I know I’m late to the party, but my newest TV obsession is Yellowstone. The show is currently airing its 4th season, and over the last couple of weeks, I’ve binged it all from the beginning. Now I’m completely caught up, and ready for new episodes — four left this season!
(Note: Some spoilers ahead, but I’ll try to keep them to a minimum and not reveal any of the big shockers.)
In brief, Yellowstone is the story of the Dutton family and their ranch. Founded over a hundred years earlier, the Yellowstone Dutton ranch is the largest ranch in Montana, and patriarch John Dutton (Kevin Costner) is the largest private land owner in the state. As such, there’s a constant state of low- to high-level war going on, as greedy corporate interlopers as well as the neighboring Native American reservation are constantly seeking ways to take land from the Duttons.
The Dutton family includes John’s adult children, all of whom have been groomed to take on key roles in protecting and preserving the land. John’s father’s dying instructions to his son consisted of one specific order: Never give up the land. Not one inch.
John Dutton is a hard man who wields tremendous power in the state, although that power may be waning as outside interests work against him. John has a hand in state and local government, intimidates anyone who opposed him, hand-picks his choice for roles like state Attorney General, and dictates his wishes to the local sheriff’s office.
In season 1, John’s opponents were chiefly two: Dan Jenkins, a California transplant with dreams of creating a vacation paradise adjacent to the ranch, and Chief Rainwater, the new chief of the reservation, whose mission is to take back the land stolen from his people a century earlier.
As the series progresses, the battles and the opponents shift constantly, as uneasy alliances are formed when new threats pop up.
The really and truly engrossing thing about this show is the family itself. The adult Dutton children are all, to one extent or another, a mess. Their mother died about 20 years earlier, leaving a huge hole in their lives as well as a whole host of psychological damage. John, for one, never got over losing the love of his life, and has been emotionally unavailable to his children for most of their lives, while maintaining huge expectations for them in terms of family loyalty and expectations.
Son Jamie is the family lawyer, dressed in suits while the rest of the family wears jeans, cowboy hats, and boots. Rather than working the ranch, he represents the family business and political interests, and will destroy anyone in the courtroom who opposed the Duttons. Jamie is also an emotional mess, desperately needing his father’s love and approval but never quite getting it.
The youngest of the family is Kayce, a former Navy SEAL who fled the ranch to make his own way, but is brought back (reluctantly) into the family after events in the pilot episode. Kayce is a trained killer with a strong moral compass. When we first meet him, he’s living in a trailer on the reservation with his Native American wife Monica and their son Tate, happily scraping by training horses, but he and his family are soon drawn back into the Dutton world, where he starts to take up the mantle of Dutton heir.
My favorite is Beth, the only daughter of the family. Age-wise, she’s between Jamie and Kayce. When first introduced, I had a major attack of eye-rolling. Look, here’s another caricature of a tough business woman, hard-edged and hard-drinking with a foul mouth, someone who chews up and spits out business men for breakfast. In early episodes, we see Beth bathe naked in a horse trough on the ranch and run at a pack of wolves, howling. Ummm, why?
Well, my skepticism about Beth has turned to absolute love. As the show progresses, we learn more about the events from her youth that made her who she is, and finally (in season 3) get an explanation for her seemingly out-of-proportion hatred for her brother Jamie. Beth also is key to the most moving and touching love story of the show, and my love for this couple knows no bounds.
Meanwhile, Kevin Costner as John Dutton is absolutely magnetic. He’s taciturn and hard, but loves his family and still mourns his late wife. He’s also a tough, unyielding rancher, loves being out on his horses, can get down and dirty whenever needed, and is a man who is mostly universally feared. I especially love his relationships with Beth and with his grandson, where we see a more vulnerable and kinder side, but truly, any time he’s on screen is special.
Now, there are some elements to this show that confuse me by being contradictory or not well explained. We hear all along that John’s wife’s death changed him and practically destroyed the family — but we never actually see much to back that up. There are a few flashbacks, but none really demonstrate that the family was warm and loving beforehand — in fact, a key moment with Beth shows Evelyn as cruel and demanding in her interaction with her daughter.
The first episode thrusts viewers straight into the action, with the interloping developer and the reservation both battling the Duttons on different fronts. I could have used a bit more context and backstory — there are elements I didn’t piece together until several more episodes went by. The biggest head-scratcher early on is that (major spoiler) eldest son Lee (whom I didn’t mention earlier, and here’s why) is killed by the end of the episode. Lee was the presumptive heir to the ranch, and his death leaves the ranch succession in turmoil… except kind of not? After his death and funeral, almost no one even mentions Lee again. We barely got to know him, and for most episodes, it’s easy to forget that he even existed.
The show can’t seem to decide if John is a criminal mastermind (like a western Godfather) or an anti-hero, or just a straight up hero trying to preserve a purer way of life in the face of corporate greed and ruthlessness. We know John is ruthless and dangerous, but he’s often just so damned lovable in so many scenes, and as I said, Kevin Costner turns this character into someone iconic, even when his actions are morally questionable.
Beyond the Duttons, we also spend time in the bunkhouse with the wranglers, the rowdy cowboys who work the ranch. They’ve a mixed bunch — some veterans, some new to the ranch, and one who’s so green that he’s never even been on a horse before. The group is entertaining, but also provide yet another road to understanding ranch life in general, and more specifically, what it takes to be a true member of the Dutton world. (Hint: it’s not pretty.)
I’ve described this show to a friend as a western Sons of Anarchy, which is a little off-the-mark, but not by much. It’s less murdery than Sons, and the business of the Dutton ranch isn’t a criminal enterprise — but there’s still plenty of murder, and lots of crime as a side-effect of what it takes to keep the ranch and the family in power. The show, via the Duttons, embraces old-school Western justice, which isn’t kosher from a law enforcement perpsective, but as the show continually points out, Montana isn’t like any place else.
Side note: In terms of a Sons of Anarchy connection (besides substituting horses for motorcycles), creator and writer Taylor Sheridan was an actor on SOA, playing Sheriff David Hale for several seasons. Here in Yellowstone, he occasionally shows up as superstar horse trainer Travis, always entertaining.
Where the show sits now, past the halfway point of season 4, the Duttons face continuing threats from outside forces, as well as the continuation of their internal battles and struggles. I continue to adore certain characters and despise others, and no matter how crazy the events of any given episode, I can’t bring myself to look away.
And the absolutely gorgeous scenery doesn’t hurt in the slightest!
So, anyone else watching Yellowstone? If so, who’s your favorite character, and what are your predictions for the rest of season 4?
There’s a ton of Yellowstone-related material over on YouTube, but here’s a final clip for this post — on turning the show’s actors into cowboys…