How ‘Yellowstone’ Became America’s Most Popular TV Show

How ‘Yellowstone’ Became America’s Most Popular TV Show

“You’re not ready for this.”

It was early 2017, and Taylor Sheridan stood before Viacom executives describing Yellowstone, the television series he had conceived with the producer John Linson. Sheridan had sold it to HBO some years before, only to see it languish, as so many projects do. But now it was close to finally being seen by the world, thanks to its savior and champion—a former child actor named David Glasser, who was then an executive with the Weinstein Company.

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Glasser had seen the potential in the Yellowstone script, and in Sheridan, who had left behind his career as a character actor to write full-time. He’d helped Sheridan pry the show from HBO—taking Yellowstone to potential alternative suitors, from whom he’d gotten a series of polite, and not so polite, passes. Still, he had pressed on.

Finally, Glasser had attracted some interest. Viacom was preparing to launch a new cable channel, the Paramount Network, and it needed original shows. The executives wanted Yellowstone.

Sheridan, however, was threatening to derail the whole thing. When Glasser had asked him to come to Hollywood for the pitch meeting, the screenwriter had at first refused to leave his home in Park City, Utah. To coax him into attending the meeting, Glasser had to fly him there by private jet and promise him that he wouldn’t have to spend the night in L.A., a city Sheridan had come to hate.

Glasser had finally gotten Sheridan in a room with Viacom executives. But what Sheridan delivered was less a pitch than a warning.

You will have no part in any of this, he told them—except for footing the bill. I will write and direct all the episodes of the show. There will be no writers’ room. There will be no notes from studio executives. No one will see an outline.

“It’s going to cost $90–$100 million,” he says he told them. “You’re going to be writing a check for horses that’s $50–$75,000 a week.” You really want to do this?

They were crazy to accept Sheridan’s terms. But they were impressed by the cut Glasser had shown them of Wind River—the third movie Sheridan had written about the contemporary American frontier, following Sicario (2015) and Hell or High Water (2016), and the first one of them he had directed. And they liked the fact that Kevin Costner had signed on to play Yellowstone’s lead character, John Dutton.

What most attracted them was the script, which in its premise and sweep had echoes of The Sopranos, but with Western trappings. Dutton, the owner of the largest contiguous ranch in Montana, finds himself, like Tony Soprano, battling members of his own family as well as forces from the outside: Native Americans who want to build a casino on the land abutting his ranch; carpetbagging developers from California and New York who want to build golf courses and a ski resort and luxury housing and a new airport and even a whole new city. Dutton is watching his way of life slip away, his family along with it, and he is willing to do anything to hold on to both, no matter how bloody the cost. (A lot of people get murdered on Yellowstone.)

“This was one of the fundamental things I wanted to look at: When you have a kingdom, and you are the king, is there such a thing as morality?” Sheridan told me when we spoke last summer. “Because anyone trying to take your kingdom and remove you as king is going to replace your morality for theirs. So does morality factor into the defense of the kingdom? And what does that make the king? And at the end of the day, that’s really what the show is about.”

Sheridan knows something about kingdoms. At 52, he is now the heavy-handed sovereign of perhaps the most important one on television. The latest season of Yellowstone was the most-watched show on television last year besides NFL football. He helped Paramount’s new streaming service, Paramount+, gain millions of new subscribers with multiple spin-offs of Yellowstone. A prequel, 1883, came out late last year, and will soon be followed by two more: 1923, which will launch in December, as well as Bass Reeves, which is slated for next year. Another Yellowstone spin-off is also due to premiere next year—6666, set at the legendary Four Sixes Ranch.

“He is, by far, the most important creator right now, arguably at any network,” Matthew Belloni, a founding partner of the media and politics website Puck, told me.

