More happens in a single episode of Yellowstone than will happen in a full season of any other series. There’s so much “show” to Yellowstone, about to enter its fifth year on the Paramount network, that it’s actually now five shows – set in the various decades since white men first rode West.
There’s 6666, a contemporary drama about a cowboy who once worked for John Dutton, the taciturn cattle rancher played by Kevin Costner in the original Yellowstone. Then there’s 1923, a forthcoming series about a different man called Dutton – this time, Harrison Ford – surviving the Great Depression. And 1883, a drama about how a different, different man called Dutton – a burly Tim McGraw – founded his ranch in the aftermath of the civil war. (There was so much to 1883 that the spin-off is getting its own spin-off; 1883: The Bass Reeves Story will be about the first Black US marshal west of the Mississippi.) If you think the most impressive TV dynasty of our times belongs to Game of Thrones, you’re in a different bubble. Yellowstone isn’t just a family-owned ranch outside Bozeman, Montana; it’s a solar system.
At the starbright centre of that universe is creator Taylor Sheridan. Bard of the modern horse opera and poet of cowboy schlock. Before Yellowstone, Sheridan was most famous for writing the 2015 Palme d’Or-nominated thriller Sicario, which he followed up with a pair of critically acclaimed neo-westerns: Hell or High Water and Wind River. Yellowstone shares the same ruggedly mesmeric landscape as those films but works in a different tonal register. In this alternate reality version of the Wild West, the white man isn’t the usurper but the face of tradition nobly standing its ground against real estate sharks and vegetarians. Here, the cowboys are the Indians. It’s the most American thing you’ve ever seen.
The show’s politics are not subtle, but they are deeply personal. “I am the opposite of progress,” John Dutton, the next governor of the Big Sky State, tells his supporters. John ran on a platform that’s anti-growth, anti-tourism and anti-developer. Anti-people, really, because most of what the coastal elites invading Montana need – like housing or even an airport to land at – poses a threat to his beloved ranch. “I am the wall progress pushes against.”
In season five, John approaches his self-serving turn into politics with the same “must I do everything myself” vexation that has become the character’s most amusing if ultimately perplexing trait. He inherited the largest ranch in Montana but from his point of view, the whole world has conspired against him. Despite having lost nothing in the last few seasons – John Dutton always outwits a foe – the man has been pushed to his breaking point, which is actually his privileged starting position. Again, it really is the most American thing you’ve ever seen.
The new season opens with a splashy double episode but by the end of the first hour, it’s clear the series will be staying the course. John, under that thick carapace of cowboy swagger, is really a hopeless nostalgic – a fragile relic of a bygone era. His acerbic daughter Beth – played by a scene-stealing Kelly Reilly – can’t heal from her childhood wounds of neglect and forced sterilisation. His livestock commissioner son Kayce – played by Luke Grimes’s scene-stealing silky head of hair – can’t win. And his adopted black sheep of a son Jamie (Wes Bentley) can’t get his family to love him. Lest we forget, Yellowstone is a prime-time melodrama in the spirit of Dynasty, albeit with prestige trappings.
Those trappings include an Oscar-nominated creator, a stirring, symphonic score, and enough acting talent to distract from the nagging sensation that you have no clue what happened on last week’s episode. (Cast members and guest stars across the Taylor Sheridan Universe include Helen Mirren, Jennifer Ehle, David Oyelowo, Timothy Dalton, Faith Hill, and Billy Bob Thornton. Even Tom Hanks shows up.) Perhaps the true hallmark of a great soap is how much insanity – murders, kidnappings, sexual violence – an audience is willing to accept as normal.
Yellowstone marches confidently in the direction of the past, undeterred by the hypocrisies that undergird its worldview. The only life worth living is the life of the cattle rancher but the show’s gravelly hero is really more of a ranch executive. In the fifth season premiere, it’s a novice cowboy that rides John’s horse to keep the animal fit. In fact, it’s Carter, the same boy who Beth “adopted” last season – another attempt at healing herself that didn’t take – before abandoning him to the rowdy machismo of bunkhouse life.
Carter decides he wants to be like John when he grows up. Maybe he means he wants to be stoic and principled in the face of his enemies. Maybe he wants the courage to stick to his guns even as the world weathers him. Or maybe he just means he’d like to be really, really, really rich someday. It doesn’t really matter: each possibility is a riff on the American dream – as compelling as it is empty.