Yellowstone prides itself in being the most-watched cable show of 2020 (dethroning The Walking Dead) and is eager to try and keep that record when it returns to Paramount+ this November. The series is from co-creators Taylor Sheridan (Hell or High Water, Sicario) and John Linson and stars Kevin Costner, Wes Bentley, Luke Grimes, Kelly Reilly and Cole Hauser as a family of ranchers looking to protect what they perceive as their land from the likes of the Native Americans, who were on the land first before the land was taken from them, and big-city investors, who want to tap into the potential of the land and build a town for multiple people to reside in. But does the impressive cast and crew merit you to join the masses in watching the show before it returns?
A Lot Of Cast, A Lot of Story
Yellowstone is a neo-western set in present-day Montana and follows Kevin Costner’s filthy rich John Dutton and his family as they navigate the hardships of ranching, as well as the contentious confrontations over the farmland itself. As Dutton says, ranching is the only job where the goal is the break-even. He’s a sixth-generation rancher and is starting to feel the squeeze of modernity settling in on him, his ranch (the titular Yellowstone), and his family. Land developers are looking to buy or forcibly take the land away from John in order to realize their plans. They don’t understand why Dutton and his family need farmland as big as it is and are willing to pay top dollar to acquire it or break Dutton to their will. Dutton, perhaps to a fault, refuses every time, stating that the land belongs to his family. But does it, really?
At the same time, tensions with the Native Americans are also on the rise. Newly elected Chief Rainwater (Gil Birmingham, Hell or High Water) is very eager to try and reclaim the land that the Duttons hold as their own, claiming that the land is in fact, Native American and that John’s ancestors simply took it from his people by force. He begins using his casino’s monetary influence to try and buy out Dutton. The show does a good job justifying why both men think the land belongs to them. Both see the land as ancestral and refuse to acknowledge the other’s claim on the land. Thankfully, Sheridan does depict Native Americans gracefully and respectfully, despite the hardships placed against them, while also making Rainwater a morally ambiguous character in his own right.
Despite being so steadfast in his refusal to sell, John Dutton knows that the land taxes alone will eventually get him and selling makes sense. But he won’t do it, even when big firms circle in on the land, eyeballing the vast fields and mountains with intents on building resorts and the likes. Throughout the seasons, many faces come in to try and claim the land for themselves, including Danny Huston’s (Wonder Woman) Dan Jenkins, Neal McDonough’s (Band of Brothers) Malcolm Beck and Sawyer himself from Lost, Josh Holloway as Roarke Carter.
But the show isn’t just about John and his fight to control the land, it spends equal amounts of time with the rest of the Dutton family. He has three children, Kayce, Beth and Jamie Dutton and all three children are radically different from each other. Kayce (Luke Grimes, The Magnificent Seven), is a former SEAL who finds himself living on the reservation with his wife, Monica, thus putting him into a sort of exile from his family. Beth (Kelly Reilly, Sherlock Holmes) is an intelligent financier working in the city before coming back home to the ranch. She’s devious, manipulative and emotionally unstable. Then there’s Jamie (Wes Bentley, American Beauty), an attorney with his eyes on political office, thus making him ambitious and morally ambiguous, as his lofty education and big city dreams don’t always work well with John’s plans for the ranch. While not officially a biological son, Rip Wheeler (Cole Hauser, Dazed and Confused) is essentially adopted into the family and serves as a no-nonsense foreman on the ranch. Costner, who is also a producer on the show, is solid as John, but quite often it’s his children or the supporting cast who outshines his grizzled, gravelly voice. The show is often at its best when it’s focused on the family drama, why the children are so emotionally compromised and antagonistic towards one and another or the various socio-political issues, as opposed to some of the minor plotlines that take up the ranching side of the story.
And that’s not even counting the wide variety of supporting cast that makes up the ranch hands, politicians, crooks and law enforcement interacting with the cast. The most notable of this group is probably Jimmy (Jefferson White), a down on his luck kid who gets sucked into the dark side of the Dutton Ranch very early on in the show. I say sucked in because those who are “loyal” to the ranch, such as Rip, are branded with a giant “Y” on the chest, showing their commitment to do anything for the ranch. Kind of extreme, but here we are. Jimmy, having no idea how to ranch, is thrust deep into the world of ranching and to keep the ranch in one piece by any means. On the other side of this is Oscar and Grammy-winning artist Ryan Bingham, who plays Walker, who openly disagrees with how the ranch operates, especially the branding aspect. As a recently released convict, he’s in need of work, but wonders how far he’ll go in the name of income. See what I mean about soapy meets serious?