Within a year, Paramount’s “Taylorverse,” as some have come to call it, will include up to nine shows, most of which are written solely by Sheridan, who has proved to be as maniacal in his demand for complete artistic control as he threatened in that first pitch meeting. “It’s tough to work for that guy,” a Yellowstone veteran who knows Sheridan well told me, on the condition of anonymity for fear of speaking ill of someone who now has so much clout in the industry. “He drives everyone crazy.”

Yet his scripts have drawn top-tier acting talent, including Dianne Wiest, Sam Elliott, Tom Hanks, Billy Bob Thornton, Zoe Saldaña, Kyle Chandler, and, most recently, Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren, who will star in 1923. Yes: Han Solo and the Queen. On a ranch.

Oh, and Rocky, too. At the upfronts at Carnegie Hall in May, where television networks preview their shows to potential advertisers, Sylvester Stallone got onstage to explain how he came to star in Sheridan’s Tulsa King, which premieres in mid-November.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Stallone said. “[Sheridan and I] were on the phone on Monday. By Wednesday/Thursday, we had a full script.” Stallone plays a New York Mafia capo who, having served a 25-year prison sentence, gets sent to Oklahoma by his boss to set up a criminal syndicate. “I committed to it like that,” Stallone said. “It was bold.”

Four years after Yellowstone’s debut, Sheridan is now in a league with such creators as Shonda Rhimes and Dick Wolf. Only Sheridan might have the more arduous workload. “Most of the writer-producers at his level are essentially managers of a machine. He is actually writing a great deal of this output, which is unbelievable to me,” Belloni said. Even the most exacting of Peak TV’s auteurs—David Chase (creator of The Sopranos), Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad ), Matthew Weiner (Mad Men)—didn’t insist on writing every episode themselves. Sheridan does all of this writing, by the way, while also playing a recurring character on Yellowstone : Travis Wheatley, a high-end horse trader and a rodeo performer. The role enables him to show off his formidable cowboying skills.

Taylor Sheridan on a horse with fellow actors reading scripts.
Sheridan on the set of Yellowstone during the shooting of Season 2, in 2018, near Darby, Montana (Emerson Miller / Paramount Network)

For all of his evident success, Sheridan and the universe he’s created occupy a peculiar place on the American cultural landscape. Despite its high ratings, and Paramount’s explicit attempts to position it as prestige television, the series doesn’t get critical love, or even much critical attention. In January, when the show received a major nomination (for best ensemble in a drama series) from the Screen Actors Guild, some thought the show’s breakthrough critical moment might finally have arrived. But when the Emmy finalists were announced, Yellowstone was shut out.

The Emmy blanking prompted a story in the Daily Mail, of all places, suggesting that Yellowstone—which the conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has called “the most red-state show on television”—is just too “anti-woke” to win favor with Emmy voters. To date, Yellowstone has never won an Emmy. Its New York–media–focused competitor, Succession, which also debuted in June of 2018, has captured 48 nominations, winning 13 times. In September, it won Outstanding Drama Series for a second time.

Though very different from each other in setting and sensibility, the two shows are mirror images. Both have at their core an aging, raging, tyrannical patriarch trying to hold on to an empire (a ranch in one case, a media conglomerate in the other), threatened by a changing world he doesn’t like or understand while trying, Lear-like, to fend off his own heirs, whose fecklessness, incompetence, addictions, and general psychopathology would seem to make them ill-suited for taking the reins of the enterprise. Both feature these patriarchs pitting their deeply flawed children against one another in sometimes vicious ways. Both are dark, edgy, and occasionally soapy. You can make a parlor game out of drawing parallels between the various characters.

Succession’s highest-rated episode got only about a tenth of the viewers that a typical Yellowstone episode did last season, but it gets more respect. To be fair, the disparity in critical acclaim may be due in part to a difference in artistic quality. Succession has a crackle and a bite that, at its best, gives it the feel of a Restoration drama. Yellowstone is sappier and messier, owing as much to Dallas as to Sheridan’s professed influences—Cormac McCarthy and the Coen brothers. At times Yellowstone betrays the strain on a lone writer who perhaps has been stretched too thin. (Sheridan told me he’s never watched Succession.)

