“Yellowstone” ’s Epic TV Expansionism

The fifth season of “Yellowstone” opens on the sullen face of its patriarch, John Dutton III (Kevin Costner), a sixth-generation rancher who has just been voted governor of Montana. The election was a gambit, but its long-term payoffs remain nebulous for now. Dutton suspects that the office might come at the cost of the very way of living that he entered politics to protect—tending cattle in peace on the Yellowstone ranch, the state’s largest such outfit, which for four previous seasons has been besieged by one land-grubbing party or another. Dutton and his three adult children are concerned, above all, with keeping things as they have been. In a concession speech, his opponent, a transplant to the state, gushes over the land and good people of his adopted home, and pointedly expresses his hope that the Governor-elect will “represent all of Montana,” even the latecomers. Watching from HQ, the Governor-elect’s daughter sneers from behind her champagne flute, “You can go back to New York and take those fucking babies with you.”

Such is the fundamental posture of “Yellowstone”: funereal even in triumph, vicious in its wagon-circling, and haughty in its contempt for outsiders, whether they hail from the Big Apple or from, say, Billings. The series’ homespun orthodoxy, and its main character’s allergy to whatever falls under the sign of “progress,” has been singled out by some as the source of its success. Some twelve million viewers reportedly watched the première of Season 5, last November, making “Yellowstone” the biggest draw in prime-time cable after the N.F.L. According to the C.E.O. of Samba TV, a Nielsen rival, the show’s viewership was “significantly over-indexed” in flyover towns such as St. Louis and Cleveland and “not surprisingly” underperformed on the East and West Coasts. Such demographic evidence, combined with the show’s basic key words—horses, guns, Kevin Costner in denim—has been enough to solidify its distinction as programming that caters to the heartland. The conservative columnist Ross Douthat has called “Yellowstone” “the most red-state show on television.”

Some observers have tried to complicate this notion. Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk, one of the first critics I saw taking the series seriously, called its politics “slippery, changeable, and equivocating,” given its knowing inspection, if not quite a critique, of the Dutton psyche. Tressie McMillan Cottom wrote last year, in the Times, that it is “too easy” to label Yellowstone conservative, pointing out its fluency in the reigning idioms of liberal culture, from multiculturalism to designer footwear, even as it derides them. Meanwhile, Taylor Sheridan, who created “Yellowstone” with John Linson, has said, of its reputation as a “Republican” show, “I just sit back laughing.”

I am agnostic on the issue, because partisan politics, in my mind, can’t adequately explain the series’ mass appeal. Even with its fantasy of self-reliance, “Yellowstone” is, in truth, no more or less conservative in its ideas about race, gender, and class than any other family drama beamed into millions of living rooms. What distinguishes the show—what makes it good, or at least enticing—lies instead in the workings of genre. In “Yellowstone,” Sheridan has corralled the ranging tropes of the Western into the chambers of domestic melodrama.

This alloyed formula might help explain why the series has declined in quality as Sheridan has stretched the Duttons’ story to fill five seasons of “Yellowstone” and two prequels—“1883” and “1923.” The further the show expands its horizons, aiming for the status of Western epic, the less committed it seems to its melodramatic core. Put another way, “Yellowstone” works best as a rodeo, which, as the show itself tells us, is not real cowboying but a showy approximation, a fête for a dying art. And yet flaws, too, are part of a soap opera’s contract with its viewer—the understanding that an onscreen product can go bad for a minute and then snap back into its sweet spot.

One character calls the Yellowstone a “ranch the size of Rhode Island,” and I’m not sure that’s hyperbole. There is nothing modest about the Duttons’ outfit; even the word “ranch” rings like comic understatement. Although the everyday work of wrangling is done on horseback, surveilling the Yellowstone requires a veritable fleet of company-branded A.T.V.s and Ram pickups, plus a helicopter on standby. And yet, to Dutton’s mind, the breadth of his property is proportional to his vast intimacy with its features; the slightest disturbance of pond silt is tantamount to the desecration of the family grave. “Every Dutton who died is buried three hundred yards from my back porch,” he says. “When a tree grows on my ranch, I know exactly what fed it.”

Strife on the ranch comes with the maintenance of its borders. The ranch is a stronghold; more than once its defense is likened to warfare. Barbed wire, it seems, is always downed somewhere on the perimeter. In the series première, a herd of cattle have wandered beyond the property line, and an ensuing turf battle leaves at least two men—including Dutton’s oldest son—dead. Sometimes, the threats arrive by air, as when bales of lethal cattle chow are dropped into the fields. At one point, Dutton’s only grandchild is nabbed from underneath his nose. The Duttons return such favors in kind. Killings on the ranch happen with enough regularity that its staff has established its own dumping ground for the corpses that accumulate as a cost of doing business. But Dutton can be merciful, too. A pair of trespassing bikers, persuaded at gunpoint to dig their own graves, are permitted to go back to California on the promise that they’ll never return.

