense of others in the reservation. Along with visions he has of a comical spirit guide, Bear is currently the arbiter of the show’s moral compass.
Finally, then, we have 20-year-old Albertan Paulina Alexis, who not only goes toe-to-toe with her fellow Canadian co-stars, but I would argue, under her character Willie Jack’s tomboy exterior, is the emotional core of the show and its breakout character. I find myself hanging on Willie Jack’s every word as Alexis consistently straddles the line between comedy and drama like a seasoned professional. Willie Jack could have devolved into an archetypical tomboy that’s note-one in their softcore hidden beneath a hardened exterior, but the show’s writers wisely opted to depict her a being seamlessly between the two, something Alexis handles with gusto, while her character does not make excuses for her more vulnerable moments (thus far at least), which is refreshing.
Lane Factor, who is only 17, does a wonderful job also from what I’ve seen, and while his character does seem to be the least developed of the four so far, I would expect that to change over time. What Reservation Dogs deserves the most credit for, though, is that it is a show about Indigenous people, made by Indigenous people. There is an important social commentary to the show, and it is wonderful to see such representation be executed with such creative precision, especially from young Canadian actors who more than rise to the occasion. Reservation Dogs is a triumph of perspective, and hopefully more will learn from what Taika Waititi and co-creator Sterlin Harjo have been able to achieve here.