But the critical disparity is also accounted for by the cultural and political bubbles we’ve sorted ourselves into. Succession—depicting and aimed at coastal elites—makes noise on Twitter and at awards shows. Yellowstone is popular in the heartland and Sun Belt, where it’s become not just a TV series but a lifestyle. In March, I attended the Cactus Reining Classic, an equestrian competition in Scottsdale, Arizona; some of Sheridan’s horses were competing and he was serving as a commentator. The arena was saturated with Yellowstone paraphernalia. Attendees took selfies with cardboard cutouts of the characters. A Yellowstone store sold mugs, T-shirts, jewelry, and dinnerware adorned with the signature stylized Y that’s the brand of the Yellowstone ranch. The literal one: The Duttons stamp it on their cattle, as well as on some of their cowboys.

Sheridan insists that Yellowstone is not a “red-state show.” “They refer to it as ‘the conservative show’ or ‘the Republican show’ or ‘the red-state Game of Thrones,’ ” he told me. “And I just sit back laughing. I’m like, ‘Really?’ The show’s talking about the displacement of Native Americans and the way Native American women were treated and about corporate greed and the gentrification of the West, and land-grabbing. That’s a red-state show?”

Sheridan is right that the show’s politics are not easy to pin down. Yes, its red-state milieu—all those guns and horses and big, open vistas—along with its veneration of honest toil, cowboy masculinity, violence, and characters who have a general resistance to change may have drawn rural dads who fear, like John Dutton, the end of their own ways of life in a changing America.

But Yellowstone doesn’t have an explicit ideology that maps onto a traditional red–blue spectrum. It’s a mishmash of generally anti-capitalist, anti-modernist populism; pro-rancher libertarianism; conservative environmentalism (I know, today that sounds like an oxymoron, but it has sturdy Teddy Rooseveltian roots); and a sympathetic, pro–Native American revolt of the oppressed. The series isn’t a sop to conservative values, or at least it’s not only that. What Sheridan is up to is slyer, or maybe just more muddled.

Sheridan told me he aims to do “responsible storytelling,” to depict the moral consequences of certain behaviors and decisions. He says he was strongly influenced by Clint Eastwood’s 1992 film, Unforgiven, which “upended” the black-hat/white-hat conventions of the traditional Western. Eastwood “let the sheriff be a bully and the hero be this drunken, vicious killer.” He “shattered the myth of the American Western,” Sheridan said. “So when I stepped into that world, I wanted there to be real consequences. I wanted to never, ever shy away from, This was the price.”

The biggest price—and this theme runs through much of Sheridan’s work—is the one exacted by capitalism and the gentrifiers and financiers who snooker the good people who still work with their hands. Despite his professed admiration for Eastwood’s revisionist Western, Sheridan subscribes artistically to something that looks like the old cowboy way. If his work has a higher moral plane, it’s one governed by cowboy virtues: honor, bravery, physical labor, respect for tradition, and a willingness to die—and kill—in defense of your family and your land.

Though now a rich screenwriter, Sheridan still lives a version of the cowboy life. When he was growing up, his family had a ranch outside Waco, Texas, where he learned to shoot and ride. Though the mythology of his cowboy roots has been embellished over time—his father was a cardiologist, the ranch a weekend home—he is a genuinely skilled horseman. He has won thousands of dollars in “cutting” competitions, and he produces a reality show, The Last Cowboy, in which men and women compete in horse reining. In 2021, he was inducted into the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame.

