Bloody beef

The spectacular, structureless violence of 'Yellowstone,' America's most-watched cable series

Bloody beef
Kevin Coster as cattleman John Dutton in Yellowstone. (Paramount Network)

Thirty minutes into the first episode of Yellowstone, Kevin Costner’s John Dutton, in the middle of a tense conversation with his estranged son Kayce, played by Luke Grimes, pauses to scowl at something in the distance. “Even here,” he says, on the remote Indian reservation where Kayce lives, “the world just keeps on coming.” We cut to a wide shot and see what he’s talking about: Fracking rigs, a half dozen of them, towering above the sagebrush hills along a dirt road leading to the reservation, each one nearer than the last, a slow-motion industrial invasion. It’s already the second such scene we’ve seen, in fact; pointedly, the very first of the show’s many sweeping aerial shots of the majestic Montana landscape pushes in on another row of CGI drilling towers stretching across a valley floor.

This might be skillful visual storytelling, but anyone who’s lived near an oil patch could tell you it’s pure hokum. The well pads are too close together, and the sight of two fleets of six or seven drilling rigs operating side by side at the same time would be a rarity in the busiest oil and gas fields in the world, much less Big Sky Country. Since 2015, Montana has seen at most one or two rigs operating at any given time, and nearly all production within the state takes place in the Williston Basin along the North Dakota border, hundreds of miles east from the show’s Paradise Valley setting.

For a show for which a sense of place is everything, a show constantly said to be remedying prestige TV’s ignorance and neglect of the American heartland, Yellowstone sure has a habit getting stuff about the rural West wrong. Perhaps it’d be easier to suspend disbelief if it weren’t so suffused — not just in the discourse surrounding it but in the words of its creators, and the words they’re constantly putting in its characters’ mouths — with contempt for the cluelessness of outsiders, the conviction that Yellowstone and its viewers are keepers of something sacred, guardians of a way of life that bumbling interlopers could never hope to understand. I’m but a mere degenerate city-dweller — and worse, a Western transplant of the sort Kayce Dutton grumbles about later in the pilot — but I wasn’t here very long before I could’ve told you that the episode’s A-plot, and subsequently much of the show’s first two seasons, hinges on a spectacular misapprehension of something as fundamental to the West and cattle ranching as water rights. It’s a bit much to be asked to endure gravel-voiced mockery of know-nothing carpetbaggers alongside lines like, “On their land, it’s their river,” to embrace a hard-nosed pastoral realism that includes such cornball Hollywood contrivances as the pilot’s climax, in which the Dutton clan dynamites the river in question to reroute it away from an encroaching land development.

But okay, okay — it’s a TV show. If we choose to forgive Yellowstone for its sins against verisimilitude, to accept all its shortcuts and distortions as necessary compromises, what might we be left with? It’s probably true, of course, that Hollywood doesn’t tell enough stories about the modern West, or rural America in general. Could Yellowstone be worth celebrating for that alone? Is there something to be said for its soap-operatic ambition, its invitation into a heightened, cartoon-physics simulation where the elemental forces of the mythic West — land-grabbing cattle barons, dispossessed Native Americans, modernizing capitalists, thrill-seeking cowboys, unscrupulous lawmen — can theatrically collide?

Even after the goofy, overstuffed pilot, I could see the faint outlines of that show, maybe. And there are times over the 38 episodes and counting that follow, the times when Yellowstone momentarily forgets that it’s a saga about a homicidal cultlike cattle-ranching cartel that shadow-governs the state of Montana, when that other show flits into existence on the margins. Midway through the show’s second season, Jimmy (Jefferson White), the hapless ex-tweaker ranch hand the Duttons have taken into their bunkhouse as a charity case, discovers an unlikely talent for bronc riding, and eventually wins an event at a local rodeo; the arc is compressed and slightly surreal, but Jimmy’s triumph, and the moment he shares afterwards with the older wrangler who’s mentored him, one tertiary character to another, is as affecting as anything else in the show’s run. It’s in these rare quiet moments that Yellowstone can be perfectly compelling, and even some of its loudest parts more or less work — Kelly Reilly’s full-tilt performance as the tortured, shambolic, endlessly scathing Beth Dutton, for one, is more successful and less exhausting than it has any right to be.

But when Jimmy’s second-season rodeo arc ends with him and the other ranch hands blowing up a trailer to kill a bunch of methheads who may or may not have killed his grandfather, it feels numbingly inevitable. Because mostly Yellowstone just wants to be the show about Ranchers Who Do Murders. Threatened on all sides by the forces of modernity, the Duttons are simple hardscrabble country folk who just want to be left alone to do the honest work of constantly killing people: killing cattle rustlers, killing coroners investigating the killing of the cattle rustlers, killing ranch hands complicit in the previous killings to keep them quiet, killing New York magazine reporters who start digging into the killings on their fly-fishing vacations.

