On ‘Reservation Dogs’ And Beyond, Devery Jacobs Is Writing Her Own Path

The actor and writer, who plays Elora on the FX show, talks about writing this week’s episode and being at the forefront of Native-led stories.
Devery Jacobs, who plays Elora and is a writer on FX's "Reservation Dogs," wrote the Aug. 17 episode "Mabel."
Devery Jacobs, who plays Elora and is a writer on FX's "Reservation Dogs," wrote the Aug. 17 episode "Mabel."
Shane Brown/FX

This article gets into some plot details of the fourth episode of Season 2 of FX’s “Reservation Dogs,” which premiered Wednesday on Hulu.

When Devery Jacobs pitched an idea for what became her first credited episode as a writer on “Reservation Dogs,” she was a little hesitant because she didn’t want to give her character Elora even more crises.

“I remember prefacing it with, ‘Now, I know Elora’s been through a lot, and I can’t believe I’m even saying this because how much else are we going to throw at this character? But I think that Grandma Mabel needs to pass away,’” Jacobs recalled in an interview.

During the FX show’s first season, we learned Elora’s mom Cookie died in a car accident when Elora was young. In the same episode, the show also revealed the tragic details of the more recent death of Elora’s friend Daniel, the fifth member of the show’s titular friend group, a quartet of teens growing up on a Native reservation in Oklahoma. All of this unprocessed grief has created distance between Elora, Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis) and Cheese (Lane Factor). In Season 2, which began airing earlier this month on Hulu, each of them have largely gone their separate ways and have been doing a lot of soul searching.

By proposing an episode on the death of Elora’s grandmother Mabel, Jacobs thought it would be meaningful to show Elora dealing with death “in the more communal closure-filled act of letting her go,” unlike the sudden deaths of Cookie and Daniel, she said. “The idea was like, what if Elora experiences death in the ‘right way,’ and if that could actually be a really healing experience for her?”

Co-written with “Reservation Dogs” co-creator and showrunner Sterlin Harjo, the season’s fourth episode, which premiered Wednesday, is a poignant meditation on death, grief, healing and community. As Elora’s grandmother Mabel is on her deathbed, the whole reservation comes together to remember and honor her.

The reservation comes together to honor Grandma Mabel in the fourth episode of Season 2 of "Reservation Dogs."
The reservation comes together to honor Grandma Mabel in the fourth episode of Season 2 of "Reservation Dogs."
Shane Brown/FX

In addition to playing Elora, Jacobs, 29, who has been acting since her teens and has written and directed several short films, joined the show’s writing staff this season. From the start of the show, she had wanted to become more involved behind the camera, thinking she might prepare some kind of pitch for Harjo. But to her surprise, Harjo simply asked if she wanted to join the writers’ room for the new season, and that was that.

Given her familiarity with the show, Jacobs said it was relatively easy to jump right in. In addition, many of the people behind “Reservation Dogs” — the rare show to feature an all-Indigenous main cast, writers and directors — have been bonded by the experience of trying to get Native stories into the mainstream.

“I’ve either known or have known of everybody in the room for years. The Native film industry is just so small and is so full of people who have just been fighting for decades to break through and to have projects made,” Jacobs said. “So many people who were a part of the writer’s room this year and last year have been told by executives that there just isn’t an appetite for Native stories and that they just won’t be profitable — which we are now proving that just isn’t true.”

As a result, when joining the writers’ room, she was coming into “a space that was immediately comfortable,” she continued. “And all of us had come with ideas. We were brimming with ideas from stories we’ve wanted to create before, or from our own experiences growing up in each of our communities that we wanted to bring to light.”

When it came time to write this episode, Jacobs said she thinks Harjo assigned it specifically to her because in the writers’ room, she “was especially passionate” about its major themes. One of them is the way the show’s multiple generations of women come together to take care of each other. She also felt it was important to explore “the joy and celebration and comedy in our spaces around death in Native cultures.”

“It ended up being a really beautiful writing relationship with Sterlin, where he brought in so much of his own experience of his loss of his grandmother and what that looked like, that it ended up being an episode that I’m really proud of as both a writer and actor,” Jacobs said.

