Was ‘Special Ops: Lioness’ Worth Losing ‘Yellowstone’s’ John Dutton?

This summer’s off-set drama indicates that maybe ‘Yellowstone’ was always less than the sum of its parts

Taylor Swift dominated the pop culture summer headlines, but the other popular Taylor, the powerhouse television god Taylor Sheridan, got a piece of action in the final weeks of unofficial summer with Special Ops: Lioness, a streaming hit on Paramount+ that he apparently modeled on a real-life military program that trains female service members to build relationships with the wives and girlfriends of terrorists.

The first season of Lioness, headlined by Zoe Saldana with appearances by A-listers Nicole Kidman and Morgan Freeman, ended Sunday night with a generally predictable though entertaining ending of Middle Eastern terrorists dead, American military might and ingenuity displayed, and questions about whether the only real thing accomplished was creating another generation of terrorists who hate America. Oh, and higher gas prices.

Lioness has generated solid viewership on Paramount+, becoming another feather in Sheridan’s ten-gallon Texas cap and perhaps reassuring Paramount executives that they did the right thing by spreading Sheridan thin creating new universes like Special Ops while existing worlds still needed attention. The Paramount executives better hope they made the right choice because the one thing this Summer was NOT was a Yellowstone summer. In fact, it was pretty close to a disaster for Sheridan’s most well-known show, a massive cultural hit which has already spun off two prequels and become one of the most watched and discussed cable television shows in history.

And now we must ask, as Lioness encourages its viewers to do at the end: was it worth it? Was it worth having Sheridan spend his time building out a potential Special Ops content property that, while certainly watchable, didn’t really break any new ground? Sure, there were some signature–though a bit heavy-handed–Sheridanesque Americana storylines ranging from Cruz (played by Laysla De Oliveira)’s rise from the aimless and abusive Oklahoma streets into a dangerous CIA role to Saldana’s character’s inter-racial marriage with a hunky white physician in the DMV. The lesbian love story between Cruz and her terrorist mark’s wife was also of note, if not a bit forced.  And, of course, it’s always great to see Kidman and Freeman on the teevee, if even just for a few minutes.

But viewers have more or less seen much of this kind before in one way or another from Homeland, 24, Fauda, The Americans, to the just-completed Jack Ryan, to name just a few.  Geopolitically, the Middle East angle (though the final scenes take place in Spain) also seemed, well, a bit digitally tired. Again, was this series worth it, particularly as Yellowstone was in deep trouble?

When the year started, no one could have predicted that Yellowstone would hit a wall. The first half of season 5 (they oddly divided the season into two parts) ended on the first day of 2023, and while the episodes were a bit plodding and meandering, the show continued to dominate ratings and popular culture, and the show continued to serve as a touchstone for pundits wanting an easy-to-grasp window into America’s geographic and cultural divides, whether or not they actually understood what was happening on the show itself.  Yellowstone even announced a set of wildly popular Funko POPs, a popular type of small plastic figurines that usually depict superheroes, movie characters, sports stars, political figures, and top pop culture idols, and often appear on desks and bookshelves around the country.

Meanwhile, the second prequel of the series, 1923, starring Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren, continued on Paramount+ through the late Winter, drawing huge audiences and keeping Sheridan’s Yellowstone universe at the heart of American popular culture.  They set the second half of Yellowstone season 5 for late Summer and everything seemed right in Duttonland. Within weeks, though, the floor fell out from under the series, or at least the current iteration of it, and the impact is likely to be significant.

In the spring, rumors started circulating that Yellowstone star, Kevin Costner, who plays all-American anti hero, John Dutton, would be leaving the show after season 5 and either he or the whole show would replaced by another Yellowstone-adjacent program, likely starring Matthew McConaughey. Paramount was purposely vague about what was going on and Sheridan played his cards close to the vest. Costner, too, was quiet. Lawyers and agents filled the void, each spinning stories about who was to blame for the conflict.  In May, Paramount formally announced that Yellowstone would be ending after the second half of season five in November (which is unlikely since it isn’t clear if scripts are even complete for it) and that a new Yellowstone sequel was in development for a December launch, also very unlikely. But there was still no official word on Costner, who was off directing his own Western epic passion project, Horizon.

As summer started, while there was no definitive news on John Dutton’s future, there was lots of news about Kevin Costner. But none of it had to do with Yellowstone. The headlines focused on his highly publicized divorce from his longtime wife, Christine Baumgartner. With most Hollywood pr pros quiet due to the Hollywood writer’s strike, one had to scrutinize bottom-feeding gossip website coverage of the ugly Costner-Baumgartner divorce to try and understand what was going with Costner’s future on Yellowstone.

Last Friday, in what Washington hands would call a Summer Friday bombshell designed to hide terrible political news (albeit this one was unplanned), during a hearing on child support for Costner’s kids, it became clear how serious the Yellowstone mess actually was. While earlier divorce news indicated Costner was no longer under contract with Sheridan’s show, his testimony on Friday indicated it was far more complicated; according to Costner, Paramount had walked away from negotiations with him for participation in not only the second half of season five, but seasons six and seven as well. For divorce purposes, this meant his ex-wife couldn’t count on future Yellowstone money from Costner to gauge child support. Costner also implied that there was disagreement around “creative” and that his conflict around Yellowstone would “probably go to court.”

