Yellowstone could have been a great contribution to undoing some of harmful mythos of the west in popular media. Instead, the whole clean jeans, new boots, and a puffy vest aesthetic is out in force, and as any westerner will tell you, it’s only rich guys and Californians that ever look like that. Kinda like how all teenage girls in movies turn hot when you take the glasses off and make em totter around in a pair of heels. Yellowstone is fashion porn for white men – dually pickups and beaver felt hats in the mountains are a masculine version of stepping out of a limousine in a designer gown onto the red carpet.
The show tries hard to subvert the traditional story of the cowboy as the hero and the natives as the bad guys, and has successfully built an anti-hero story line for Costner’s character, John Dutton, as well as his children. Beth is the edgy addict with a gaze of steel and a heart of gold, Jamie is the overachiever who just wants Daddy to love him, Kayce is trying to stay gone after getting out once, and Lee just wants to run some cows, man. Kayce’s wife, Monica, is a justice aware, deep character, but seems to be treated like nearly any other female character in prime time that shows any level of awareness of how fucked everyone else is, and will surely suffer for her insolence.
Waking up to a sun rising over the mountains that surround a ranch is a fairly unique lifestyle. Sure, it’s also a dream for a wide swath of people – usually affluent, white, and from somewhere population dense. The show is shot beautifully and makes the heart ache for an America that not many really ever get to experience. Well, at least until a character opens their mouths. Costner plays the same character he always plays. He’s the squinty reformed bad boy with a true love for being outside in a show full of squinty bad boys with a true love for being outside. The family meddles in politics and other people’s business ventures, ride the line between moral and immoral depending on who you are rooting for.
The Californians are shown as interlopers, out to trash the pristine landscape with golf courses and strip malls. The tribal leaders are identified as greedy and combative. The show is quite clear in its insistence that everyone is just out to protect their own, which softens some of those grating narratives, but it feels like some wider perspective would not be remiss, especially in a show that clocks in at an hour an episode. The projection is very “this is our multifaceted, culturally correct cast!” but some things remain frustratingly the same. Sexual assault is used as a plot device. Women speaking to each other about something other than sex or a man is quite rare. (Shout out for having a woman governor tho!) Violence and drug abuse are as routine in the Dutton family as coffee to nurse a hangover and gathering cows in the spring and fall.
The riding scenes are passable, but not great. The production quality makes up for that. The dramatic scenes are appropriately dramatic for basic cable, there’s nude scenes where the ranch hand bangs his bosses daughter and drone scenes of mountain ranges, both are equally pornographic. The acting quality is fine. It’s not Mad Men but its also not trash.
The interaction between the local tribe, the Californian investors, and the Duttons is complex, but feels clumsily handled at times. Specifically, the perceived ineptitude of Tribal Police is a trope that the show could have benefitted from not exploring. Every character has a bit of good and evil, except the good, smart native girl who shares the innocence of a child somehow, while bearing the child of the baddest of the bad boy Duttons at the same time. Sometimes, it would just be nice to hear a different story.
With their world collapsing around them, power condensing, land being chipped away at, the restless ghosts of the past haunting everyone trying to move forward and new threats around every turn, it seems like the Dutton legacy is going to be chewed up in legal fees and subdivided like the legacies of so many families who colonized the west. But, remember, this is TV. Nothing rides harder for the brand than a trope.