After what Sheridan has said was a difficult childhood—he spent a lot of time roaming the ranch in solitude—he dropped out of college at Texas State University and moved to Austin, where he did odd jobs like house-painting and landscape work. He has said a chance encounter with a talent scout in a mall provided a way into acting. A successful audition in Chicago eventually brought him to Los Angeles. Over time, he got bit parts on shows like CSI, NYPD Blue, and Walker, Texas Ranger. He was working, but his career didn’t seem to be leading anywhere in particular. For a time, as he struggled, he lived in his car with his dog.

While Sheridan waited for his break, he started a business coaching other actors. Though he’d yet to win success himself, he found he was good at helping other actors hone their craft.

At 38—ancient for an actor—he earned a regular part as a deputy police chief on the FX network’s Sons of Anarchy, a TV drama centered on a motorcycle gang. From the outside, this was the kind of life that so many of his peers—still working as bartenders and baristas—dreamed of. But after two seasons, he decided it wasn’t sustainable. Yes, he was making more than $100,000 a year. But there were costs: an agent, a manager. By then he was married to his wife, Nicole, who was having a baby. When he asked the producers for a raise, they refused. So he decided he had to leave. Not just the show, but acting entirely.

Sheridan didn’t know what to do, or where to go. He talked with a friend about moving to Wyoming, where he might lead camping trips on horseback, put his cowboy skills to use. One of his coaching clients was the intense Canadian-born actor Hugh Dillon. The two began to talk about a show based on a company town decaying around its primary employer—the prison. Though Sheridan had never written a script, Dillon suggested that the two work on a pilot together.

Sheridan had read enough bad scripts to believe that he could do better. He knew that to get started, he had to have the screenwriting software program Final Draft. Nicole maxed out her credit card to buy it.

Taking the script out to would-be buyers served as a preview of Hollywood dealings to come. He got some offers, but they came with conditions, requested changes. And though Sheridan faced the very real prospect of not being able to pay his rent, he felt he couldn’t live with those conditions.

“I’m putting the script in a desk for 10 years until I can make it the way I want to make it,” he told Dillon. And he started writing a movie instead.

By conventional storytelling logic, Sicario shouldn’t work. It’s unwieldy, the plot a bit tough to follow. As Sheridan himself has said of the film, his first screenplay to become a movie, it’s hard to know whom to root for. We’re just as lost as Kate Macer, the FBI agent played by Emily Blunt, who is trying to avoid getting killed by the ostensible “good guys” in the shadow war between the U.S. government and Mexican drug cartels. Set along the El Paso–Juárez border, the movie is violent and, in its refusal to provide any redemption or uplift, existentially bleak. Its vision of America and its institutions is grim.

Sheridan was capturing a feeling—a changing mood in the land. The happy, self-satisfied glow of the early Obama years had faded. In 2015, before the complete Marvel-ization of the Cineplex, people would pay $15 to see a movie without a hero or Top Gun–style jingoism. Sicario made more than $80 million at the box office, and it established Sheridan as an exciting new voice in Hollywood.

But also a difficult one to work with. On a recent podcast, the producer Basil Iwanyk described what happened when he and Denis Villeneuve, the film’s director, determined that the original ending Sheridan had written for Sicario didn’t work as well as it could. When they asked him to rewrite it, Sheridan refused. Yes, he was only a first-time screenwriter, but he was not going to write the ending they wanted. So the climax was rewritten by committee. Sheridan, Iwanyk explained, was furious.

Sheridan’s next screenplay, which became the film Hell or High Water, captures as well as any movie the wreckage of the Great Recession and the human costs of an automated America. Written in less than three weeks, it is the story of two brothers trying to save their family ranch by robbing branches of the bank that’s seeking to foreclose on it. (Saving family ranches is a recurring motif in his work; his own mother lost the Sheridan ranch after she overleveraged it.) It’s Sheridan’s best work to date.

