Devery Jacobs in Reservation Dogs


Devery Jacobs Couldn’t Ask For A Better Job Than 'Reservation Dogs'

The star of FX’s hit Native dramedy talks about writing her own episode, finding the beauty in death, and why she loves working with other “rezzy-ass film nerds.”

Warning: Spoilers for the first four episodes of Reservation Dogs season two below.

In “Mabel,” the most recent episode of Reservation Dogs, Elora Danan returns to the fictional town of Okern, Oklahoma, but not because she wants to. It hadn’t been long since Elora first left Okern, abandoning her closest friends in a frenzied rush, desperate to set off on a road trip that would end with a new life in California. But in spite of her best efforts to escape the constraints of her hometown, Elora had suddenly found herself right back where she started after learning that her grandmother, the titular Mabel, was dying. As the last close family member Elora had left (her mother died when she was only 3), Mabel’s passing would naturally hit her hard. Of course she needed to go back to pay her respects. California would just have to wait.

Created by Sterlin Harjo and Oscar winner Taika Waititi, FX’s Reservation Dogs tells the story of four friends who are all trying to move on from the recent death by suicide of their former friend, Daniel. The show, which spotlights Native creatives in front of and behind the camera, is hyper-specific in its depiction of Indigenous reservation culture, but its central focus on family, friendship, the pain of grief, and the weight of coming-of-age feels universally resonant.

Elora, played with a reserved steeliness by Devery Jacobs, is the gang’s most focused member. In the first season, when Elora, Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), Cheese (Lane Factor), and Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai) all had plans to escape to California, it was Elora that seemed the most determined to save up and get out as quickly as possible. While California might have been a fun goal for the others, the destination felt more like a life-vest for her. Elora needed this. Now, however, as she spends season two doing exactly what she set out to do, Elora is beginning to realize that there might be more important things in life than starting over somewhere new.

As an episode about death, “Mabel” is expectedly heartbreaking. But in its own way, it’s also oddly uplifting. Though Mabel is passing, she isn’t alone; instead, she’s surrounded by loved ones and entering the next realm peacefully. In the words of Jacobs, who wrote the episode, Mabel is “being sent off in that good way.” “Mabel” is the actor’s first official TV writing credit and to hear her tell it, she couldn’t be prouder. She’s a far cry from where she was two years ago, when she was filming the pilot, unsure if the series would even get picked up for a full season. Back then, she was excited to get the chance to even act on an FX series about Native people; now, she’s personally responsible for writing some of the show’s strongest installments — and she’s doing it all while still breathing life into her character on camera every week.

Last week, NYLON hopped on Zoom with Devery Jacobs to talk about what’s going on with Elora Danan in season two, feeling intimidated to write her first episode of television, finding beauty in death, how she feels about the success of her show, and why she’s so grateful to work on a series where she’s surrounded by “a bunch of rezzy-ass film nerds.”

It’s been about a week and a half since the second season of Reservation Dogs premiered. How has the response been to the new episodes?

The response has been so wild. You never know how people are going to receive things before you submit them into the world, so to see just how much audiences and critics are resonating with this season is just like, Oh, okay, good to know. I’m really, really grateful for it.

The show was a huge hit in its first season, too. You won awards and appeared on many year-end lists (my own included). Were you prepared for how quickly it would catch on?

I mean, you always hope. But I don't think I was, like, expecting that. I just remember, back in August 2020, when we shot the pilot, we had no idea if we would even be greenlit. We had no idea if we'd be able to make the whole series. So we kind of went into [filming the pilot] just thinking, This is our one shot, and if [we’re going to do this] for anything, we’re going to do this for ourselves. And we did, and it was such a beautiful experience. So the fact that the show did get picked up, we were like, "Okay, now we just get to create a whole season." And we did that too.

Seeing how many people it's impacted, who are Native and non-Native alike, is just like… We really didn't know [that was going to happen]. We just kind of had to go in and shoot our shot. So many people behind Rez Dogs, so many of the creatives and the directors, have been told [no]. They have come up against roadblocks and gatekeepers from the industry who said things like, "Native stories just aren't marketable,” “Native stories are just not profitable,” or, “There just isn’t an appetite for Native stories." So to be a part of a show like this and to see it be received so well is especially gratifying for me in proving those people wrong.