Costner is, of course, a nearly perfect choice to play the Dutton patriarch. Seeing an aged Wyatt Earp or Lt. John Dunbar hunched over a fence at the Yellowstone Ranch lends the show an instant weight, and Costner is interesting enough to watch that you often forget to care that the show can’t decide whether he’s Al Bundy or Al Capone. He can say more with the way he stands than most of the rest of the main cast can say with a two-page soliloquy; it’s a shame, then, that he has to deliver plenty of those too, and ends up saddled with the lion’s share of the show’s painfully ponderous frontier philosophizing: “Lawyers are the swords of this century”; “Secrets are like a callus on your heart”; Dreams are a “soup” and “you can change the ingredients.”

With Costner often left to float above proceedings, glowering behind a desk or beside a fireplace, much of the show’s action unfolds through a pair of more traditional Western cowboy protagonists, both of them with blood-soaked backstories: Kayce, an ex-Navy SEAL and confessed war criminal, and hulking ranch foreman Rip Wheeler, played by Cole Hauser, a surrogate Dutton sibling who, as a child, ran away from home after killing his abusive stepfather, who’d savagely murdered his mother and brother. Yellowstone revels in nothing so much as ultraviolence; despite its crime-saga pretensions and long roster of tormented male antiheroes, it shares less prestige-TV DNA with Breaking Bad or The Sopranos than it does with the zombified shock-value brutality of The Walking Dead or later, lesser seasons of Game of Thrones. By the time its first four episodes, covering a period of a few days of in-show time, are over, we’ve seen Kayce kill his brother-in-law in a shootout over stolen cattle; happen to drive by a meth lab as it explodes, then shoot a badly burned man in the head to put him out of his misery; stumble across an abduction of a young woman and kill the two kidnappers; witness his sister-in-law’s death by suicide; almost lose his son, Tate, to a rattlesnake bite; and then almost lose Tate again in a near-drowning.

This is a show where everything is happening, all the time, and nothing is allowed to exist outside of a plot-driven need to place every character in near-constant mortal danger. The first time we see Kayce’s schoolteacher wife Monica — a member of the fictional Broken Rock Confederated Tribes, played by the notably non-Native actress Kelsey Asbille — go to work, she doesn’t even make it through the door before rushing to break up a fistfight between students, getting knocked out and hospitalized, and eventually suffering a life-threatening brain hemorrhage. It’s as if the show has physically recoiled from the thought of having to stage even one expository classroom scene in which bloodshed wasn’t a distinct possibility.

It’s admittedly difficult, in the year 2022, to watch Yellowstone on its own terms, and not through the lens that critics are constantly thrusting upon it — “prestige TV for conservatives,” or, in a description indignantly rejected by creator Taylor Sheridan in a New York Times interview, a “red-state show.” While watching it, I kept thinking of the final essay in Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind, an exploration of two centuries of conservative fantasies of violence in the context of Edmund Burke’s notion of the sublime:

Deep within the conservative discourse lurks an element of anticlimax that cannot be contained. While the conservative turns to violence as a way of liberating himself, or the ruling classes, from the deadening ennui and softening atrophy that comes with power, virtually every encounter in conservative discourse with actual violence entails disillusion and deflation.

Robin’s point, echoing Burke, was that “if violence were to retain its sublimity, it had to remain a possibility, an object of fantasy” — an episode of 24, instead of the enervating reality of the War on Terror. But if we try as viewers to inhabit the monotonously ultraviolent world that Yellowstone has built for us, we can see that the same is true of TV storytelling. With every shooting, every meth-lab explosion, every mutilation and lynching, the power of the show’s sublime, frontier-mythic setting is diminished, and it becomes less and less worthwhile to suspend your disbelief; the violence and the unreality feed off of one another. In the opening minutes of episode six, Kayce and Rip interact on-screen for the first time, and naturally, 20 seconds later, they’re punching each other. Every blow lands with the same bone-crunching, bass-heavy, kung-fu-movie thwack, and then they get up and move on. We’ve all heard this foley work in just about every film or TV fistfight we’ve ever watched, but only in Yellowstone could it sound quite so pathetically fake.

Four seasons in, the show stands as a convincing argument against television as an art form altogether, since Sheridan, a Texas-born ex-actor who a decade ago was still getting by with bit parts on shows like Sons of Anarchy and Veronica Mars, began the screenwriting phase of his career by excelling in the neo-Western genre on the big screen. There’s no shortage of gruesome borderland violence in Sicario, Hell or High Water or Wind River, but beyond a simple grasp of the possibility of creating tension through its absence — there’s not a single shootout in Yellowstone that’s remotely as gripping as the first ten minutes of Sicario’s Juárez sequence — all three share a deeper understanding of how much of the violence in the modern world is structural, how often its engines of death and destruction are invisible, slow-motion, workaday, routinized. In Sheridan’s films, explosions and bank robberies and missing women are the paroxysms of violence that occasionally burst through the surface, but it’s the gears grinding unseen beneath it — financial collapse, Native dispossession, petrocultures, narco-imperialism — that you’re left haunted by.