Set in the faltering towns of West Texas, Hell or High Water is a modern Western in which both cops and robbers are hard-bitten men who act with good intentions. It’s a dark but clever story of sacrifice and loss, and it earned four Oscar nominations, including Best Supporting Actor (for Jeff Bridges, who played a Texas Ranger on the verge of retirement) and Best Picture. Sheridan was nominated for Best Original Screenplay. The acclaim he received for Hell or High Water, and for Wind River after that, made it harder for studio executives to dictate his artistic choices or rewrite his endings—and easier for him to demand that everything be done his way.

That Sheridan—or anyone—survived Yellowstone’s first season is a miracle. He followed through on his promise to keep everyone out of his process. He wrote and directed every part of what he describes as a 10-hour movie. (Seldom does anyone in Sheridan’s orbit call the work “television.”) No outlines meant no structure to the creative operation. It also meant little sleep.

“We’re getting scripts, like, three days before we shoot them,” Luke Grimes, who plays John Dutton’s dreamy youngest son, the retired Navy SEAL Kayce Dutton, told me. “None of us knew where this thing was going … I’d never been a part of something like that. But it just felt so alive and so fresh.”

People who have worked closely with Sheridan for a while, perhaps having drunk too deeply from the Taylorjuice, will tell you about the “purity” of that first season. No one had to contend with the varying interpretations of multiple directors and writers, just Sheridan’s. After the first five episodes, which he completed before production started, he wrote whenever he could, disappearing sometimes for hours, then coming back with a script.

A typical Sheridan script has little or no plot exposition. Sheridan said he likes “to come up with extremely simple plots, and then I can have—because I don’t have to explain a lot—really, really complex characters,” which he finds “much more entertaining and thought-provoking.”

On Yellowstone, no character is more complex than the brilliant, fearless, caustic, vicious, chain-smoking, hard-drinking Beth Dutton, John’s daughter, played with deadpan panache by Kelly Reilly. (At horse shows, you can buy T-shirts saying Don’t Make Me Go Beth Dutton on You.) Deeply traumatized and deeply loyal to her father, Beth is alternately nasty and endearing but, in her lacerating savagery, never not compelling.

When I talked with Reilly last summer—sitting on the back porch of the house that serves as the Dutton home in Montana, where she was filming Season 5—she told me that the Beth Dutton phenomenon is a tribute not to her acting but to the dialogue Sheridan writes for her. “She has these zingers and one-liners that people seem to love,” she said.

Waitress: Care for a drink?
Beth Dutton: Double Tito’s, three olives.
Waitress: You mean a martini?
Beth: Nope, martinis have vermouth and are enjoyed with friends. I don’t like vermouth, and these aren’t my friends.

(These are quite tame, as Beth’s lines go; most of her best ones are gloriously crude.)

Sheridan’s dialogue owes something to the novelist and screenwriter Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove, The Last Picture Show). McMurtry, Sheridan told me, “doesn’t waste words. You could add a lot of words to his dialogue and the dialogue still works, but you can’t take any away. And that, to me, is the cornerstone of writing good dialogue. If you took one word out of the sentence, the sentence doesn’t make sense.”

Jamie Dutton: Working with them is a deal with the devil, Dad. John Dutton: All the angels are gone, son. There’s only devils left.

But the economy with which Sheridan writes isn’t merely about artistic vision; it’s also about artistic control. “It makes my point of view, the tone, what the scene is about, and what the sentence is about for an actor very, very clear. It becomes very difficult to misinterpret it or reinterpret it.”

Actors Kelly Reilly, Tim McGraw, Sam Elliot and Billy Bob Thornton in scenes from Yellowstone and 1883.
Kelly Reilly as Yellowstone’s Beth Dutton; Tim McGraw, Sam Elliott, and Billy Bob Thornton on the set of 1883. (Paramount Network)

However stripped down the scripts might be, Viacom executives were concerned that if Sheridan didn’t share the workload he would drown. For Season 2, they gave him a writers’ room. It didn’t go well.