Soapy Stories and Political Turmoil
If I had to describe the series, I’d say it’s a mishmash of Dallas meets Succession. It’s equal parts gritty and rugged, focusing on the hardships of ranching and the criminal aspects that the Dutton family utilize to get what they want. But the show also doesn’t lean too heavily into dreariness, often breaking the show up with misadventures and soapy subplots to keep you wondering what will happen next. This may not give well for everyone who are looking solely for a serious drama may find the soap comprimises the drama, while the heavier topics can be at odds with the lighter stories. I did find that, for the most part, the show balanced it well. On that note though, there are sometimes plot points that are brought up and seemingly go nowhere, so this may be a point of frustration for some viewers, case in point, what was the point of the cowboy named Cowboy anyway? There was quite a bit of potential there and it sort of went…nowhere. But that’s on the script, which Taylor Sheridan wrote the entire first season before sharing writing duties on subsequent seasons. It also seems like so much attention when into the primary storylines that the rest can feel like filler to pad the runtime. This issue becomes less apparent thankfully as the show goes on.
Part of the fun of watching the show is the cinematography, which is top-notch for a television series. There are very wide shots of open countryside, mountains in the background and plains that seemingly go on forever. It feels expansive and untamed, especially when the action is removed from the ranch or the nearby town. Perhaps most notably is that it feels more like a movie than it does a show. There’s also a great deal of ranching and it’s neat to see what that occupation is like, even if it’s likely embellished for TV reasons. Many of the supporting characters, such as Lloyd, are played by former rodeo players and ranchers, giving the show a bit of hands-on experience.
As previously mentioned, the show does a good job at portraying Native Americans, specially what life on the reservation is like. We may hear what that life can be life, but a picture is worth a thousand words as one might say. Poverty, addication, suicide and the horror of missing native women clash on screen with the tribe’s traditional values in a modernizing world. We don’t often see Indiginous actors on mainstream television so it’s nice to see so many actors play important roles in the narrative as well as diving into characters that aren’t sterotypical or a parody of their culture. Considering how this show may been seen as a white male power fantasy show, it’s nice to see that Indigineous voices are getting a platform on a mainstream series.
Oh, and the show very much isn’t a white male power fantasy, I might add. While characters like John Dutton beat the drum of “this is our land” and fight to protect it, that way of thinking is very much an old and archatic philosophy. The world is catching up and characters like John are falling behind with the times. What’s the point of having all that land if it’s worthless in the long run and could be benefitial to others in the short term? In that regard, Yellowstone ends up being very interesting, as it seems like a very conversative show at first glance, but often deconstructs those ideologies, suggesting that these ways of thinking are dated, unproductive or even dangerous, but the show doesn’t get too deep into the meaning of its messages as might derail the show from a neo western soap to something that makes us think about classism and race. It’s certainly there but I don’t think the show is being openly critical, it’s lying under the surface.
The main reason I even checked out the show was because of the heavy involvement of Taylor Sheridan, who’s written some excellent films over the past six years or so. Yellowstone isn’t anywhere as compelling as some of his cinematic efforts, such as Hell or High Water, Sicario or even Wind River, but it’s still enjoyable in that guilty pleasure kind of way that sucks you in with it’s cast and visuals. Not to say that the show is poorly written or sloppy, but it lacks the nuance of his previous works and I would recommend any of those three films before venturing into this show.
At the end of the day, Yellowstone is a neo-western with enough soapy subplots for mass appeal while also offering gritty crime stories, interesting characters and enough socio-political intrigude to elevate the material. So if you want to see how Dallas would have likely looked like in modern times, this is the show to cover that itch. It’s got a solid cast, good cinematography and an overall great story that’s peppered with plotlines that either go nowhere or are a bit too melodramatic for the otherwise gritty tone the show goes for. And then if you like it, hold on tight for now as not one but two spinoffs coming. The first, Y: 1883, will star Sam Elliot and is due December 2021, while 6666 (four sixes) is a modern-day show set in Texas. Paramount must really like Yellowstone then.