Yellowstone’s violence, by contrast, is utterly structureless, signifying nothing. You can feel the show being crushed under the weight of its desire to say something profound about America — and Sheridan has imbibed, if not enough Greg Grandin, then at least enough Frederick Jackson Turner to furnish Rip with lines like “The frontier is all around us… You can call it what you want, but that’s what it is” — but in the end all it’s capable of is gesturing vaguely at the shooting and killing as if to say, Yes, see?

That’s not to say, though, that the bloodshed doesn’t serve a crucial narrative purpose, even if only in a purely mechanical sense. Violence is Yellowstone’s great equalizer, Sheridan’s ultimate Final Draft escape hatch, allowing the show at all times to raise or lower or scramble or reset any dramatic stakes it needs to. It’s literal, physical violence that’s constantly threatening the Duttons, and it’s literal, physical violence through which they constantly and inevitably prevail over their enemies. Charitably, perhaps, we could again blame this on the limitations of the medium, because the overriding objective of any massively successful TV series is to keep its wheels spinning for as long as possible, novelty and coherence be damned. And so the first season’s deadly plot to steal the Yellowstone Ranch from the Duttons must be defeated only to become a slightly different deadly plot to steal the Yellowstone Ranch from the Duttons, the defeat of which must only pave the way for an even more ambitious deadly plot to steal the Yellowstone Ranch from the Duttons, and so on and so forth, presumably, until Costner decides he’d rather spend time on his actual $350,000-per-week Aspen ranch than on his fake TV one.

But what’s really being papered over here isn’t the Paramount Corporation’s need to keep the 9.3 million viewers who watched Yellowstone’s fourth-season finale last month coming back — or not only that — but the show’s own fatal flaw, which is that it has no idea who the Duttons are actually supposed to be. Underworld kingpins or lunch-pail cowpokes? Ruthless guerrilla warlords or reluctant keepers of order? Members of a vanishing pastoralist underclass or deep-state Helena power brokers? The aristocratic elite or, somehow, insanely, the rural poor? (“I’m not a rich man, Dan, contrary to popular belief,” John Dutton, canonically the sixth-generation owner of a “ranch the size of Rhode Island,” says at one point.) Without the constant churn of violence, Sheridan might have to answer these questions. As it is, in Yellowstone’s confusion of killer cowboys and crooked sheriffs and rampaging militias-for-hire, John Dutton can be all of these things at once — avatar of the oppressed, cash-poor modern rancher in one scene, and omnipotent, swaggering, governor-bedding mob boss the next, because all that really matters is which side wins the gunfight at the end of the episode, and of course, the Duttons always do.

Sheridan can bristle all he wants at the pigeonholing of his show as right-wing entertainment, but what could be more reactionary than this ode to extremely powerful men who are convinced they’re powerless, who adopt the guise of victim or victor as it suits them from one minute to the next, who stay underdogs, even when they’re on top? “If the powerful are to remain powerful, if they are to remain alive at all, their power, indeed the credibility of their own existence, must be continuously challenged, threatened, and defended,” writes Robin, again parroting early counterrevolutionary intellectuals like Burke and Joseph de Maistre. “The Revolution rejuvenates the Old Regime by forcing it from power and purifying the people through violence.”

There’s no getting around the fact that the only way to consistently make sense of what is otherwise Yellowstone’s total incoherence, its absence of structure, its bizarre class blindness, is as a kind of blood-and-soil parable, the Duttons as the noble Volk, defenders of a birthright for which their ancestors fought and suffered, endlessly and existentially threatened by scheming cabals of rootless cosmopolitans. (If I’ve barely mentioned the show’s few Indigenous characters, led by Gil Birmingham as Broken Rock chairman Thomas Rainwater, it’s because Sheridan has gradually realized he has no room for them in this narrative, either.) Each new California developer or New York hedge fund manager who takes on the Duttons arrives in Paradise Valley as an unstoppable menace, with the full force of the legal and financial systems on their side — until they’re not, until they’re revealed to be effete, feeble, unworthy of the land, and are ritualistically dispatched, figuratively or in several cases literally hung from a tree to die. “The followers must feel humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies… However, the followers must be convinced that they can overwhelm the enemies,” Umberto Eco wrote of the fascism he grew up under in Italy. “Thus, by a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak.”

For the last 20 years, in case you’re wondering, the largest landowner in the real Paradise Valley, Montana has been billionaire Arthur Blank, who perhaps enjoys time on one of his four ranches there when he’s not out to sea on his $180 million superyacht. Though U.S. beef production has remained steady during that time, many ranchers are struggling badly, not because of land grabs at gunpoint but because of an increasingly consolidated meatpacking industry that is quietly squeezing them out of business. Fracking rigs are indeed damaging natural ecosystems all over the West — not, mostly, through surface-level spectacles of despoliation easily reproduced in CGI, but invisibly and on a massive scale, in the chemicals on the wind, in the wastewater sinking below the soil, in the carbon suspended high in the atmosphere. Sometimes, the damage doesn’t fit neatly into frame, and sometimes, artists are interested in finding it and showing it to us anyway.