Elora (Devery Jacobs) and Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis) in the fourth episode of Season 2 of "Reservation Dogs."
Elora (Devery Jacobs) and Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis) in the fourth episode of Season 2 of "Reservation Dogs."
Shane Brown/FX

While it was intimidating to write an episode that was heavily focused on her character, she notes that “a lot of the episode is Elora absorbing what’s going on around her.” For example, we meet Aunt Teenie (Tamara Podemski), who hasn’t really been around in Elora’s life because she left the reservation and moved to the city.

As Jacobs explained, the episode explores “all of the feelings that come up for Elora around this person, one being her feelings being anger and resentment for not being around; the other, getting a glimpse into a parallel between the Res Dogs and the fracture that their friend group faced with the loss of Daniel, and how this older generation’s friend group was impacted after Cookie died and Teenie left.”

Teenie’s life is also a glimpse into a different future for Elora, who, at the end of season 1, tried to leave home and move to California, a dream of Daniel’s. However, earlier in season 2, we find out she barely made it out of Oklahoma because her car broke down.

With Teenie’s return, Elora is “getting to witness, for the first time, somebody who’s from her community who decided to leave and is living a life on the outside, but is still connected to community,” Jacobs said. “So all of those things are presenting all of the ways forward in which Elora can choose.”

Given the emotional weight of the episode, once she wrote it, it was important for Jacobs to be able to set aside the writing part of herself and focus on the acting. Fortunately, she was in great hands with the episode’s director, Danis Goulet.

“I thought that she just held it with such care and really honored the story and the script and the words that we’d written on the page,” Jacobs said of Goulet. “Before shooting it, we had a big conversation where I told Danis: ‘I’ve put so much into this episode, but at the end of the day, I’m now letting go of it, and I’m handing it off to you, and I trust you. And I’m so excited to see what you bring to this episode. And I know that you’re going to bring so much to it. And now it’s time for me to take this writer’s hat off and to put on the actor’s hat, and to now focus on this and come at it from Elora’s perspective.’”

Elora and Cheese (Lane Factor) in the fourth episode of season 2 of "Reservation Dogs."
Elora and Cheese (Lane Factor) in the fourth episode of season 2 of "Reservation Dogs."
Shane Brown/FX

One especially meaningful detail about the episode is that as a writer, Jacobs is credited with her full name: Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs. As she explained, throughout her career, she has gone back and forth between her names. Growing up in Kahnawà:ke Mohawk territory, outside of Montréal, Canada, “I was raised as Kawennáhere, and my whole family calls me that, my community calls me that,” Jacobs said. “But because I grew up right beside a major city, when I would go do gymnastics, or I would leave, or I would act, then I would use Devery. And so I’ve always used both names.”

She chooses to use Kawennáhere on projects that feel more personal to her and are “really touching on my voice as an artist,” such as when she’s a writer or creator. “Because when I approach things as an actor, it’s a collaborative sport. It’s a space where I, as an actor, am helping the director or the showrunner tell their story,” she said. “As a filmmaker and getting to come at it from the creative side of things, that’s when I really pull from my personal life and who I am as a Kahnawake woman. And so I definitely felt that way in this script, in this project, and so it was definitely meaningful for me to include my full name in the credits.”

It’s a sense of agency that she’s bringing to all of her work. Jacobs is plenty busy these days, with many “things up my sleeve,” she said. She’s written a screenplay she’s hoping will become her feature directorial debut. Somewhere down the line, she hopes to develop and be a showrunner on her own series.

Meanwhile, she is currently in Atlanta filming the upcoming Marvel show, “Echo,” co-directed by “Reservation Dogs” director Sydney Freeland, which will be released next year on Disney+. In 2023, Jacobs will also begin filming a movie she’s been involved with as a producer for the last several years. And of course, if “Reservation Dogs” returns for a third season, she plans to once again be both in front of and behind the camera, “to be able to continue the story of the characters in this world and community that we love so much.”

New episodes of “Reservation Dogs” premiere each Wednesday on Hulu.

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