Either this was one hell of an aggressive negotiating tactic via a divorce proceeding or, more likely, this implied that Costner would NOT be returning for the end of Yellowstone, a program he literally helped create. In many ways, Costner IS Yellowstone. He plays the show’s central character and it’s his character’s family storyline that launched two prequels and an entire television universe. So how exactly is this all supposed to work? How is the back half of season 5 going to conclude Yellowstone WITHOUT him? Is this even possible? For his part, Sheridan said over the Summer that Costner’s departure from the show wouldn’t change anything about his projected arc of John Dutton’s story but would certainly “truncate” it. But Sheridan said this when there was still hope of Costner appearing in some form in the final episodes. That no longer seems an option. Even the best digital deepfake technology–like that used to bring Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker back for Disney+–can’t fix this.

Already, entertainment news sites are pushing out worthless listicles about the different ways Sheridan can handle his main character’s departure from the show’s final episodes without the actor actually participating in them. And there is no doubt a talented and skilled writer like Sheridan can certainly come up with something. But is this the way Yellowstone is really going to end? A forced ending on a show that rejuvenated the popularity of the Western genre, resurrected Costner’s career, made Sheridan a television powerhouse, and became an American cultural juggernaut? This massively successful show is going to end…without its major star who is central to the entire story? Could David Chase have ended The Sopranos without James Gandolfini? Just think how long Sopranos diehards have debated the final scene with Tony Soprano and the Man in the Member’s Only Jacket, with Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’playing in the background. Yellowstone deserved nothing less than a similarly iconic ending with its major star, with a popular country music song filling the air like a character itself. Yet here we are.

How could things get so screwed up on a show that was so significant to so many millions of people? Is it possible that the economics of streaming, and the competing demands by studio executives, Hollywood stars and celebrity directors are even messier, more complicated and significantly more ridiculous than we ever imagined? Was Sheridan just too busy with watchable but forgettable content like Lioness to ensure he did whatever was possible to keep Costner committed to Yellowstone?

Was Lioness that important to the point that John Dutton won’t make the final decisions on the future of his Yellowstone Dutton Ranch? Now, certainly his raucous daughter, Beth, and adopted son, Jamie, can battle things out without their father around.  Beth and her husband, Rip, can certainly vie for control of the ranch with Beth’s biological brother, Kayce, and his Native wife, Monica. But is John Dutton really not going make decisions that will decide whether the ranch’s land ends back in the hands of its original Native owners, as foretold to John’s ancestor, James Dutton, in prequel 1883 by Native elder, Spotted Eagle?

How Sheridan decides the future of the Dutton Ranch and who will control it will not only decide the path of future Yellowstone sequels. It will also tell a lot about how Sheridan views the American future, and its past. Will he subtly imply the future of the American West is in a diverse democracy, with Kayce and Monica leading the ranch into the future with their mixed-race son? Will it be a status quo handoff to longtime ranch hand Rip and Beth? Or will it be something totally unexpected yet telling, like a selloff to a private equity firm or as a surprising gift to the local Broken Rock Tribe? Whatever Sheridan decides will have multiple implications. But without John Dutton involved in the decisions, the historic continuity of the show will obviously suffer and that is a shame since so much time, money and energy has gone into giving Yellowstone and specifically the Dutton family a deep backstory. Was it worth sacrificing this for the likes of Lioness?

Now things are not totally all gloom and doom for Yellowstone. The program, in a scaled-down edited form, with presumably less cursing and violence, is coming to CBS this fall and, likely, will draw in some new mainstream fans. And presumably these new viewers will partake in silly discussions about whether Yellowstone was popular because it is “anti-woke” and whether it truly captures the American cultural war between elites and populists happy with their way of life, particularly in Western states. There is also a 1883 spinoff focused on the mysterious lawman Bass Reeves–some say his life inspired the story of the Lone Ranger–coming this Fall to Paramount+, but it now has nothing to do with either the Yellowstone or the Dutton family.

Perhaps most ominously, with little-to-no-news on the show this Summer, seemingly terrible planning by Paramount and Sheridan, and Costner’s involvement in the show an on-going mystery to everyone until last Friday, it no longer seems that Yellowstone is at the center of American popular culture. Somewhat ironically, the specific void this Yellowstone mess has left in popular culture–particularly as it relates to popular stories about the country’s many divisions–transmuted into over arguments over the meaning of two country music songs, Jason Aldean’s Try That in a Small Town and Oliver Anthony’s Rich Men North of Richmond. Country music, of course, is a major part of Yellowstone and this was the cultural space that the fictional rich man outside Bozeman, Montana dominated. Now it seems he has probably gone forever.

When Yellowstone and its prequel, 1923, returns–whenever that is, likely in 2024–they will surely be popular television programs that Yellowstone faithful, some who have been with the show from the very beginning, will watch But the Yellowstone universe as a whole will likely seem smaller and less important because of what we lost during the Summer of 2023, a sense that Yellowstone was more than just another television series, that it was a major symbol–for better or worse–of the country at this peculiar and divisive time in its history.

Now, the show seems as if it will become just another watchable, messy and probably ordinary television drama in the general ballpark of Lioness. Maybe in the end, that isn’t  the worst thing and is where Yellowstone was always destined to land. Perhaps it was always just a television show all along and nothing more. John Dutton surely would think so. And we’ll always have his Funko POP to look at on our desks.


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Adam Hirschfelder

Adam Hirschfelder runs public programs in Marin County for the Commonwealth Club of California. Hirschfelder graduated with honors from Northwestern University and received his MA in education policy from Teachers College, Columbia University. He serves on the boards of directors of the Marin Cultural Association. A New Jersey native, he now lives outside San Francisco. The Force is Strong with Him.

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