Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, a newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, retrospectives, recommendations, and more. You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article to receive future editions in your inbox.
“This is America”
There’s a scene in the first season of “Yellowstone” in which John Dutton, the central character of the series, patriarch of the Dutton family, and owner of a sprawling family ranch in Montana, confronts a group of international tourists watching a grizzly bear from a few yards away.
The tourists, even when a translator conveys Dutton’s warning to them, are unconcerned about the danger from the bear. Instead, one tourist expresses disbelief that Dutton owns the land as far as the eye can see. No one should own so much land, the man says. The land should be shared.
“This is America,” Dutton growls. “We don’t share land here.”
Dutton wields his ever-present rifle, firing it into the air, not to scare away the bear, but to scare the tourists back onto their bus.
That short scene in many ways sums up “Yellowstone,” the series that stars Kevin Costner as John Dutton, who rides herd over his troubled adult children and rapacious would-be land developers much like he handled the tourists; Dutton knows best and isn’t afraid of threatening violence — or using it — to impose his will.
“Yellowstone,” which is a beautiful-to-watch, absorbing hybrid of westerns and soap operas, airs on the Paramount Network and is the centerpiece of co-creator, writer, and director Taylor Sheridan’s booming media empire. Since “Yellowstone” debuted in June 2018, it has grown to include spin-offs like “1883” and “1923,” both prequel series about earlier generations of the Dutton family, and upcoming spin-offs like “Bass Reeves,” about the legendary Black lawman, and “6666,” about a ranch in Texas that’s been mentioned on “Yellowstone.”
Sheridan has other series streaming right now too, including “Tulsa King,” starring Sylvester Stallone as a Mob capo banished from New York to Oklahoma, and “Mayor of Kingstown,” starring Jeremy Renner. But Sheridan — who has a recurring role as hot shot horseman Travis on “Yellowstone” — has always had an affinity for telling rural and remote stories like those in the world of “Yellowstone.”
He was Oscar-nominated for his screenplay for “Hell or High Water,” a 2016 film about two brothers (played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster) who rob banks to save the family farm. It’s a dusty and hard-edged movie that sets the stage for the similar stories he now tells in his TV series. Sheridan is not a one-trick pony, though: his film “Wind River,” from 2017, is about crimes on a Native American reservation, and Native characters and issues feature prominently in “Yellowstone” too. And his screenplays for the film “Sicario” and its sequel also demonstrate a talent for telling stories from lonely landscapes.
Sheridan’s skill with a horse, as demonstrated in “Yellowstone,” can be traced back to his own lifelong love of ranches. He’s from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, but his mother had kin in Texas and she eventually bought a ranch in Cranfills Gap, Texas, known as the “All-American Small Town.” Emphasis on small: only about 300 people live there.
There are echoes of many series about western families in “Yellowstone,” from “Bonanza” to “The Big Valley” to “Dallas.” “Yellowstone” probably hews closest to “Dallas,” the 1980s nighttime TV soap king, with its story of shifting allegiances within a rich family that often sees siblings pitted against each other and their father or vice versa. There are more “cowboys in the bunkhouse” scenes and a lot more murders in “Yellowstone,” for sure, but just as many scenes that could be used as drinking games: take a drink every time one of the Duttons quaffs a beer or pours a whiskey and you’ll suffer from alcohol poisoning.
Feeding the Phenomenon
A lot has been said about “Yellowstone” on a couple of counts: It’s among the most-watched, maybe the most-watched, traditional TV series right now, yet it gets a tiny fraction of the social media buzz of other TV and streaming series that are not rural-set. And, “Yellowstone” allegedly represents a more conservative, right-leaning point of view. That may speak to some of its politics, but it doesn’t necessarily reflect other major themes and through-lines, such as Dutton’s fight against development on the doorstep of his ranch or the lives of Native Americans in Montana and other western states.