Devery Jacobs in Reservation DogsFX

At the end of season one, Elora leaves all her friends behind to take off for Los Angeles with Jackie, a girl from a rival gang. Going into season two, do you think Elora is leaving the reservation with high hopes about the future? Or do you think she just powers through with her decision, despite possibly having some doubts about what’s coming?

I think that Elora is truly in such a state of crisis following the traumatic event she experienced in finding Daniel [dead] and losing her best friend and crush, that when she decides to leave with Jackie, she just feels like she needs to run. She just needs to get out because she can't picture herself living in that place without him there. Elora's trying to run from all of the things that happened, and then quickly learns that it doesn't matter how far she runs — [those things] are going to catch up with her. So instead, she's really burdened with the guilt she feels for having left Bear and all of her friends behind. I don't know if [her desire to leave] was ever necessarily [about] California, as much as it was about just getting out of that place. But it's quite the journey.

The trip to California was originally meant to be for all four central characters, before Willie Jack and Cheese both decided to drop out on their own. But Bear never drops out — Elora just decides that he’s not going to come and leaves without him. Do you think Elora’s decision to abandon Bear in favor of Jackie was really about the “mooching” she thought Bear had been doing, or do you think she chose Jackie for another reason?

I think Elora saw something in Jackie that [let her know] Jackie would be ready to throw down at any moment. [Like Elora, Jackie] didn't have anything keeping her in Okern. She didn't have anything keeping her on the rez, whereas Bear had everything. I think Elora knew that, at the end of the day, Bear would be homesick. She knew that Bear wouldn't be able to leave his mom and leave his community. She knew that Bear hadn't experienced the same type of grief that she had. So I think it was for those reasons that Elora, who shouldn't have made the decision for him but did, made the decision for Bear that he wasn't ready, that he didn't take [the trip] as seriously, and that he didn't need California as much as she did.

While Elora and Jackie are on the trip, I noticed these small moments where Elora seems to hesitate when Jackie suggests doing something potentially dangerous, like trying to steal the rednecks’ car or stabbing the creepy guy who locks the car doors while they’re hitchhiking with him. Do you think Elora is experiencing (and succumbing) to some form of peer pressure or is she just exploring a different side of herself with Jackie?

Elora is used to being the reckless one who's in charge and willing to do whatever it takes. But [she does so] while still maintaining her moral compass. Stealing the chip truck, in her mind, was justified. But she's not on the rez anymore. She's in the [real] world where things have serious consequences, where she doesn't know Big, the police officer nearby, where she doesn't have family members around her. She’s out in the open and life has real consequences.

But I think Elora's finally met her match when it comes to Jackie, somebody who would actually push further past risky behavior than she would. I think Elora is trying not to seem weak. She's trying to meet Jackie where she's at, but is scared and also alone for the first time with nobody to catch her.

Devery in Reservation DogsFX

You wrote this week’s episode, “Mabel.” Tell me a little more about that experience.

So, I really wanted to be in the writers’ room for season two. I've been writing since 2016, but it's mostly been on projects for myself — short films, features, TV series. This was my first chance to get into a writers’ room professionally, so I was assembling all of my samples and was getting ready to plead my case when Sterlin [Harjo] actually just invited me in. He was like, "Hey, do you want to be a part of the writers’ room this season?"

I was thrilled. But I wasn't supposed to be in the entire writers’ room. I was only supposed to be there for a few weeks. But it was extended and I was invited to stay for a couple more weeks. Then, I was invited to stay for the whole first part of it, and then, the second part, too.

I originally didn't go into the writers’ room with the agenda of focusing on Elora Danan's story. I actually went in there with the intention of focusing on everybody else's stories [while] also trying to contribute ideas to the season as a whole, which I got to do. [Even when] we had loosely mapped out the whole season, with all the different beats of what happens in each episode, and Sterlin was divvying out episodes based on people's personal experiences and what they excelled at, I didn't think I would be getting this episode. But I was really passionate about the content in it, and I guess I made Sterlin think that this [episode] would be the right fit for me to take on. When I got it, I was obviously grateful, but I was also really intimidated because I don’t think I was ready or prepared to take on writing for myself. But I am so glad that Sterlin asked me to co-write this episode because it ended up being a really special experience.

