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John Dutton runs a family ranch in Montana with the help of his children and a few very congenial ranch hands, all of whom go to great lengths to maintain the family business—even if it means resorting to violence or corruption to keep the family name alive.
The series stars Hollywood royalty Kevin Costner as Dutton, the family patriarch. Costner’s three children in the show are played by Luke Grimes (American Sniper, the Fifty Shades series), Wes Bentley (American Beauty) and English actress Kelly Reilly. Cole Hauser (Dazed and Confused, Good Will Hunting) plays Costner’s adopted son of sorts. The show was created by Taylor Sheridan (a writer and producer who gained fame by appearing on Sons of Anarchy) and TV and film producer John Linson (Sons of Anarchy in TV; Great Expectations and Lords of Dogtown in film).
The life of John Dutton and those within his immediate orbit is one of seemingly quiet complexity, with perceived opportunity as boundless as the vast Montana sky. This present-day look at the Wild West from Sons of Anarchy veterans Sheridan and Linson reveals how some citizens cannot fully shake off cultural and societal tendencies, even in the most remote of settings.
The show harkens back to a time when self-reliance was not just encouraged but necessary. The Dutton Ranch—identified as the largest of its kind in the United States—survived decades of unfettered capitalism and industrial growth to maintain what the family believes is theirs: the land and its resources. The theme evolves through a multitude of characters, starting with the wisdom and brashness of Dutton and echoing down through his children: Kayce, Beth, and Jamie. The kids have no real emotional bonds with one another, instead devoting themselves most fully to the needs of their father. The death of Dutton’s wife in a freak accident has a lasting effect on each member of the family, especially Dutton and Beth—the latter of whom feels largely responsible for her mother’s passing.
Dutton is, ironically or not, more in tune with Beth than any of his sons. She understands his life mission and his grievances. She feels indebted to her father for the pain she believes she personally caused him when her mother/his wife died. Beth develops as a character, evolving from a grandstanding, grief-stricken alcoholic into someone her father trusts more than anyone else within the family. One of her most poignant moments (and one of the show’s most jaw-breaking scenes) occurs during an attempted sexual assault at the hands of some of her father’s enemies.
The relationship between Dutton and his right-hand man Rip Wheeler, played by Hauser, is arguably the strongest father-son bond in the entire show. The two have an obvious rapport based on trust; Rip gets things done for his boss. Their emotional journey that goes back decades, when Dutton saved Rip from a home life in utter disarray. Dutton and Kayce have a relationship that ebbs and flows, while Dutton and Jamie are constantly at odds over political posturing and a long family secret that reveals itself in the third season.
The handful of ranch hands who dedicate their lives to Dutton’s operation, by way of a chest branding that indicates lifelong trust, live in a bunkhouse and repeat the motions daily—as if a life beyond the ranch itself does not exist. Any well-to-do men who turn their backs on the Dutton clan tend to find themselves literally thrown off a cliff, never seen or heard from again.
The scenic ranch that serves as the setting is located seemingly in the middle of nowhere, as if it placed near the mountains and the sun-bound horizon. Scenes often take place inside the ranch, over tumultuous conversations at the breakfast table or during a shared glass of bourbon. Sometimes, you’ll find the characters throwing back beers at a rodeo or at a local bar. The outfits are what you would expect on a ranch: jeans, cowboy hats, and boots adorned by men with different-sized beards. Men on horseback frequently framed against that backdrop add to the grand, cinematic scale.
Each season of the show poses new challenges for the Duttons, from battling with indigenous people to maintain the frontier and all of its resources to clashing with casino developers attempting to use the Dutton land as a resting place for good old American capitalism. Things reach a violent crescendo in the show’s third season, when the Dutton family seems to have met its match with corporate types who aren’t afraid to play dirty in order to make millions off the family business and put the family in the ground—even literally.
In a grander historical perspective, Yellowstone directly illustrates the juxtaposition between traditional American Western themes—conquest, outlaws, vigilante justice, cultural separation—and fighting against modern forces of commercialization and technological advancement. The Dutton family operates as its own jurisdiction and justice wing, for the most part, while resorting to using high levels of state government to tweak the system to their own advantage. Dutton even has an on again-off again relationship with high-ranking politician.
All the while, they use their own methods of violence to ward off infringements on their land and any attempts to acquire their property for large-scale development. Whether it’s battling with different races and creeds or using guns to settle disagreements, the show’s primary themes transcend decades and even centuries of American life. It also shows that as advanced as society has become, not everyone chooses to live with the same standards.
The third season ends with a cliffhanger for the TV record books, as multiple perilous situations occur simultaneously in rapid fashion until the credits roll. All a viewer can wonder is, “How will they all make it out of this alive?” Some might even ponder whether any or all of them should survive.
Yellowstone is a show that idealizes the history of the American West, when life was simpler and things were handled in particular ways. It also shows the hypocrisy of embracing violence in the name of maintaining a peaceful way of life. The show’s profile has risen dramatically as it continues to set ratings records, largely due to its strong cast, headed by Costner, and a true-to-life examination of how one person’s choices impact those around them.
While it’s a show about a family, this is not a family show. It’s TV-MA, and the content sways between harmless conversation to violent and sexual content, some of which can be graphic. It is, however, a good show for couples who want a new binging experience.
The Instagram account for Chief Joseph Ranch, the show’s real-life filming location, recently posted that season four had finished filming. The new season is speculated to premiere this June after a delay due to the pandemic. Also, two spinoff series have already been greenlit for the Paramount+ streaming platform.