You can see why the Yellowstone is in the habit of recruiting ex-cons for its cowboys. Most of the wranglers we meet come saddled with the sorts of pasts that make life in Dutton’s employ seem like an upgrade, even if it means wearing a literal brand above their hearts, the same “Y” worn by the ranch’s cattle. In the spirit of the mythic West, which has always played at the border between legal and extralegal action, Dutton has muscle on one hip and the law on the other. When we first meet him, he’s serving as the livestock commissioner for the State of Montana, putting at his disposal a fleet of “cow police,” one of whom also toils on the ranch. A flashback shows Dutton sending his starry-eyed middle son, Jamie (Wes Bentley), into enemy territory—Harvard Law—for the good of the family business: “You want to be me someday? Then become something that can help me protect this place,” Dutton says. He may not think of himself as much of a politician, but he shares with them a habit of borrowing against individuals’ futures for the sake of his own legacy.

Episodic skirmishes—trespassers, fistfights—are mere symptoms of the bigger, more existential bad encroaching upon the Yellowstone: the spectre of real-estate development. The first season introduces a developer named Dan Jenkins (Danny Huston), whose California dream is a housing project that would leave Dutton land abutted by second homes and putting greens. For the Duttons, the feared outcome looks less like the Sodom and Gomorrah that the show figures for the West and East coasts than like Breckenridge, or Park City—once hallowed industry towns turned flush by tourism. Already, the nearest town, Bozeman, has seen the bane of pour-over coffee.

Insinuating himself into the white folks’ drama is Chief Thomas Rainwater (Gil Birmingham), the tribal chairman of Broken Rock, a nearby rez, and the proprietor of its casinos. Birmingham has become recognizable for playing Native characters, including in other projects written by Sheridan, such as “Wind River” and “Hell or High Water.” In the latter, as a Texas Ranger on the hunt for a pair of bank robbers, he wryly reflects on the ironic vicissitudes of modern-day land grabs: “A hundred and fifty years ago, all this was my ancestors’ land. . . . Till the grandparents of these folks took it. And now it’s been taken from them.” On “Yellowstone,” Birmingham’s character is steelier. Rather than watch dustups between old and new settlers, Rainwater enters the fray, hoping that so much volatility can be exploited to his people’s gain. His goal looks nobler: neither possession nor preservation but reclamation, reparations. But Rainwater, too, is an outsider of sorts. He was not aware of his heritage until he turned eighteen. He was educated at Harvard and cut his teeth at Merrill Lynch. He dresses in Gucci, and his polish mitigates our sympathies.

“Yellowstone” has been called a neo-Western, but I am skeptical about applying that prefix. Westerns have always been records of their present moments, even as their heroes gallivant against landscapes with an outsized hold on history. The genre is wistful by definition, a referendum on the past suited to contemporary beliefs—and “Yellowstone” fits that tradition without seeking to upend it. The show’s modern setting has changed the face but not the nature of the familiar components: souped-up cowboys in defense of a claim; enemies both armed and bureaucratic, including B.L.M. (that is, the Bureau of Land Management). There is still an Indian threat. Where “Yellowstone” departs from the basic Western has more to do with its medium—television, or, further yet, streaming—than with its modern setting. The critic Aaron Bady has written that Westerns on film are “all about change, big endings and grand historical transitions,” whereas on television they have the time to linger in “the gap between one event and the next.” In other words, television has room to delay, to meditate, to obsess, and Sheridan, given wide latitude to iterate on the Duttons’ world, can prolong his tale of the West as long as he likes (or as long as the network keeps renewing).

Sheridan certainly “knows how a Western should look,” as the critic Noel Murray, an early recapper of the show, has remarked. Aerial shots and panoramic exteriors flatter the textured expanse of the valley. (Most of Seasons 1 through 3 were filmed in Utah; Season 4 moved production on location in Montana.) Even in closeup, characters rarely appear without the mountain range at their backs. The show is populated with fence railings and long, sleek trailers; the dark streak of cattle or a racing herd of wild horses; bodies prone on the ground or slung across a saddle; a calf turned over by bloat or broken spine laid onto a backboard; shallow graves and empty paddocks. Scenes linger on the glorious minutiae of cowboying, which in the utilitarian love language of wranglers often takes a verb form: “Stand up and tell me I can’t cowboy”; “You ready to go cowboy?”; “Cowboy the fuck up.” Like a medical drama, “Yellowstone” relishes the relevant argot: “heading,” “heeling,” “cutting,” “reining,” “point,” “swing,” “flank,” “drag.” The show’s main actors underwent cowboy camp, a two-week gauntlet in roping, weapons training, and riding for eight hours a day. Sheridan, a part-time rancher himself, has a small role on the series as a hot-shot horseman named Travis, whose sole function seems to be doling out shit to newbies—and, by proxy, us viewers. In his first appearance, he slouches over the saddle, muscles flexing beneath a T-shirt that reads “Been doing Cowboy shit all day.”

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