When the writers, who were mostly based in Los Angeles, came to the set, “Taylor refused to talk to them,” according to the Yellowstone veteran who spoke with me on condition of anonymity. “He kept saying, ‘It’s weird to have other people write my characters.’ ” Sheridan told me that he mostly ignored the suggestions of the writers’ room. He said that only the writers’ assistant—whose job ordinarily consists of tasks like research, fact-checking, and proofreading—wrote good scenes; that’s why he gave him a writer’s credit. (IMDb lists multiple writers as contributors for Season 2.) In any case, for Season 3, the writers’ room was gone.

Yellowstone was far from an instant hit. When Chris McCarthy, a longtime Viacom executive, gained oversight of Paramount Network in late 2019, he had never seen the show. The second season had just aired, and he had plenty of reasons to cancel it. Its numbers were decent, not spectacular. It did well in rural areas and midsize metropolitan regions but bombed in the major markets. Its exorbitant production costs made it a candidate for the chopping block. But McCarthy saw potential. Yellowstone’s problem, McCarthy believed, was that it aired on Wednesdays in the summer. HBO and Showtime had long ago made Sunday evenings the showcase for high-quality television drama, the last citadel of appointment viewing. So McCarthy moved it to prestige night. When the numbers started to grow, in 2021, Paramount took the next step, moving it from summer to fall.

It worked. The Season 3 premiere earned 7.6 million viewers. Last year’s Season 4 premiere almost doubled that figure; its 12.7 million viewers made it the most-watched premiere since the Walking Dead season opener in 2017.

But McCarthy needed still more from Sheridan. Before McCarthy came on board, Viacom had sold off the streaming rights to some of its assets in what amounted to a shortsighted view of the cord-cutting market. (This is why earlier seasons of Yellowstone belong to Comcast, which airs the show on its Peacock streaming service.)

In early 2021, ViacomCBS belatedly embraced the streaming revolution, rebranding its CBS All Access service as Paramount+. Having seen Yellowstone buoy Paramount’s cable channel, McCarthy turned again to Sheridan to get the rechristened streaming service off the ground. Paramount had already green-lighted Mayor of Kingstown, the show that Sheridan had years ago co-created with Hugh Dillon. But it needed more programming, and needed it fast. Hence the decision to “double down, triple down on Taylor,” as McCarthy put it, with 1883 and the parade of additional prequels and spin-offs that has followed.

With 1883, Sheridan got everything he wanted. Every actor. (The series stars Sam Elliott and the husband-and-wife country-music stars Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, among others; Tom Hanks, Rita Wilson, and Billy Bob Thornton all appear in episodes.) Every historical detail. (The series used 30 real Conestoga wagons and 200 horses.) Every location. (The cast and crew traveled in extreme heat and cold from Texas to Montana, and they shot one of the final scenes—a single one—in Oregon, so Elliott could deliver his final lines on a beach there.)

The story of how the Dutton family came to Montana, 1883 is an unsparing, even pitiless look at the immigrant experience on the Oregon Trail after the Civil War. There are drownings and scalpings and amputations without anesthesia—various major characters do not survive the season. Many of the actors told me it was one of the most grueling projects they’d ever worked on. “Everything was against us,” the director Christina Alexandra Voros, who is part of Sheridan’s inner circle, told me later. “Time was against us. Weather was against us. COVID was against us. It was sprawling to a degree that I don’t think any of us truly understood.”

In the final days of shooting, in January, the toll that 1883 had taken on the cast was evident. They were filming on land that Sheridan owns near his ranch in Weatherford, Texas, 40 miles outside Fort Worth. Worn out from months of fighting the elements, some of the actors were fighting themselves.

“Fuck me in the ass!” Hill yelled. She was sitting with her real-life husband discussing the fate of their fictional daughter, and struggling with her lines. She was exhausted. Everyone was.

“Baby,” McGraw said sympathetically.

