In Yellowstone’s America, this land is my land



In Yellowstone’s America, this land is my land

At the start of the new season of Yellowstone, newly elected Montana Gov. John Dutton (a gloriously craggy Kevin Costner) lets loose with a mini tirade that takes on Starbucks and the Bay Area. It’s a nifty NIMBY two-step, the kind of live-free-or-die rant that fans continue to cheer as the series launches its fifth season. Now more than ever, Yellowstone is all about keeping outsiders at bay, be they business developers or those coastal elites who make for such convenient boogeymen among some conservatives. Politics were once subtext in Yellowstone. Now that the action has moved to the governor’s mansion, it looks to come in from the margins.

Sort of, anyway. There are no election deniers in the series, no MAGA, no tinfoil hat conspiracy theories, or existential threats to democracy. The only militia was wiped out with ruthless efficiency by the Dutton clan. The prolific Taylor Sheridan’s flagship series is as much a fantasy as Andor. It’s a violent nighttime soap opera with an off-the-charts body count and a seething sibling rivalry. Middle America might tune in to share in Yellowstone’s social values, but the folks who made it the highest-rated drama on TV probably stick around because Yellowstone is flat-out nuts and a whole lot of fun.

That, and Costner, whose face looks more and more like it belongs on a coin. After all these years of Gary Cooper comparisons and cool, laconic charm, Costner oozes more righteous integrity than ever. This quality works as an effective counterpoint to John, who is more or less a rural crime boss with no qualms about meting out all manner of punishment upon his enemies (or at least sitting back while his offspring and his ranch minions do so). In one much-discussed scene from season four, his stoic enforcer, Rip (Cole Hauser), kills a man by throwing a rattlesnake at his face. John brings to mind Michael Corleone, another despot who kept his enemies close, demanded absolute loyalty, and looked to go legit. The new season even opens with a Costner close-up that could have come from one of the Godfather movies. John Dutton believes in America or at least the version of it that keeps interlopers off his land and helps him stay filthy rich.

John’s most cutthroat lieutenant remains his daughter Beth, played with a knowing snarl by Kelly Reilly. In just about every episode, Beth, spilling out of her dress, verbally eviscerates some corporate opponent or out-of-towner city boy who has the temerity to hit on her. But her favorite target remains her adopted brother Jamie (Wes Bentley), the suit-and-tie-wearing attorney general, who, as a teenager, took an unwitting Beth to get an abortion. Jamie is also overly ambitious and realistic in a way that doesn’t always jibe with the Dutton Dynasty. Beth, who now has photographic evidence of Jamie committing murder, takes pleasure in twisting a figurative knife into her brother every chance she gets. The new season gives her some more backstory, revealing how she also took pleasure in tormenting Rip, now her husband, when they were teenagers. You get the feeling that Beth, long haunted by the death of her mother, just isn’t a terribly nice person.

As for John, he’s less Donald Trump than Barry Goldwater, another westerner who looked good in a Stetson and sought to shrink government to a little dot. John takes office reluctantly and uneasily, mostly so he can squash the massive airport project threatening to take root next door to his ranch. “I am the opposite of progress,” John tells his constituents. “I am the wall that it bashes against.” John is bullish on the right to hoard his money and keep the world away from his ginormous ranch. His signature quip came earlier in the series, when he confronted a group of Chinese tourists who wandered onto Yellowstone grounds: “This is America. We don’t share land.” Woody Guthrie spins in his grave.

The most intriguing element of Yellowstone continues to be its handling of Native American characters, some of whom are as fervently capitalistic as their Anglo counterparts. Thomas Rainwater (Gil Birmingham), chairman of the Confederated Tribes of Broken Rock, wants to expand his casino empire. He also wants what the white man took from his people. That means Yellowstone. He and John share a grudging, mutual respect based on their shared disdain for outsiders. Another Dutton son, Kayce (Luke Grimes), is married to and has a son with a Native woman, Monica (Kelsey Asbille). At the end of last season, Kayce undergoes a sacred Lakota ceremony called a hanbleceya, a sort of vision quest in which he sees ill portents. At a time when television is well stocked with Native characters and stories — Dark Winds, Reservation Dogs, Alaska DailyYellowstone has the highest profile of them all, and the show’s Native actors rave about Sheridan’s sense of inclusion.

Sheridan is a busy guy. He’s already launched one Yellowstone prequel, 1883, and another, 1923 (with Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren), is coming in December. The brutal prison drama Mayor of Kingstown, starring Jeremy Renner, returns for a second season in January. His new series, Tulsa King, stars Sylvester Stallone as a New York mafioso exiled to Oklahoma. He is TV’s reigning king of macho and a gifted storyteller and writer of dialogue. But it all flows from Yellowstone, the smash heartland hit, and its isolationist hero. You can keep your damn latte. John Dutton has a ranch to run.

Chris Vognar is a culture writer living in Houston.

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