This article contains spoilers for Reservation Dogs season 3 episode 5.
“How beautiful to never search for who you are. Everything you need is here. In the millenniums of certainty.”
There’s an old African proverb I’m fond of that says “the child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth.” I’m so fond of it, in fact, that this is the second article within the past seven months that I’ve chosen to open with it.
I like the phrase because it immediately glides over the vague platitudes of “it takes a village to raise a child” with the grim possibility of what might happen to that village if it doesn’t. It also inevitably raises other questions. What if the child was embraced by the village but he burned it down anyway? Or what if the child decided to burn himself down instead.
I couldn’t help but think of those questions while watching “House Made of Bongs,” the fifth episode of FX‘s Reservation Dogs‘ superb third season. We haven’t written about Reservation Dogs that much around these parts aside from its inevitable appearances on our Best TV of 2021, 2022, and 2023 (so far) lists. That’s largely because the show’s greatness is so evident that it doesn’t usually feel necessary to comment further. Until now at least.
Created by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi, Reservation Dogs is a touching little dramedy on Hulu that follows four Indigenous teenagers as they try to pass time in their tiny Oklahoma town and recover from the invisible wounds from their friend’s suicide. Through two seasons the show has provided countless hilarious, affecting, and arresting moments but it’s really leveled up in this third and final outing. By delving deeper into the community surrounding the show’s four young leads, Reservation Dogs has established one of the most vibrant small towns on television while commenting on the cyclical nature of family and the struggle between collectivism and individuality.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in this excellent fifth episode. Like episode 3 “Deer Lady” before it, “House Made of Bongs” flashes back to the past. It doesn’t flash all the way back to the cruel days of Native American boarding schools that destroyed culture and forced assimilation but to the more recent and relatively cheerful days of the 1970s. The installment follows one day in the youth of many of the Okern, Oklahoma community’s present day elders and reveals how the anxieties of triumphs of yesterday linger into today.
“House Made of Bongs” is a strange beast. It presents the origin stories of some deep background characters – including one character who was introduced only three episodes ago for a guest appearance but who seems to be the emotional lynchpin of his entire generation. There’s also a literal alien thrown in there for good measure.
This episode feels profound in a way that I can’t properly articulate or explain. But I’m going to try to do exactly that anyway. With occasional input from “House Made of Bongs” director Blackhorse Lowe (who was nice enough to chat with Den of Geek about this week, which he directed alongside next week’s “Frankfurter Sandwich”), here is a full explanation of what’s going on in Reservation Dogs‘ big flashback episode and why it all matters.
Who is Maximus?
Initially, one of the most confusing things about Reservation Dogs season 3 episode 5 is that its lead character is the younger version of a (seemingly) minor character. When “House Made of Bongs” picks up on the last day St. Nicholas Training School (yes, the same boarding school from “Deer Lady,” albeit many years in the future) in 1976, we’re introduced to Maximus a.k.a. Chebon (Isaac Arellanes). Interested in film, Maximus has just graduated from his junior year at St. Nicholas but it set to stay for the summer since he has nowhere else to go…or so he says.
“I was completely blown away by the complexities of dealing with Maximus,” Lowe says. “He has this urge to push family and friends away to be the weirdo filmmaker. That’s the thing that I really identified with when I read the script. It really tied into my own experience growing up and just wanting to go shoot film and make something of myself.”
Of course, we were actually already introduced to Maximus just three weeks earlier in the installment fittingly named “Maximus.” In that episode, Bear Smallhill (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai) is lost in the literal and metaphorical wilderness after missing his connecting bus home from California. While wandering around the planes of Oklahoma he is taken in by an eccentric survivalist named Maximus (Graham Green).
While Maximus is ultimately harmless, he does have some strange beliefs – like the fact that alien “Star People” exist and he must prepare for their return by growing eggplant. Bear comes to discover that Maximus is from Okern as well. His parents died when he was a kid and he was largely raised in a boarding school. He says he has friends who were closer than family and even shows Bear some film of them as kids (go back and rewatch that portion of the episode now to see that it’s actual footage of the young actors in “House Made of Bong”). Unfortunately he lost all those friends when they couldn’t come to terms with the fact that he sees things they don’t. Not entirely unlike Bear currently with his visions of his spirit guide William Knifeman (Dallas Goldtooth).
It’s clear then that “House Made of Bongs” reveals the moment that Maximus lost the trust of his friends. At the end of their long acid-influenced night, he sees an alien that changes his life and his friends have a hard time accepting it.
Who is the Rest of the Cast?
The fun thing about “House Made of Bongs” is that, even though Maximus is a new addition to the Reservation Dogs canon, the rest of the flashback characters in this episode are folks that we’ve known since season 1. They are as follows:
Played by Wes Studi in the present day and Mato Wayuhi in 1976.
First introduced sleeping on a bench in season 1’s “Come and Get Your Love”, Bucky is an eccentric local artist who helps Willie Jack out with her curse. We see in “House Made of Bongs” that he once had big, scientific ambitions.
Played by Gary Farmer in the present day and Nathan Alexis in 1976
Known as “Uncle Brownie” due to being Elora’s uncle, Brownie has appeared in many episodes of the show thus far as a staple member of the community and ineffectual weed dealer. Episode 5 reveals that he’s pretty much always been the same guy.
Played by Geraldine Keams in the present day and Shelby Factor in 1976
Like Maximus before her, Mabel made her Reservation Dogs debut in an episode named after her. In season 2’s heartbreaking “Mabel,” Elora and the rest of the community (including Uncle Brownie and Fixico) gather around her grandmother Mabel’s bedside to see her off into the next life. That’s right: Bear’s grandfather figure Maximus and Elora’s actual grandmother were an item in the ’70s.
