True West

How America fell hard for ‘Yellowstone’

Yellowstone, Taylor Sheridan’s neo-Western, concluded last Sunday night with a melancholy and emotional finale that tens of millions of viewers watched on the Paramount Network (NBC’s Peacock owns the streaming rights, creating its own Old West-like digital conflict we can expect to see more of in coming years). Then, a real-life battle broke out that would bemuse, if not disgust, the program’s anti-hero, John Dutton, played by all-American Oscar winner, Kevin Costner: how exactly did this program become so incredibly popular when it has received so much less attention than other buzzy cable and streaming hits?

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The opinionated Meghan McCain stepped into the debate days ago, claiming that Yellowstone had won America’s hearts and minds because it isn’t “woke.” The Wall Street Journal poured gas on these flames by noting that Yellowstone was one of the few entertainment success stories that garnered strong ratings first in small- and midsize towns and, then, reached large coastal audiences later, when the cultural river usually flows in the exact opposite direction.

Wherever one stands, there’s no debate that Yellowstone is a juggernaut. It ‘s a clear ratings winner, just received its first major award nomination (for best ensemble in a drama series by the  Screen Actor’s Guild), has already spun off one prequel story (1883) starring major country music stars–with rumors of more spinoffs to come–and there are extremely high expectations for additional seasons of the main story, focused on the dysfunctional Dutton family and its figurehead, John Dutton, the classic Western anti-hero. Dutton’s story is part of a timeless Western narrative: a sixth-generation owner of the largest contiguous ranch in the American West fighting to protect his land and his “way of life” from all enemies, internal and external.

Dutton certainly isn’t the first weathered, cliché-spewing, cowboy boot-wearing, handsome white tough guy to want to save his land from all comers. The American Western has long been a staple of American culture, and battles over beautiful natural resources west of the Mississippi have shaped Hollywood, and Americans’ views of their country for well over 75 years. One thing that has changed is the amount of money it takes to hold on to significant swaths of this land.

Yet despite rising property taxes that are threatening The Dutton Ranch balance sheet, he’s determined to do whatever is necessary to hold on to his massive ranch–the size of Rhode Island–in the stunning Paradise Valley region of Montana just outside of Yellowstone National Park. He promised his daddy he would protect it–goddangit–and not even a half-billion check from one of the largest private equity firms in America will change his mind.

This being the 21st Century, Dutton’s mission to save his land and protect it for future generations is a complicated story about more than just money, and Sheridan has fused a soap opera-like narrative onto the classic Western, accentuating it with healthy amounts of graphic violence to keep all demographics entertained. The body count per episode is ridiculously high over the four seasons, with many of the lifeless corpses dumped over a cliff on the Montana/Wyoming border where, the show notes, if one really wanted to understand the history of the American West, you could find it by studying the significant bodies dumped at that spot. “Going to the train station,” they call it.  Thing is: there is no station here. Worse, there is no train.

But while the last-man-standing fights, fisticuffs, barroom brawls, shootouts, militia-led robberies, beatings, stabbings, slashings, hangings, mock hangings, bombings, gangland-style killings, ambushes and sexual violence help juice the program’s ratings, the soap opera melodrama around the Duttons is likely what keeps the audience coming back for more. A major theme in Yellowstone is the modern twist–for a Western–of extreme family dysfunction. The Duttons (John and his now-dead wife) had four children, a daughter and three sons (one of whom dies early in the series). Yellowstone focuses on how Dutton’s single-mindedness to protect his property and way of life at absolutely all costs constantly shapes, molds, and influences his kids’ lives, personal and professional.

At one point, Dutton seems to imply that his children may have had smoother adjustments to adulthood (or made things easier on him) had their mother stayed alive, but his wife’s destructive early maternal impact on his daughter, Beth, leaves one skeptical. Beth is a raging alcoholic whose mother taught her to be tougher than any man who wanted to date her. Her raunchy, whiskey- and martini-fueled wit and vulgar banter, along with her loving relationship with longtime Dutton ranch enforcer, Rip, makes her a standout character in the show, and a growing commercial brand for women looking for different inspirations than those found on shows like the recently-returned Sex and the City.

But beyond the genetic Dutton family, the primary focus of Yellowstone, as it is with most traditional Westerns, is on male characters: how they mature, how they fight, how they earn a living, how they become men (if they do it all) and how they ultimately express their manhood. Unlike the Westerns of yesterday, however, Yellowstone showcases the legacy of intergenerational trauma, how meth and heroin have devastated families in rural areas and cultivated a scary cohort of aimless, fatherless young men who live in the shadows with little purpose in the rapidly changing global economy. Sheridan clearly has a soft spot for how ranches, from Montana to Texas, provide a form of structure and chosen family life for these transient men with few other prospects in deindustrialized America.

