Willie Jack (Pauline Alexis) and her father Leon (Jon Proudstar) fully grieve for her cousin Daniel (Dalton Cramer).
In Reservation Dogs Season One Episode Six,” Hunting,” directed by Sterlin Harjo, Willie Jack and her father Leon hunt for an elusive buck (male deer) named “Chunk” and come to peace with Daniel’s death. ” Hunting” is an intimate episode that explores the father-daughter relationship dynamic between these two characters. For the most part, the episode takes place in the privately-owned forest where Willie Jack and Leon trespass while waiting for Chunk to appear magically.
Sterlin Harjo utilizes horror tropes in ” Hunting.” At the start of the episode, there’s a fisheye lens used to film Leon lumbering through the forest in the dark. He holds a big bag of crow feed. The eerie background non-diegetic sound paired with the fisheye lens makes it seem like a ghost or spirit is watching Leon. Spooky instrumental music plays as he spreads the seeds around the forest floor. Leon suddenly looks up. There’s a wide shot of Leon starring at a giant hairy monster with red eyes. Later, Leon calls the scary creature he saw the Tall Man spirit.
The Tall Man spirit is known to be about twelve feet tall, covered with hair, and smells horrible. This indigenous legend mainly comes from the Dakota and Lakota people who live in South Dakota. The legend is linked to the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre, during which the U.S. Calvary murdered innocent women and children. The Pine Ridge Reservation, where the ancestors of the massacre survivors reside, has a troubling problem with youth suicides. Indigenous teen suicide is linked to the Tall Man spirit making the legend sinister. In some iterations, the spirit is a protector of forests. The Tall Man Spirit was seen around the time of Daniel’s death, which suggests perhaps he committed suicide. Leon refused to return to the forest to hunt for a year partly out of fear of the Tall Man Spirit and because he misses Daniel. The Tall Man Spirit lives in the forest, which implies that, most likely, he is protecting the land from the White Texas ranchers who now own it. Willie Jack thinks that the “Tall Man” was Daniel saying goodbye to his uncle one last time. The Tall Man’s red eyes watch Leon and Willie Jack drive home after shooting Chunk. Perhaps the spirit is Daniel watching over his family.
Alexis and Proudstar do a great job establishing the father-daughter chemistry between the two characters. We feel for their grief. Before leaving home, Willie Jack whines about how long it’s taking her father to tie his shoes. Leon calmly explains that he is checking the supports in his sneakers. He then prompts Willie Jack to do the same with her sneakers, reminding me of my relationship with my father when I was a teenager. Paulina Alexis as Willie Jack sells the exasperated teenage daughter when she slowly enunciates, ” Let’s go,” then hurries out the door while her father finishes straightening out his shoes. The hunting sequence with Willie Jack and Leon feels authentic. We know the father-daughter pair take their rifles out to this same forest every year. Proudstar and Alexis haven’t spent any screen time together before this, so it’s impressive that they can do all of this character work in one episode. The actors made their on-screen relationship feel genuine.
The only minor issue with the episode is the graveyard scene in which Willie Jack talks to Daniel’s grave about her conflicted feelings. Daniel’s grave is a little wooden house with a cross in front of it. At first, Willie Jack’s “conversation” is lovely and believable. She expresses pride in finally being able to shoot Chunk in the head. She says she can’t imagine leaving her family and community for California; then, her monologue takes a turn. Willie Jack tells Daniel that she is not mad at him anymore. It makes sense that Willie Jack could be angry at Daniel for dying, but she has shown no signs of these feelings before. The writers needed to show signs of Willie Jack’s anger to justify her forgiveness of Daniel for dying. For example, the writers could reveal how Willie Jack’s personality has changed since Daniel’s death. Another option could be she overreacts to gang leader Jackie’s bullying. Even Willie Jack simply telling Leon that she hated Daniel for dying would have added emotional depth to her confession. Instead, she only mentions missing Daniel. Willie Jack’s admission comes out of nowhere. I don’t buy her forgiveness, which is too bad. Reservation Dogs does an excellent job representing how torn Willie Jack feels over her desire to experience more of the world than Okern can offer and her love of her indigenous community.
Check out FX’s Reservation Dogs Season One on Netflix!