Played by Casey Camp-Horniek in the present day and Quannah Chasinghorse in 1976
Irene is Mabel’s friend in 1976 and grows up to be the adopted grandmother of Cheese Williams (Lane Factor).
Played by Richard Ray Whitman and Josiah Wesley Jones in 1976
“Old Man” Fixico is the medicine man for the Indigenous community of Okern. He was the first to diagnose Bucky’s “man moon” and was there for Mabel when she died. We see in “House Made of Bongs” that he was well on the path to his future vocation even in the ’70s.
“It’s like the ‘0 issue’ of a comic book series,” Lowe says of bringing the saga of the older Rez Dogs to life. “It was nice to take that step back into the ’70s and almost reestablish what the Rez Dogs vibe is like. It almost feels like a pilot to a whole new show.”
What Does It All Mean?
So as you might be able to tell by that flowery intro and the many words spent in this piece thus far, I find this episode to be quixotically moving in the strangest way. That’s perhaps, in part, due to the excellent work that went into capturing a Dazed and Confused-style slice of life tale of an innocent summer night on the rez.
“We showed the crew Two-Lane Blacktop before we started production. There was a lot of references to other ’70s cinema like Over the Edge and all these other great films from era,” Lowe says.
“It was a fun pool in which to pull from cinematically but we also looked at the experience for American Indians of that time too. It gave you the flip side of the boarding school experience [from episode 3]. Instead of the kids getting beat up by nuns, it’s kids doing acid on the last day of school and having all these aspirations. “
But even moreso than the irreverent summer vibes, the emotional resonance in “House Made of Bongs” comes from foreknowledge of what Maximus’s life will eventually become. This episode does wondrous work in making clear that young Maximus is enduring all kinds of pain but can never really articulate why. Probably because he himself as a Holden Caulfied-esque youth can’t articulate it either.
Maximus’s peers naturally assumes that he has beef with his cousin Fixico because they both dated Mabel. After all, that’s what kids are supposed to fight about. According to Maximus, however, that’s not really what it’s all about. As he tries to explain to Mabel, his falling out with Fixico came from this vague notion that his cousin could never really understand him.
“It’s just family shit,” Maximus says. “He’s said some stuff that’s hard to take back. He’s always looked down on me. He’s being trained to do medicine. He’s just always had things. Everything’s been paved for him. He has his parents and I don’t. He doesn’t acknowledge that I don’t have those things. That’s um…my thing. And now that he has those medicine ways people treat him like a god damn pope. When we were younger, we were just two shit asses running around barefoot. He’s changed. That’s why we got into it.”
Of course, as adults we know “he’s changed” is pretty weak reasoning to become isolated from the little bit of family one has left. But who could possibly understand the mind of a teenager with no parents struggling to accept that even a cousin wants to be in your life, whether or not he’s treated like a god damn pope?
It’s hard to know what Maximus is really upset about. The village is doing its best to provide warmth but he’s just not feeling it. In talking about the difficulty in understanding Maximus’s struggles reconciling community and individuality, Lowe even points to the specter hanging over the entire series: the current day Rez Dogs’ friend Daniel, who died by suicide.
Near the end of the night, Fixico approaches Maximus to try to smooth things over but he’s not having any of it. Lowe’s camera even appears to take Maximus’s side with refracted rainbow light scattering around Fixico’s head like a halo … like he really is a pope. Or maybe that’s just the drugs. Later, while Maximus is tasked with driving the crew home in Brownie’s car, the acid-induced babbling of his friends might provide some insights.
“Our societies are a lot stronger when there are elders and there are children,” Irene mumbles from the back as though she’s having a revelation herself about the strength at the center Indigenous life. Maximus, ever a child without an elder, shoots her a significant look.
Then Bucky the scientists chimes in with his own unusually gorgeous missive, “How beautiful to never search for who you are. Everything you need is here. In the millenniums of certainty.”
The last thing Maximus says before he meets the alien that will change his life forever is “Hey Bucky, what happens next? What happens after that?” As if there’s a natural continuation of the millenniums of certainty. Maximus doesn’t know about the beauty of never searching for who you are and he wants to hear more. Instead he gets a flying saucer.
What’s most striking about Maximus’s subsequent encounter with the alien is how brief it is. This is the entirety of their interaction:
Alien: Do you not communicate?
Alien: Well, I said hi.
Maximus: Who are you?
Alien: I’m your relative.
Maximus: What do you want?
Alien: Well, I just came to look at you.
Across the near infinite blackness of space, among the trillions of suns and stars, this one alien relative just came to look at us. More specifically, it just came to look at Maximus. Imagine the significance of that to a boy surrounded by family yet seemingly unable to feel a connection with any of them. Also … imagine being super-duper high during that moment.
Realistically-speaking, Maximus had a latent mental illness that was triggered by his first time use of a powerful hallucinogen. Rather than treating that illness, he succumbed to it and isolated himself from the rest of his community, indulging his delusions by talking on the radio to no one in particular and pretending its the Star People who really care.
Thematically and artistically, however, the significance of “House Made of Bongs’” ending is that what Maximus feels in that moment is real … even if the aliens themselves are not. After a lifetime of being an orphan and incapable of accepting his community’s love he finally found someone who traveled long and far enough to prove that they care.
“It’s not in our mind, it’s our fucking relatives!” Maximus yells at his friends.
He’s encountered a village he doesn’t want to burn down and he’s going to make them all the eggplant they need.
New episodes of Reservation Dogs season 3 premiere Wednesdays, culminating with the series finale on Sept. 27.