Later, during a quiet moment, Sam Elliott and I talked in a darkened corner of a soundstage. COVID protocols on set were strict, and a new variant was spreading, so his signature mustache was hidden behind a KN95 mask. He couldn’t hide his distinctive laconic drawl, though, one of the qualities that have made him a sought-after commodity by directors of Westerns.

Before Sheridan came calling, Elliott hadn’t been on a horse in years. He was done with the genre, and in fact he’s been outspoken in his criticism of some recent Westerns—including Yellowstone, which he says he’d heard bad things about from friends in Montana. (“Taylor knows I haven’t watched it,” he told me.) Then he read the 1883 script, which Sheridan had written with him in mind for the part of the widowed Union officer Shea Brennan. Elliott thought the voice-over narration was “fucking poetry.” He was in.

Sheridan rekindled his enthusiasm for the Western. “I just think it’s a great genre,” Elliott told me. “So many classic struggles that I always think about: man against man. Man against himself. And man against the environment. You know what I mean?”

In 2021, Paramount gave Sheridan a multiyear development deal that will reportedly pay him $200 million.

At the moment, he’s working on at least eight shows, which fall into two baskets. In the first are the programs he writes himself—Yellowstone and 1923 and Mayor of Kingstown and possibly 6666, as well as Lioness, starring Zoe Saldaña, about a crew of female CIA operatives trying to bring down a terrorist organization. Lioness actually had a showrunner and a writers’ room, but sources told Variety that after the room finished, the producers and showrunner, Thomas Brady, had an amicable parting of the ways concerning creative differences, and Sheridan took over. The other basket contains the shows he develops but doesn’t write himself, like the 1883 spin-off Bass Reeves, which is the story of the African American lawman who some believe is the inspiration for The Lone Ranger, and the Stallone vehicle Tulsa King, for which Sheridan wrote the pilot—in a single sitting—before handing it off.

Barn and worker on the set of the 6666 ranch.
The Four Sixes Ranch, which appears in both Yellowstone and a spin-off, 6666 (Paramount Network)

Paramount’s business has an awful lot riding on the work of Taylor Sheridan. So the company appears understandably concerned about alienating his base. When Kevin Costner wore an I’m for Liz Cheney T-shirt during the apostate Republican’s doomed reelection fight, MAGA fans on Twitter called him a fake cowboy, a Hollywood elitist, and a hypocrite; a hostile column appeared in National Review. And when I asked Sheridan about something he’d said years ago about Donald Trump, it caused a disturbance in the Taylorverse.

I’d come across a Sheridan interview from 2017, when he was promoting Wind River, in which he’d said of then-President Trump: “Can we just impeach that motherfucker right now? Like what are we—I don’t understand … It’s just, it’s so embarrassing.” I was interested in how he thinks about politics in relation to his screenwriting, so I asked him about it. “I don’t recall that,” he said.

I noted that maybe he’d thought he was off-mic. “I had just wrapped a movie and I was in Cannes,” he said. (He wasn’t in Cannes.) “I was mad about everything. Twelve-hour press junkets with no food or water will do that to you.”

I dropped it, and we moved on.

The next morning, a Sunday, agitated texts started coming in from the Paramount team. David Glasser, I was told, was upset. The publicists were upset. The higher-ups at Paramount were upset. Unless I promised to leave Sheridan’s Trump quote out of this story, I was told, a trip I’d scheduled to visit the Yellowstone set in Montana was at risk of being canceled. (Ultimately, I made the trip.)

I’d also asked Sheridan about another political comment he’d made, to Esquire in 2018, in which he’d said that “white privilege” was a noxious concept that was off-putting to many Americans. “Here’s the worst two words put together in the past ten years: white privilege,” Sheridan had told the journalist Stephen Rodrick. “Oh, really? Help me, Mr. Harvard-fucking-Ph.D., convince the man who’s losing his ranch, who can’t afford his kid’s college—he has no health care, he has no fucking clue what Obamacare is, he’s never seen a social-security-fucking-office, his only concept of federal government is taxes. How do I convince that guy he’s privileged? You won’t do it.” In that answer, it seemed to me, lies the populist political sensibility that infuses much of Sheridan’s work.

