Created by Taylor Sheridan & John Linson
Episodes : 9
Paramount Network / Paramount +
Original Air Dates: 20th June 2018 – 22nd August 2018
A hand reaches out towards a horse framed against a blue sky. We see that the hand belongs to Kevin Costner and one feels a level of comfort. After all, Costner and the western genre have gone hand-in-hand several times throughout the decades and one might be thinking that the audience is in for something approaching the elegiac nature of Dances With Wolves just from the first few seconds alone.
There are warning signs that all is not right; Costner’s face is bloodied and we can see the horse is distressed. It is soon revealed that the setting for this scene is a modern road; vehicle wreckage is strewn everywhere, carnage and death littering the scene and soon Costner is putting the horse to sleep with a bullet.
We are soon reminded by the credit sequence that we are in Taylor Sheridan country, the writer behind the bruising and brutal modern classics Sicario and Hell or High Water, stories that flit either between Neo-western or action thrillers with brutalist themes of vengeance and death, all of which are framed against stunningly photographed desert vistas.
‘Succession for Republicans’ and ‘red-state drama’ are terms that have been used to describe Sheridan’s television western, claims he has frequently denied as he creates a seemingly never ending television dynasty that has now branched out into two spin-offs – prequels 1883 and 1923, with two more in development stage at the time of writing – while his other creations Mayor of Kingstown and Tulsa King have helped turned the writer and executive producer into something of a formidable creative force on television in a manner similar to Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy, his output becoming a one stop mountain of shows for Paramount Television and its streaming service Paramount+.
The politics of Yellowstone are a big talking point and it’s not hard to see why, although given that its prequels are essentially about the birth of modern America and the move away from the days of the wild west to a civility that is frequently undone by the machinations of every character populating its world, it leaves the entire Yellowstone story tree feeling more complex than both its biggest critics and and staunch supporters are eager to get into the gutter with.
The Dutton clan have their familial strife and problems, but they are just as ruthless as the Logan’s from Succession or Tony Soprano and his own relatives; prodigal son Kayce (Luke Grimes), who turned his back on the family to marry Native American Monica (Kelsey Asbille) and whose brother he ends up killing in retaliation for the murder of his own brother Lee (Dave Annable); politician Jamie with ambitions that end up running against the interests of John by the end of the season; then there’s Beth (Kelly Reilly), fiercely loyal to John, ruthless as a financier, has an at times bitterly hateful, even violent, relationship with Jamie and has an on-again and off-again dalliance with ranch foreman Rip (Cole Hauser).
The series frames John Dutton, his children and ranch hands against stunningly photographed Montana scenery. The series clearly enjoys the image of horses galloping with its lead characters perched on them against truly gorgeous mountains and forestry in the background, but the opening scene sets in stone just how far John is willing to go to either do what he believes is the right thing or to protect his family and land.
‘Succession for Republicans’ might the catchier the phrase, but more often than not the series is more akin to ‘The Sopranos in Stetsons’; Dutton’s right hand man Rip is seen doing a fair share of the dirty work that involves murder and subterfuge against the outside world that might pose a threat to the family and their status, while the branding of the ranch logo on to bare chests feels like a western genre equivalent to the kissing of the Don’s hand in The Godfather, a pledge of allegiance that is impossible to turn away from.
Sheridan in the past has never shied away from characters capable of cold blooded brutality and this being a concoction from a writer who has delivered brutal modern classics such as Sicaro should have been the warning shot that this wasn’t going to be merely a soap with the heartland of America as its setting.
There are story elements in play that might put one in mind of a soap opera; the ongoing plot line centred on business deals for the surrounding land that borders the ranch involves Dutton’s enemies conspiring against him is akin to something you’d find in The O.C. or iconic British prime time soap Emmerdale, but it’s given a semblance of gravitas from Sheridan’s gritty writing (he writes and directs every episode in this first season) and the performances from Gil Birmingham as Chief Rainwater and Danny Huston as Dan Jenkins, characters who are so diametrically opposed to Dutton that it gives the politics of the series layers that go beyond what many may view as a series made for conservative audiences.
‘Anti-woke’ is a label thrown at it by some as a either a criticism or a badge of honour, but Sheridan is also dealing with its main characters being constantly reminded that the land they want to hold on to is stolen. Cynicism is brought to the fore by having Dutton’s enemies either be the onslaught of big business or Native Americans who want to build casinos. The series revels in giving Birmingham gloriously grandiose lines of dialogue where he outlines his motivations that basically come up to using the money of the land to buy back what previously belonged to his people; “This nation doesn’t want to give it back? So be it. We’ll buy it back. With their money,” explaining why he uses casinos as a means of revenue.
Dutton himself at one point exclaims to a set of tourists upon being told that the land he owns is too much for one person that ‘this is America, we don’t share our land’. Some might view that as a philosophy extolled by the series but it’s coming from a character who we see disown one of his children who dares to pursue political ambitions that run against John’s interests and who gives orders for a fired ranch hand to be killed just to protect family secrets, not to mention having a morgue attendant despatched in a staged suicide in order to protect one of his own.
It’s all very engrossing stuff, delivered with a firm muscular hand from Sheridan, but the Dutton’s aren’t necessarily there to be hero worshipped, but the same goes for their enemies. Chief Rainwater may want the land back and his embittered motivations and resentment for it are very understandable given the past, but he himself isn’t above playing dirty to get one over on John, whether it be trying to pin a murder charge of Kayce, or getting into business with Dan with his plans to modernise with condos and new businesses, using the photogenic backdrop simply as a way to make a buck and appeal to investors.
It’s potboiler stuff that’s juxtaposed with occasional action sequences, characters unafraid to pull out guns and superb cinematography that makes it all feel glorious cinematic and a world away from the soap opera it could easily fall into.
Then there’s Costner himself. His work on Dances with Wolves, Wyatt Earp and Open Range have made him one of the rare instances of a modern movie star with a background in westerns. Instead of parlaying that status into another Earp or the dreamy romanticism of his Dances with Wolves character John Dunbar (the names are similar), Dutton is the latest in the line of prestige television anti-heroes.
Sure, he might dote on his grandson in scenes that play very sweetly, express regrets about the past and use stolen private moments to cry and mourn for a lost son, but he’s also a dying breed of so-called hero, the type that Tony Soprano mourned in one of his most famous conversations with Dr Melfi on The Sopranos.
Yellowstone asks what it’s like if you take that type of character and place him into a prestige television series in an era still reverberating from the impact of not only Tony Soprano, but also Walter White and Vic Mackey. It turns out he gets plunged into the dirt with the rest of them.
It’s a magnificent starting off point for Yellowstone. As John Dutton walks off into the distance with an almost John Ford-style grace despite the horrifying nature of his decisions in the final episode, it leaves one pondering where it is Sheridan will take him and everyone around him next.