Working on a ranch is hard.  Sheridan glamorizes the labor, from training horses to wrangling cattle. This is hands-on work, and the show makes clear that those who live this life are proud to do it and make no apologies; in short, this is work that can’t be done remotely. Obviously, part of the glamour of doing this work is that it is part of mythological cowboy lifestyle that is still attractive to many in the West as a way to build a life around, no matter its numerous drawbacks or lack of upward mobility (or longevity). A good portion of seasons three and four focus on how orphan Jimmy matures from a cognitively slow, meth-using virgin into a proud fledgling cowboy with two women fighting over him. Would he have done the same serving organic coffee in Bozeman?

Of course, where there are cowboys, there must be Indians. And it is with its depiction of Montana’s Native population that Yellowstone uniquely excels. To be sure, the portrayals of American Indians in American entertainment over the past fifty years have certainly evolved; no longer do we see Native Americans only  as ruthless savages that white men must tame, a reliable Western stereotype. Yet it was only in 1990 with Dances with Wolves (starring, yes, Kevin Costner), that mainstream depictions of Native Americans on screen really began to shift. Yellowstone certainly builds on this much-needed progress as it casts Natives  in a range of roles, from teacher, to professor, to powerful lawyer–even to victims of crime at the hands of whites.

John Dutton’s daughter-in-law, Monica (married to Dutton’s son, Kayce), displays all the complexities of a Native woman in 21st century Montana, with a white husband, a mixed-race child, a ridiculously wealthy father-in-law, a position at the local university, stylish Native clothing, and retailers in Bozeman who still see her, wrongly, as a poor, affirmative action student at Montana State. Meanwhile, Thomas Rainwater, Chairman of the fictional Confederated Tribes of Broken Rock and leader of the Broken Rock Indian Reservation–located in the same area as Dutton’s ranch–went to Harvard, did a stint on Wall Street, runs a casino, and plays the long the game with John Dutton, in hopes of one day of getting Dutton’s land returned to his people. In short, this isn’t your father’s (or grandfather’s) Western.

In the relationship between John Dutton and Chairman Rainwater, two older men with long personal histories, one can see the scope of what Sheridan is trying to accomplish with Yellowstone, when he’s not going over the top with prolonged rural audience fan service in the form of endless scenes of wrangling competition porn. While they have shifting allegiances, Dutton and Rainwater have similar goals: protecting as much of the stunningly beautiful Paradise Valley as possible in face of growing numbers of powerful financial players looking to transform Montana into Colorado 2.0. Throughout the series, we meet coastal financiers (read: evil Californians) that have their eyes on this archetypal Western wonderland for one financial play or another, from building second-home McMansions to creating new ski resort destinations to mimic Aspen.

This is the new war for the Old West, fought by financiers and lawyers, and bankrolled by hedge funds and REITs (Needless to say, some of the financial players we meet on the show aren’t quite ready for the fight they have taken on). With new wine bars and private clubs opening to serve new residents and part-time residents from both coasts as opposed to locals, Dutton and Rainwater know that time isn’t on their side to maintain things as they once were, The (condo) walls are, indeed, closing in on the way things used to be.

Beyond some of its soap opera nonsense, Sheridan’s Yellowstone makes a powerful case that the financialization of American life is really a threat to one of America’s last great places. In real life, longtime Bozeman citizens and aggressive real estate agents refer to the region as Bozangeles, so Sheridan isn’t far off with his depiction. It clearly has tapped into a zeitgeist across the land that something has gone wrong in American life and that those who stand for a simpler time, handshake deals, local control, fewer pesky rules, and a (subjective) code of honor should be revered instead of reviled. The Western is dead. Love live the Western!

In many ways, John Dutton reminds viewers of another recent popular TV anti-hero, Tony Soprano, both fighting for an old way of life that is crumbling around them. And much as America fell for David Chase’s complicated mob boss despite his shortcomings (and violent streak), the ratings tell us that the country is doing the same for Dutton much as it has done for others who have played his familiar role. In Dutton’s case, the omerta of Big Sky country taps into a long-honored mythology of American life that has stood the test of time. It ensures that the golden yellow “Y” of the fictional Yellowstone Dutton Ranch will soon become likely as well-known as some of the real corporate brands that have started to place products in Sheridan’s series hoping to reach millions of potential customers in a fictional but “authentic” environment.

Because for all its implicit moral rallying cry for a simpler time in America, let us not forget another iconic theme that has stood the test of time in this country, and one that might even warrant the tip of Dutton’s dusty cowboy hat at some point: the business of America is business, no matter how high the peaks of the mountain.

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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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