Wednesday, December 15, 2021

‘Yellowstone,’ Your Dad’s Favorite TV Show, Returns With a Bang—and a Whimper

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Yellowstone is predicated on two intertwined national myths: one about manifest destiny, rugged American individualism and man’s dominion over nature (all of which is filtered through cinematic Western iconography and lore), and the other about the besieged condition of modern frontiersman, beset as they are by forces both local (Native Americans) and foreign (coastal hedge-fund elitists). Via its tale of the powerful Dutton clan, owners of the largest ranch in Montana, it depicts the heartland as the embodiment of classical American values and history, and thus a stronghold against contemporary threats that would undermine and seize it for their themselves and their inauthentic ways of life. Taylor Sheridan’s story is a celebration of the old’s ruthless fight to retain what it has, and believes in, and though that may make it more than slightly reactionary, it’s also helped it become one of the most popular shows on cable TV.

The Dutton Family certainly came under extreme fire at the end of its third season, which saw godfather-esque patriarch John Dutton (Kevin Costner) shot multiple times on the side of a road, his merciless daughter Beth (Kelly Reilly) firebombed in her place of work, and his son Kayce (Luke Grimes) blitzed by gunmen in his Livestock Commissioner office. It’s in that “Who Shot J.R.”-style context that Yellowstone returned to Paramount Network tonight (Nov. 7) with a two-hour premiere, promising to reveal the culprit behind this mass assassination attempt. Was it Chief Thomas Rainwater (Gil Birmingham), Dutton’s Native American rival who had been cajoled into thinking the only path forward required killing John? Was it Market Equities baddie Roarke Morris (Josh Holloway), whose firm was intent on purchasing the Yellowstone ranch in order build an airport and attendant residential and retail communities? Or was it John’s sniveling adopted son Jamie (Wes Bentley), who’d taken legal control of the ranch in order to approve its sale?

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[Spoilers follow]

The answer, it turned out, was…who knows? Yellowstone’s fourth season began with a bang, picking up immediately where things left off, with everyone on the verge of meeting their maker. Unsurprisingly, none of them actually did. Kayce easily fended off his attackers with the help of a grenade, which he just happened to have on him (?!?). John was rescued by loyal cowboy henchman Rip (Cole Hauser), who immediately transported him to a hospital courtesy of a helicopter. And Beth strolled out of her smoldering building in tattered clothes and with a bloodied torso and some ringing in her ears. That she survived wasn’t much of a shock given that Reilly remains the show’s most magnetic presence. Yet Sheridan’s wholesale refusal to explain how she walked away from the deadly close-quarters detonation nonetheless felt like a bit of a cheat, even if it was in keeping with the proceedings’ general obliqueness.

Considering the Duttons’ murderousness, one would assume that, in the aftermath of such an assault, John and company would immediately be out for blood. Yellowstone, however, instead focused less on vengeance than on teasing tragedies and revelations at the same time that its characters circled the wagons and licked their wounds. Kayce was shot during a brutal firefight with John’s assailants, but turned out to be okay. John moaned and groaned while in the hospital and during his trip back to the ranch, where he balked at being cooped up in a makeshift hospital room with a hired nurse, and he was back in the saddle in no time flat. Beth wound up with only a facial scar and some equally serious burn damage on her back; otherwise, she was her old nasty, boozy, badass self. If anyone was actually worse for wear, it was Jimmy (Jefferson White), whose prior bucking-bronco fall left him a physical wreck.

When it came to the identity of the Duttons’ lethal enemy, Yellowstone played coy. Beth confronted Jamie in his office, pointing the finger in his direction and promising in no uncertain terms to kill him. Still, he denied it, and Kayce informed John that he didn’t think his brother was responsible; the only other time we saw the weaselly lawyer, he was buying his own ranch with his calculating biological dad (Will Patton). Roarke showed up for a hot minute before meeting a vicious fate courtesy of Rip and a snake, eliminating him from the list of suspects. For his part, John speculated that it might have been the militia the family squared off against at the end of season two. For now, that’s about as far as the investigation went, since Sheridan’s series primarily spent its time on secondary concerns like Beth’s unlikely meeting with, and subsequent adoption of, orphaned delinquent Carter (Finn Little), whom she views as a younger version of Rip—and thus a boy that Rip can redeem in the same manner that John saved him.

As for the rest of the Duttons’ adversaries, Rainwater’s right-hand man Mo (Moses Brings Plenty) found a gambler who might have helped set up the multi-pronged attack, and dragged him behind a horse in order to make him talk. Market Equities, meanwhile, sent bigwig Caroline Warner (Jacki Weaver) to Montana to persuade Rainwater to partner with them on a casino targeted at the world’s wealthiest clientele. John too had business expansion plans involving horse trader Travis (Sheridan), although Yellowstone was vague about the particulars of that scheme, treating it with the same shorthand abruptness that it did its flashback to 1883, during which John’s grandfather James Dutton (Tim McGraw) exhibited kindness toward a Native American elder interested in burying a deceased relative on their land—a superfluous narrative aside that functioned as a commercial for Paramount+’s upcoming prequel series 1883, which debuts in December.

It’s inevitable that Yellowstone will eventually deliver the backs-up-against-the-wall, protect-the-ranch-at-all-costs violence that has made it a phenomenon. Consequently, it’s easier to accept the somewhat ho-humness of its first two new episodes, which fixated more on its protagonists’ recovery and reconstitution than on any proactive measures to solidify their standing. As Beth states to Carter during their initial encounter, the Duttons’ truest enemy is “the twenty-first century,” and though modernity may be creeping up on the family, there’s still plenty of time for the show to get back on solid ground.

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