Earlier this summer, Yellowstone premiered on the Paramount Network with a two-hour season opener. For a new viewer, investing two hours into one episode can seem daunting, but by the end of the second hour, you understand why the audience’s initial introduction to the Dutton’s and their life in Montana needed that time. With sweeping landscapes, stunning wide shots, and cowboys on horseback, Taylor Sheridan (Hell or High Water, Wind River, Sicario: Day of the Soldado) crafts an intricate tale of life on the American Frontier in 2018; a life that is far from media scrutiny, representing the best and worst of America. The story centers around the complex Dutton family, who controls the largest contiguous ranch in the United States, and the threats to their borders; land developer Dan Jenkins (Danny Huston), a Native American reservation and its Chief, Thomas Rainwater (Gil Birmingham), and America’s first National Park, Yellowstone.
“Since 1886, every Dutton who died is buried 300 yards from my back porch. When a tree grows on my ranch, I know exactly what fed it and that’s the best we can hope for; last long enough for your children to continue the cycle and just maybe the land is still theirs when a tree sprouts from you.” – John Dutton
At its core, Yellowstone is a compelling family drama, which if the numbers for This is Us are any indication, family dramas are what audiences want to watch. John Dutton, portrayed by Academy Award winner Kevin Costner, is a sixth generation Cattle rancher forced to face his impending mortality and the threat of progress. Here is a man desperate to ensure his family’s legacy and the future for his children and grandchildren. This is a family that has seen tragedy and lived to tell about it. A man hardened by the life he’s lived and the mistakes he’s made, desperate to hold on to his power and authority as the world around him seems determined to push him to the brink.
Surrounding Costner is an all-star cast of Kelly Reilly (Beth Dutton), Wes Bentley (Jamie Dutton), Luke Grimes (Kayce Dutton), Cole Hauser (Rip Wheeler), Dave Annable (Lee Dutton), and Kelsey Asbille (Monica Dutton).
- Beth: John’s only daughter and the most cutthroat member of the family. A master manipulator, Beth destroys your world for breakfast and drinks champagne about it in the afternoon, naked, in a water trough. Plagued by guilt surrounding the death of her mother when she was young, Beth’s behavior is often erratic and dangerous, but she is as stealth as they come.
- Jamie: The family attorney and aspiring politician is constantly trying to win the praise of his father. Not as evil as Beth, as humble as Lee, or the favorite like Kayce, Jamie is always trying to prove to his father he’s the one best poised to lead the family. His relationship with his sister Beth is as toxic as they come, but when push comes to shove, they’ll be there for each other.
- Lee: The oldest of John’s children and the one who really runs the ranch day to day with his father. Perhaps the kindest of the family, Lee just wants to work the ranch and call it a day. Alas, spoiler alert, Lee isn’t long for this world and his death is a catalyst for everything that happens throughout the season.
- Kayce: Former Navy SEAL and John’s clear favorite even though their relationship is the most strained. Kayce is the child who is most like his father, even though he doesn’t wish to admit that. He and his wife, Monica, live on the reservation with their son Tate who has very little interaction with the Dutton’s. This is a man whom trouble always finds and follows no matter what he seems to do. Fate continuously puts him in the most interesting of circumstances. Kayce finds himself in the middle of the conflict between the reservation and his father, having to choose between his own family and his wife’s people.
- Rip Wheeler: The ranch foreman and John’s right-hand man. Rip will do anything and everything for John and there is a deep sense of loyalty between the two men. Often having to do the “hard” tasks, we see a different, softer side of Rip in his on-again, off-again relationship with Beth.
Some critics have claimed that Yellowstone is “too much”. While the circumstances surrounding the Dutton’s can be a bit over the top and melodramatic at times, this is dramatic television, and if we cannot suspend disbelief a bit, then we cannot be entertained. For every intensely dramatic situation that exists within Yellowstone, there is a counter moment rooted in reality. It calls to mind TNT’s ill-fated Dallas reboot (2012) that focused on the Ewing family and their oil and cattle ranching industries. The original Dallas series ran for 14 seasons between 1978 and 1991 and is one of the most beloved primetime soaps of all time. The reboot attempted to capitalize on the longstanding fandom by bringing back original stars, Larry Hagman, Patrick Duffy, and Linda Gray but turning the focus to the next generation helmed by Josh Henderson, Jesse Metcalfe, Jordana Brewster, and Julie Gonzalo. The show only ran for three seasons, and though while the death of patriarch Larry Hagman, as well as some questionable script choices contributed to the shows demise, the inability to detach from the old school drama and plant this show firmly in reality, may be what really was the detriment to a great idea.
Where Yellowstone excels, and Dallas TNT did not, is its feeling that this family and these circumstances exist in real life. The issues being brought up within this landscape speak to our current times like nothing else on television. So many in the central part of the country have this false idea that their way of life is threatened by progress. This idea that stalling any type of progressive movement will ensure that they and their family are protected for generations to come. Seeing John Dutton struggle to maintain his family’s way of life amongst builders and the forgotten people of our nation, touches on things we, as Americans, face every day. It touches on a battle that we constantly have between the more conservative and more liberal factions of our government.
If Yellowstone does one thing, it highlights this in an overtly dramatic, but true way. It places a family in the middle of it to connect us more and it tests our loyalties as we question what side of the fence we land. Perhaps what it can do is help us all understand one another a little better. Setting aside the villainy and backstabbing, you can sympathize with the reservation wanting to reclaim land that was once theirs. These are people that live in poverty, surrounded by meth labs and forced to rely on a corrupt leader to hold on to some semblance of dignity. You can understand the state and their desire to prosper through land development, trying to raise the population, the household income, and bring themselves further into the 21st century. Even if that means bargaining and aligning with a corrupt land developer. And we can all sympathize with the patriarch of a family, trying to do right for his children by any means necessary. A man just making sure something lives beyond him.
Already renewed for a 10-episode second season, Yellowstone airs every Wednesday night at 10 p.m. Eastern (9 p.m. Central) on the Paramount network (formerly Spike TV). Though seven episodes have already aired, there’s plenty of time to catch up before the season finale on August 22, 2018. Episodes are available online at Paramount Network’s official site and app.