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Unfortunately, for Hulu subscription holders, Reservation Dogs has reached the tail end of its three-season run. The coming-of-age dramedy, which was co-created by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi, has been nothing short of a small-screen revelation. It’s produced great stories, lovable characters and hilariously surreal moments all while providing a nuanced take on Indigenous culture. This show also doesn’t shy away from tackling heavy subject matter, and it’s certainly continued to do that during the final season. That’s especially true when it comes to the episode, “Deer Lady,” which sheds light on the backstory of the titular spirit. What viewers are given is a truly “harrowing” and important story, which I was able to discuss with the series’ editors.
As the series finale looms, it’s only fitting that we carve out some time to discuss this emotionally charged episode. The third episode of the season, it sees young Rez Dog Bear wandering into a diner while traveling alone. It’s there that he meets the clever (and murderous) Deer Lady, who was introduced in Season 1. After revealing herself to Bear, she offers to take him home. Though on the way, she plans to visit a past tormentor and kill him for his misdeeds against her and others. During the episode, audiences also receive glimpses of the once-human Deer Lady’s childhood at an abusive Native American boarding school.
I’ll admit I was initially unaware of boarding – or residential – schools and their history within the U.S. before watching this installment, and it was a serious eye-opener. These places aimed to “civilize” Indigenous children and ultimately integrate them into European culture. The methods by which the officials tried to do this could be incredibly harsh, and the show illustrates that through some tough scenes I won’t describe in detail. Editors Varun Viswanath and Patrick Tuck had a huge task ahead of them with this, and I couldn’t help but ask them about cutting it when we chatted over Zoom. Viswanath didn’t hold back, calling this story the most taxing he’s ever worked on in his career:
‘Deer Lady’ was the most challenging thing to work on, in my whole career, for sure. And it's hard on two levels, right? On one, it's just harrowing. It's just harrowing subject matter to deal with. Even watching the footage of a fictional recreation of that was so traumatic for me. Every time I'd watch a take, I'd have to walk away, you know and kind of be like, ‘Okay, I can keep watching. It's fine,’ you know? And then getting to a place where I could be desensitized enough to make creative decisions on like, ‘This is better than that, or this is a better way to show it than that.’ And I have to credit [co-producer] Pat VandenBussche, and Sterlin for giving us the time to work on that. Dan [Goulet], the director, and I definitely spend a lot more time on the director's cut than would usually be allowed on a tight half-hour show schedule. So putting it together, you know, just based on the subject matter was one big challenge.
The seasoned editor, who also counts What We Do in the Shadows and Blindspotting among his credits – went on to say the other challenge had to do with the story structure. As mentioned earlier, there are portions that take place in the past and others in the present. It took some doing to nail down the right approach, as Varun Viswanath says they “probably have 40 Different compelling cuts of this episode in our Avid projects.” Yet he and director Dan Goulet finally landed on the right edit, before handing it off to Patrick Tuck and Sterlin Harjo to finish it up. Tuck, for his part, can remember seeing that director’s cut and how it made him feel. He described all of that with the following sentiments:
The first cut that I saw of the episode was the director's cut, and it was amazing. It’s very methodical, and it was very obviously emotional. And obviously, it's bringing up a lot of things that are very hard things to talk about, but also like, had been figured out so much in this director's cut that Danis [Goulet] and Varun had worked on. And Sterlin and I came to the table, and we're just like, ‘How do we, you know, where can we improve this, and like, where's it feeling slow and where is it feeling like it lingers too much?’ And so our process was kind of like, ‘Oh, let's make your Deer lady feel more like she's on a mission.’ Sterlin had found this artist – I don't know if a friend recommended her to him or something. … And we ended up using a lot of her music in the episode to help feel like this driving force, but also there's a mourning feeling behind her music. So that was a big tonal discovery for us.
There’s certainly a lot of tension in this Reservation Dogs episode. It can come from Deer Lady’s mission to kill the abusive man who ran the school (which she accomplishes) or the kids’ fear of angering their school superiors. A veteran editor who’s also worked on Mo and FX’s Dave, Patrick Tuck explained that he too was unaware of this portion of U.S. history and “did a lot of listening and hearing” while having conversations with Sterlin Harjo. Their efforts surely paid off, as this heartbreaking story sharply penetrates one’s heart and soul.
More on Reservation Dogs
Varun Viswanath, Patrick Tuck and their collaborators have done great work on this critically acclaimed series, and I really enjoyed chatting with them. We discussed a wide range of other topics, including the possibility of the series being set in the same universe as Atlanta. They also graciously teased the show’s final episodes (a number of which were still unaired at the time of our conversation). At that point, Tuck also revealed that the cut of the series finale had just been finalized. This series is going to be greatly missed, but a tough – yet necessary – tale like “Deer Lady” will help ensure it’ll never be forgotten.
Reservation Dogs’ streams its final episode on Hulu on Tuesday, September 27, so be sure you’re caught up so you can check it out. Also, if you know you’ll be needing another show to fill the void once the FX original ends, check out the 2023 TV schedule for some prime options.