You’re right. This episode is very Elora-centric. Did you find it harder to write this deep, emotional stuff knowing that you’d eventually be the one acting these scenes out?

I was intimidated, but I think I was able to kind of create that separation [between my writing and my acting]. Also, even though we follow Elora in the episode, it's kind of her just taking in what's happening around her. I think that was something that made [the writing experience] feel less intimidating, was that I got to focus on this whole community of characters. For me, being an actor-turned-filmmaker, tracking what's going on for each character and figuring out where they're at in their journeys and getting glimpses into that is my bread-and-butter. I live for that, so it was especially rewarding to be able to write for so many people in the show and to also have a hand in creating the character Teenie, who could only ever be played by Tamara Podemski. That's who we wrote the role for, and I'm so glad she was able to do it. [I loved helping create] a character who was someone Elora could look at and really see herself in, which I don't think she has had a chance to do before.

Of all the Rez Dogs, Elora has always struck me as the most clearly “lonely” member of the group. Both Bear and Willie Jack have very strong relationships with their parents, obviously, but even Cheese seems to have an easier time forming connections with others. Given how lonely she already was, how do you think Elora is feeling now that her grandmother, ostensibly the last close family member she really had, is also gone?

Although she's losing her grandmother, I think that Elora is actually gaining a lot. Elora was already someone who had experienced a lot of grief and a lot of loss in traumatic ways, whereas this is the first time that Elora gets to experience and witness somebody passing, but in the right way — where they're passing from natural causes, they're surrounded by family, and they're being sent off in that good way. Even in the writers’ room, I was like, "Oh my god, how much more is Elora going to have to endure?" But it’s also like…death isn't necessarily a bad thing. The reason it's so painful is because we are missing the ones we love so much.

So in this episode, while she loses her grandmother, she also is able to let go of a lot of the grief that she's been holding onto, and it ends up being a really healing experience, where Elora gets to see someone go in the way that we [like to] send our loved ones off as Native people. So although it's tough for Elora, it ends up being a really beautiful experience. And then seeing her grandmother at the end, thriving in her bingo outfit, still being her full self while acknowledging that Elora did good that day — it ends up being a positive experience for her.

Before she heard about her grandmother, Elora seemingly had one goal: to get off the reservation. Now, though, she’s been forced to return, and as you mention, she’s experienced some things that might help her come away from this feeling stronger. Not to mention the fact that she’s just inherited a house. Do you think that going through this will make Elora change her mind about the perceived importance of leaving home?

I think so. There was also such [a sense of] generational passing-of-the-baton in this episode. I thought it was important to see this older generation of women — of Teenie, of Rita, of all of the community members, of Bev, of Auntie B — and to see that kind of responsibility be passed down to the younger generation. Seeing Elora, seeing Willie Jack, seeing Jackie kind of hold things down and take care of the community [was important]. At the center of all of our Indigenous cultures is women. So I think that with Elora seeing the different avenues and paths that could be laid out for her [and] inheriting a home, there is almost a coming-of-age that happens in the midst of all of it. Now, I feel that California might just be a question for Elora, whereas before it was the answer.

You’ve been writing and directing for several years, but as you said, this was your first chance to really be a part of a legitimate writers’ room — and it just so happened to be for a show that you star in that’s about the Native experience. Plus, every other writer in the room was also Native. How did it feel for your introduction to that world to be alongside so many people that could relate to your specific cultural background?

I couldn't have asked for a better room to begin my television writing career in. I have known personally or have known of so many of those writers for years, because [the room was] filled with creatives who have been trying to break doors down in the industry for years. So for us, a bunch of rezzy-ass film nerds, to get together and create this project just meant that there was an ease and a comfortability to pitch our ideas. Whereas it would've been a completely different experience had I been, like, the only Native person in a room. Before this show, I was so used to being the only Native person — let alone Native actor, let alone queer Indigenous person — for miles. So for me to begin in television as a filmmaker on this project just made total sense. I think [the fact that everyone in the writers’ room was Native] was a reason why we were able to get so personal and to implement so much of our own stories into the series.

New episodes of Reservation Dogs premiere on FX and Hulu every Wednesday.