Warning: This post contains spoilers from Wednesday’s episode of Reservation Dogs.
Reservation Dogs is full of quirky characters and whip-smart comedy, but Wednesday’s episode titled “Mabel” took a gloomy turn as Elora Danan’s world completely caved in around her.
With her move to California postponed thanks to car trouble, a creepy white guy and a lack of funds, Elora wound up back on the rez just in time to say goodbye to her dying grandmother. With death once again knocking at her door, memories of losing her mother and Daniel resurfaced, leading to a tornado of difficult and conflicting emotions.
Devery Jacobs, Elora’s portrayer, co-wrote the episode alongside the show’s creator and executive producer, Sterlin Harjo. As she tells TVLine, it was crucial for the episode to spotlight exactly how Indigenous communities say goodbye to their deceased. Below, she discusses what led her to co-write Episode 4 and unpacks the barrage of emotions her character experiences throughout. She also details the installment’s depiction of Indigenous traditions, including the meaning behind the spirit plate and why Oklahoma is such an important piece of the Rez Dogs’ DNA.
TVLINE | How did the writing gig come about, and did you always want to write for Elora?
DEVERY JACOBS | I knew I wanted to be a part of the writers’ room. I wanted to lend my voice to all of the characters and help shape the season, and I do feel like I was able to do that. We had figured out what the episodes were going to be, and Sterlin was assigning different episodes to different writers based on our personal connection and our experience. For this episode, I was especially passionate about essentially showing death, but through the lens of our communities. I feel like it’s a really different, hands-on experience versus western cultures. I’ve been to a couple of white funerals in my life, and they oftentimes feel hands-off, and a bit more isolated and somber. Talking about death is something that’s taboo, where as, being somebody who grew up on my rez, seeing death and being a part of it, the casket is always open. (Obviously, there’s exceptions when the person has gone tragically or before their time.) But when someone passes from old age and they’re surrounded by community, it’s some of the funnest parties and it ends up being a beautiful, warm experience of closure. I was passionate in talking about that, so much so that Sterlin asked me to co-write this episode with him, which I thought was really intimidating! I don’t think I was prepared to write for myself.
When the time came to shoot it and be directed by Danis Goulet — who I thought handled the episode with such care — we had a great conversation about how we wanted to honor each other’s artistic vision for it. I told her, “I’m taking off my writer’s hat and giving this script completely over to you. I’m so excited to see what you do with it, and now is my time to focus and look at the story differently as Elora.” I feel so proud of it, both as a writer and as an actor.
TVLINE | When you were writing, what were some of the cultural traditions you wanted to make sure were included?
In terms of the songs that were being sung, I left that up to Sterlin because I’m Mohawk — we have different traditions than Muscogee and Seminole communities do — but I think the element we wanted to convey was the community coming together and the way in which we say goodbye to people. That was something we thought was really important. Through getting specific about it, I think it ended up being universal because everybody has family members who’ve passed away and everyone knows what it’s like when families get together and old memories resurface. But for us, putting our specific flavor and the way in which we do things into the episode was important for us.
TVLINE | Elora seems a bit numb in the beginning of the episode. What’s going on inside her head at the very start of 2X04?
Elora Danan is overwhelmed. She’s frozen in fear because the previous experiences she’s had with death have not been ones that were necessarily positive experiences the way her Grandma Mabel’s passing is. Her experiences with death have involved Cookie, her mom, and Daniel. So for her to experience death in “the right way,” meaning of natural causes and being surrounded by community, ends up being an important healing experience for her. And so through the beginning, she’s having to take on this role of being the responsible adult who’s taking care of people in this space while she’s also trying to mourn. It provided a complex space for her to navigate. We wanted to make sure there was room for all of the nuance and all of the feelings she was experiencing.
TVLINE | Can you tell me a bit about the significance of the plate of food that Elora asks Bear to bring out back?
Yeah! We, in all our communities, have spirit plates. It depends on the community, but there are different ways to do it. A spirit plate is a plate of food where you have a bite of each thing, and you leave it out for the spirit, so they can also be fed. It’s honoring the people who have gone. There’s also, in my community, a plate for the person who’s passed. But we all have our own version of a spirit plate, and those details show how we go about it. We just cracked the hell up in the writers’ room. “Yeah, you leave out the spirit plate and then William Knifeman comes and eats it!” It was just like… LOL!
TVLINE | Bear and Elora are at a very interesting crossroads in their friendship. What’s going on with those two?
Although they’re showing up for each other because they love each other, it doesn’t mean they’ve spoken through and have gotten to amend the things that have happened. I don’t know if Bear and Elora will ever fully heal, but they love each other nonetheless. I think that’s why it’s such a beautiful relationship, one where they also love to butt heads.
TVLINE | Elora tells Jackie that they’ll get back on the road soon, but it doesn’t seem like her heart is really in it anymore. Is that what she really wants?
I think when Elora and Jackie left for California, Elora thought she would find a lot more relief and respite from all of these negative feelings and memories she’s having from finding Daniel and from the loss of Daniel. Her wanting to go to California was so rooted in not being able to imagine [home] without him. So when she left on their wild adventure, all of these memories closed in on her. The guilt she feels for leaving Bear and abandoning her friends, and craving that sense of community has shown her that maybe California isn’t necessarily the place that she thought it was going to be for her. I can’t fully say where Elora is going to end up, but there are definitely doubts coming up for her as to what California means in her journey.
TVLINE | Aunt Teenie tells Elora how she left the reservation and what she did with her life. Did that conversation give Elora any sense of hope or motivation?
Elora’s feelings around Teenie are complicated. We wanted to make sure that we created the room for all of the things that Elora was feeling, one of them being anger and resentment that this person who should’ve been in her life wasn’t. Another being that she is looking at this older friend group that went through something similar. Seeing the impact this fracture had on their group of friends gives her a glimpse into what her future with her friends could look like should she leave. Elora is seeing somebody for the first time who has chosen to leave her community, but is still connected. It shows her a different way to live. So, all of those things are happening. It’s a big mess of feelings for her.
We specifically wrote that role for Tamara Podemski. There was nobody else to play Teenie and I’m so glad she was able to do it. What she was able to bring to the character was so perfect. Also, she got to act opposite of Sarah Podemski, her younger sister, and we got to see that relationship bleed through. It ended up being really special.
TVLINE | The rest of the Rez Dogs seem to really dislike Jackie. Will she ever become part of the core crew?
We’ll have to see! I will say that for Willie Jack, specifically, I think a lot of her resentment towards Jackie is almost a displaced anger towards Elora. Because Elora’s grandmother passed away, the friend group can’t necessarily be mad at her. They’re showing up to support her. But a lot of that betrayal and anger is being projected onto who Elora left with.
TVLINE | Wrapping up, can you tell me a bit about the significance of filming on location in Oklahoma?
We couldn’t film this show anywhere else other than in Tulsa and in Okmulgee, which is the capital of the Muscogee reservation. We shoot during tornado season, it’s hot, it’s cold, everybody gets ticks… it’s a full-on experience! It’s such a specific part of the world, one with people who are so resilient.
Before we shot the pilot, Sterlin walked us through what had happened with the Trail of Tears. Originally, his nation was built more around the Atlanta area and the southeast, but they were forcibly displaced to Oklahoma. That is why it ended up becoming such a hub for Native folks of all different nations. Usually, we’re a little more spread out. When you go to Oklahoma, there’s like 39 different nations and tribes all in one small radius. It ends up making for a really communal experience. With so many Indigenous crew members who are local, we could never film anywhere else. It’s so embedded into our show and is a character in and of itself.