Governor Dutton

In Season 5 of ‘Yellowstone,’ an oligarch will do anything to protect his business interests. Sound familiar?

Taylor Sheridan and the powers that be at Paramount couldn’t have picked a better time to bring back Yellowstone for what they hope will be a triumphant 5th season for the neo Western epic that has grown into a popular culture juggernaut, if not a odd barometer of sorts of the deep divides that continue to dominate America’s electoral and cultural  politics. Along the way, the program has set cable viewership records, launched a universe of spinoff prequels and side stories, and, perhaps somewhat ominously, become the subject of regular elite discourse and analysis by not just television critics, but sociologists, culture war combatants, and, somewhat bizarrely, a New York Times op-ed writer on a family vacation this summer.

On Sunday, Yellowstone returned with a two-hour, two episode special that picks up several months after the end of last season. And the major arc of the show remains the same: Montana rancher John Dutton will do whatever he has to do to protect his land, the largest contiguous ranch in Montana’s Paradise Valley. In past seasons, that’s included: murder, threats, intimidation, bribery, and enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend partnerships doomed from the get-go. This season adds another timely weapon in the Dutton arsenal: Governor of Montana.

Hinted at as a possibility towards the end of Season 4 as Dutton realized he couldn’t count on his adopted son Jamie, the state’s Attorney General, to protect his interests (his ranch) as he saw them, Dutton outmaneuvered Jamie for the nomination, then won the seat. His platform is, as political advisers would call it, simple and easy to understand: stop development and gentrification and punish wealthy interlopers from California and New York who have second homes in Big Sky Country. “That doesn’t sound like progress to me,” Dutton notes. “It’s an invasion.”

He wants to increase the taxes on second home owners and find other ways to make life for part-time residents as costly and miserable as possible. “For The Land” is the Dutton campaign slogan seen on campaign posters at his election night party. Obviously, he gets many votes from permanent residents of Montana who think Dutton is talking about all of the state’s land. But he isn’t. As he makes clear, Dutton became Governor for one reason and one reason only: to protect his family ranch. That’s it. His only interest is putting his ranch, not Montana, first.

Throughout the first two episodes, it’s clear that Dutton has very little interest in the responsibilities of leading his state. He doesn’t want to make small talk, attend meetings with supporters or state advocates, or make worthless public appearances. He wants to protect his ranch. His single-minded focus on protecting his ranch, his clear interest and willingness to engage in self dealing, reminds us of another singularly-minded, aging real estate tycoon who saw his business empire struggling and launched a bid for office that saw numerous instances of self dealing.

Indeed, just two days after the premiere of Yellowstone, that same man, facing legal troubles on multiple fronts and looming debt payments, launched another campaign for the top office in the land (somewhat amusingly, his oldest son couldn’t make the launch because he was caught in bad weather on a hunting trip in the “Mountain West”). He did so, of course, at Mar a Lago, his private golf club resort in Palm Beach, Florida, enabling him, at least for the moment, to access fundraising dollars to, yes, rent his private home for the launch event.

Across the country, Governor Dutton does something quite similar, hosting his inauguration party at his own Mar a Lago, the Dutton Yellowstone Ranch. In her ongoing caustic and dysfunctional sibling rivalry with her adopted brother, Jamie, Beth notes that they used no public funds  for the inauguration party, just campaign funds. Jamie notes he isn’t sure that is any better or even legal.  The parallels with the real world former President couldn’t be clearer. What it says about Dutton’s future in governance will unfold in the coming weeks, though it is already clear that the Montana State legislators we do meet clearly don’t have what it takes to keep Dutton in line (sound familiar?).

The week before the Yellowstone premiere, the U.S. itself  had its latest most important election ever, this one ending more or less in a surprising stalemate with Republicans gaining the House, but only by  the slimmest of margins. The country remains as polarized as ever, with cultural wars promising to fill news pages. Twitter feeds, and Substack subscriptions around the clock. Yellowtone’s storyline, of course, has always perfectly captured the two Americas.  John Dutton has always seen himself at war with “progress” (California-like wine bars in downtown Bozeman are among his many obsessions) and now that he is Governor, that war enters a new theater with a powerful private equity firm eager to open the Paradise Valley to development and a new airport.

The first two episodes of Season 5 introduce some new characters, and the show continues to infuse melodrama around relationships, the cowboy lifestyle, manhood, orphans, the demands of caring for the land, and numerous flashbacks of how the Duttons got into this mess. Perhaps most ominously, Rip Wheeler, the orphan turned Dutton loyal enforcer (and John Dutton’s son in law) noted to his wife, Beth, as he gazed at the ridiculous inauguration party on the Dutton Ranch, that Beth’s father was on his way to losing his ranch. The coming weeks will tell how right the observation is and whether Governor Dutton can use the levers of Government in Helena to buy himself more time. But if you lose Rip, that’s not a good sign.

Throughout its first four seasons, Yellowstone often hinted at real-world politics, but most of the discussion of the show’s political messages took place in the growing number of pseudo big think pieces about the show’s red versus blue storyline, the popularity of the show in rural areas and small towns and whether the show was popular because it was “anti-woke.” Last week, Sheridan began pushing back on those who think his show is a paean to conservative America. But with John Dutton now in a gubernatorial role, mirroring the tactics of the former President, this show will literally be about politics all the time. Dutton in 2024? At this rate, why not?

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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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