While the Dutton family is white, major characters — like Monica, Dutton’s daughter-in-law, played by Kelsey Asbille, and Gil Birmingham’s Thomas Rainwater, leader of the Broken Rock Indian Reservation and one of John Dutton’s sworn enemies — represent Native residents of the area. Monica and Rainwater are not complete archetypes. Rainwater is as ambitious, in his own way, as Dutton. Monica — the Pam Ewing outsider of the family, to use another “Dallas” comparison — is a soap opera stock character but also a fighter seeking to educate her young white students about Native lives, issues, and art.
Like any series that develops a large following, “Yellowstone” tells intriguing stories, but character is king. Dutton, who quickly dispatches enemies and coldly dismisses his oldest surviving son, Jamie (Wes Bentley), is warmly accepting of his daughter, Beth (Kelly Reilly in an erratic performance that will instill viewers with feelings of dread). He’s encouraging of his son, Kayce (Luke Grimes), a former Navy SEAL who comes home to accept his place in the family. And the elder Dutton dotes on Tate (Brecken Merrill), his grandson and Kayce and Monica’s son.
The ”other son” in the Dutton family is Rip Wheeler (Cole Hauser), the foreman of the Yellowstone Dutton Ranch and John Dutton’s chief enforcer. Rip is as likely to kill an enemy as he is to come to the rescue of Beth. Hauser is a fan favorite, no doubt, because Rip, usually dressed in black, is menacing and deadly but his loyalty to the Dutton family is absolute.
Each season brings enemies to the Duttons, either people who would build a casino next door or who would injure some member of the family. There’s a lot of menace, so the third season’s early plot line about John Dutton’s summer spent in a remote valley, tending cattle, is refreshing for its (temporary) calm.
If there’s a major character who doesn’t get any dialogue in “Yellowstone,” it’s the landscape. There’s such value in the land that it becomes the running theme of the show, with major plot points concerning it’s desirability for development or, as Dutton wants, preservation. Life imitates art here, as CNBC reported in June 2022:
“’We’ve had an influx of all sorts of wealthy individuals looking for ranches,’” Robert Keith, founder of boutique investment firm Beartooth Group, told CNBC. “’They’re looking to own really amazing large properties.’”
As reported in that CNBC story, since “Yellowstone,” and the Covid-19 pandemic, the median price for single-family homes in Bozeman jumped from $500,000 to $750,000.
A lot has been said about how much “Yellowstone” reflects and magnifies American rural life. While few people who live in small towns have a beautiful log mansion like the Duttons, almost anyone who has lived in a rural area knows the sight of a narrow road that cuts through hills and, if you’re lucky, gives you a glimpse of a beautiful, winding river. Likewise, everyone knows the havoc that the rural landscape and lack of cell phone towers can play on cell phone service, a plot device that often figures into “Yellowstone,” sometimes in dire situations but often when John Dutton longs for a spot where he can’t be reached on his phone.
Sheridan captures these touchstones of a peaceful and sometimes lonely rural existence. He’s held up as someone who lyrically documents that life for a worldwide audience. Case in point, he was invited to speak at the February 1 opening session of the 2023 Cattle Industry Convention & National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) Trade Show in New Orleans.
When people accuse “Yellowstone” of being political — which, again, is sometimes true — they might not be thinking about the electoral, partisan loyalties of John Dutton, per se, but instead conversations like one in the third season, in which Dutton and crew are moving cows to their summer pasture.
Lloyd, the funny and kindly old ranch hand, looks out over the herd in front of them and wonders, “Who’s going to feed the world when none of us is left?”
“Nobody, Lloyd,” Dutton replies. “The world is just gonna go hungry.” It’s a stark line, but one that will resonate with many farmers, ranchers, and food producers, who feel like they’re at both ends of the food chain.
Yellowstone airs on cable television on the Paramount Network and is also streaming on Peacock. Its fifth season premiered in November 2022 and will resume later this year.
Keith Roysdon is a lifelong writer who lives in Tennessee. After a career in the newspaper business, he’s now a freelance writer for news and pop culture sites. His co-authored true crime book “The Westside Park Murders” was named Best Nonfiction Book of 2021 by the Indiana Society of Professional Journalists. His fourth true crime book comes out in 2023.
This article first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, recommendations, retrospectives, and more. Join the mailing list today to have future editions delivered straight to your inbox.