This Sheridan was willing to discuss. What he’d meant with his white-privilege comment, Sheridan told me, was that “you should be mindful of not berating the subject you are trying to educate, and find a way for them to digest your point of view without turning them off to it.”

I thought back to a visit I’d made to Sheridan’s sprawling Bosque Ranch in Texas earlier this year, when I’d talked with Jen Landon, who plays the delightfully wacky Yellowstone wrangler Teeter, about how fractured American television and film viewership has become. Landon told me she knew a producer on Hell or High Water who had never watched Yellowstone. This was “somebody who would like to work with him again,” Landon said, and yet Yellowstone was somehow not on her cultural radar.

We were sitting in Nic’s Bar, run by Nicole Sheridan. It overlooks the arena at Bosque Ranch, which is used for horse and cattle shows. After “cowboy camp” training, the cast of 1883 would come to Nic’s Bar to blow off steam late into the night. One wall is filled with photos of Nicole with her friends. Because of the bar’s proximity to animals, it smells.

“There was such a need and a hunger for this show,” Landon said. “A demographic of people who I normally associate with not knowing how to open Netflix managed to find Paramount and watch this show because they needed it, because they couldn’t relate to anything else.”

But what, exactly, are they relating to? Much of the show revolves around the Yellowstone bunkhouse, the rowdy, spartan home of the wranglers, where discipline is kept by a hierarchy that is almost primate-like in its rigidity. The alpha male, the lead ranch hand Rip, establishes and maintains his stature by fighting. Throughout the series, violence of various kinds is shown to be a necessary evil, whether to defend your family or your land or the existing social order, or simply to keep the peace. Controlled violence (cowboys beating the crap out of each other under supervision) can be a release valve to prevent worse violence (cowboys killing each other unsupervised).

The character for whom Sheridan seems to have the greatest contempt is John Dutton’s son Jamie. Though he went off to Harvard Law at the behest of his father, who thought it would help him defend the ranch’s interest in court and in the Montana legislature, Jamie is seen by John Dutton as pathetically weak and untrustworthy, because he wears nice suits and fights his battles with words and arguments, not fists and guns. He achieves momentary redemption only when he’s sent, as punishment, to live as low man in the bunkhouse, shoveling manure and earning a more honest living for a while.

Sheridan would say that his series critiques John Dutton as much as it valorizes him—it gives him the Tony Soprano treatment by showing the failures and blowback, the regret and loneliness, that are the frequent consequences of his actions. And it’s true that as a protagonist, John is sometimes less sympathetic than simply odious. But watching him and Kayce and Beth and Rip mete out frontier justice can be uncomfortably satisfying, an atavistic thrill.

Taylor Sheridan on a horse in a field.
Sheridan, photographed at the Bosque Ranch in Fort Worth, Texas, in September 2022 (Bryan Schutmaat for The Atlantic)

Having built an audience in places where a “stand your ground” worldview holds sway, Paramount seems keen not to offend or alienate it. A bigger concern for Paramount than politics should probably be that its television future now rests so heavily on the workload it has put on one man. “I’m shooting over $1 billion worth of television shows,” Sheridan told me. “That’s how much money they’ve trusted me with, and I have to go make more than that with the product I create. So yes, it’s a tremendous amount of responsibility … I’m aware of the opportunity, and so I do spread myself thin as a result.” He knows it’s not sustainable. But he says this is a “three-to-five-year thing, at best—at least as far as me writing, directing, editing, casting”—not something he could keep up for 10 or 15 years.

“I don’t know that I will ever have this creative freedom again,” he says. “Hopefully I can ride off into the sunset before something tanks.”

This article appears in the December 2022 print edition with the headline “The Dark Vision of Taylor Sheridan.”