Drama and political intrigue in Yellowstone derive from property disputes, over land and livestock owned by John Dutton (Kevin Costner). Dutton is the wizened, obsessive proprietor of the sprawling Yellowstone Ranch, desperate to protect his property from would-be encroachers: the savvy new chief of the Broken Rock Reservation, Thomas Rainwater (Gil Birmingham), who’s using political pressure to try and reclaim Dutton’s land, and yuppie land developers who are building condos that border the Yellowstone property. The show’s Montana is presented as a legal gray area where the only requisite for owning cattle is having them wander onto your land, and where politicians are buyable assets. Much of Yellowstone’s drama comes from waiting for a responsible authority to intervene as conflicts spiral out of control.
Dutton is the patriarch of a fractured family, taking extreme measures to protect his legacy and secure his family’s future. It’s a familiar premise, which the series attempts to elevate by assessing the nature of power and prerogative in a frontier environment. Yellowstone resists framing Dutton, its nominal protagonist, as either victim of change or occupier. His empire is merely evidence of the way power and wealth are self-reinforcing. Insofar as the series ponders whether any one man should have all that property, series creator Taylor Sheridan, who also wrote and directed all 10 episodes, doesn’t propose an answer. Instead, he provides Dutton with equally ruthless and flawed rivals, who hold similarly tenuous claims to the land they desire.
The irony of Native Americans attempting to acquire white-owned land is obvious, but the relationship between Dutton and Rainwater is more than just a reimagining of the typical power dynamic between whites and Native Americans. Rainwater is among the show’s most intriguing characters, his political shrewdness obscuring his motivations, so you may wonder if he’s a protective leader or a power-hungry politician. Yellowstone, which rarely shies from complexity, suggests that he might be both. In the show’s feature-length pilot, the only episode made available to critics, Rainwater notches a political victory by instigating a tense border standoff with Dutton. Rainwater’s tactic reflects his understanding of his optic leverage in a situation that finds rich white men staring down Native Americans through rifle scopes.
Yellowstone displays the aesthetic hallmarks of frontier life that adorn much of Sheridan’s work. The series at times suggests a red-state lifestyle catalog, flush as it is with Carhartt work clothes, denim shirts, hunting binoculars, bulletproof vests, pick-up trucks, and so many cowboy hats. It sketches a basic outline of white working-class masculinity, and reserves its most intriguing insights for the way its ranchers are affected by the territory they occupy. Like Sheridan’s screenplays for Sicario and Wind River, Yellowstone roots itself in society’s margins, specifically near territorial borders, and presents a jarring portrait of flourishing corruption in the absence of oversight.
Dutton isn’t always a compelling figure. He’s an amalgam of patriarchal tropes, a mixture of volatile mafia don and cruel businessman. He wears the burden of protecting his wealth on his humorless face and in the business platitudes he spouts to his adult children across a vast emotional distance. Costner’s years of playing leathery, down-home figures lend gravity and comfortable familiarity to the role, but Dutton remains a rote exercise. For instance, he doesn’t cry in front of his children at a funeral—and the scene of him eventually sobbing alone in a barn, surrounded by horses, feels like an overly obvious and belabored affirmation of Dutton’s rancher bona fides. The intended emotional gut punch of the scene is undermined by the hoary image of a man who’s more at ease with animals than people.
The Dutton children are more intriguing characters than their father, perhaps because being lorded over by such a demanding figure has afflicted them with rather nuanced flaws. Beth (Kelly Reilly) is a businesswoman even more cutthroat than Dutton—and a rare example of a woman in a Sheridan project who thrives rather than merely survives. She’s first introduced in a meeting at her investment firm, where she drives the owner of a flagging business nearly to tears, and Reilly imbues her with a confidence and cruelty that can be thrilling to behold. Her brother, the more sympathetic Cory Dutton (Luke Grimes), lives on the nearby reservation, estranged from his family. That he’s caught in the middle of the conflict between his father and the reservation seems to reflect Sheridan’s view of Yellowstone’s uncompromising landscape. As Cory is forced to one side of the border, the series undergirds its dramatic portrait of generational wealth with a sense of more tangible tragedy.
Based on the events of the first episode, Sheridan doesn’t seem interested in endorsing either side of the show’s central conflict, content instead to simply observe it as it unfolds. It’s as if he wishes to erect a sprawling capitalist allegory within the show’s ultimately sentimental view of the American West. A tension exists between Yellowstone’s appreciation of cowboy culture and its unwillingness to lionize Dutton or Rainwater, and above all, Sheridan seems to lament the land caught in the middle of forces both political and economic.
The purest villain in the series is Dan Jenkins (Danny Huston), a caricature of a real estate mogul attempting to inundate Montana with condos and artisanal ice-cream shops. He’s referred to as a “transplant” in the series, and the word is employed with the hateful vigor of a slur. The only thing that seems to separate Jenkins from Rainwater and Dutton, though, is that this mogul is overt in his attempts to commodify a romantic view of the country. And while Sheridan rapturously agrees that these men all have the right to covet Yellowstone, he resists framing any of them as being worthy of its majesty. Looking out over his Ranch, Dutton at one point says, “If a man had all the money in the world, this is what he would buy.” In Yellowstone, power and wealth are accrued by characters who rarely seem to deserve either.