Like a approved Yellowstone sick which was oddly constrained watching every minute of Taylor Sheridan’s flagship show, full of highly analyzable propaganda for cattle, hats and the American way, I was surprised to find myself with a new feeling after watching the back-to-back episodes that open its fifth season: boredom, plus a bit of sadness and fear. Yellowstone has always been reactionary, only interested in the feelings of a settler family who owned a ranch from, well, around 1883but now his concerns have constricted, his flesh turning lean and his culture war bones creeping closer to the surface.
There are soapy B and C storylines in these first two episodes – a car accident results in a lost pregnancy, two siblings torment each other as part of an ongoing rivalry – but the main course is politics. It’s always been part of the show, of course, but now the subtext is text. John Dutton (Kevin Costner) has won a race to become Montana’s new GOP governor, telling the electorate his opponent is “East Coast politics invading the mountains.” Its signs read “Dutton: For the Land.”
At the start of the first episode, John is mostly pissed off that he won his election, because John Dutton is truly never satisfied. The season opens with him staring into the distance on election night, telling his daughter Beth (Kelly Reilly), who is his versatile and always faithful assistant on Girl Friday, when she congratulates him: “Joy is not what I’m feeling.” The Democratic candidate, who has only lived in Montana for nine years, calls for giving in. He asks John, putting a quivering question mark at the end of the sentence, “I hope you fight as hard for my followers as I would fight for yours?” John answers without hesitation: “I fight for what is right. I don’t care who supports him.
That statement elicited an immediate glare from me, accompanied by a jerking motion. Immature, maybe, but that’s more and more what Yellowstone deserves, as he continues his test game how far will we go to stay on John Dutton’s side. Several times during these two episodes, we hear directly from him that he only became governor to prevent a proposed development project from ruining his ranch. Over the past few seasons, through a series of negotiations, a group of townspeople have won the right to build an airport and a housing estate. You better believe John Dutton will do anything to stop this – even become a one-issue governor, only caring about running “out of state” (including money from the people funding this development , one of whom improbably calls the Duttons — wealthy and politically connected beyond belief — “fucking hillbillies”) out of town. You see, they just don’t understand the importance of The Land, especially John Dutton’s ranch.
John Dutton has the governor’s office, but he doesn’t want to be there. Lugubrious music plays on the stage of its inauguration, as a young black girl sings the Star-Spangled Bannerher presence at this all-GOP party reinforcing the Tressie McMillan Cottom point made about the show earlier this year in the New York Times: Yellowstone, while being “conservative” if you use that word in its most blunt sense, is “multi-ethnic, multi-racial and multi-class”, offering “nominal diversity” which “implies that conservatives don’t hate anyone, as long as everyone is ready to conform to their way of life.” After the girl is done singing, Dutton tells the audience that he will cancel the airport project. More than that, he will tax anyone who comes from outside of It will double their property taxes, add a six percent sales tax, new vehicle registration fees.
“The message I will send is this,” he said, every word almost mournful in its rudeness, in Dutton fashion. “We are not your playground, we are not your refuge from the pollution, traffic and mismanagement of your home states. It’s our home. If you choose to make Montana your home, you will begin to treat it like a home, not a vacation rental.
Yellowstone barely acknowledged the pandemic – when, in an episode a few seasons ago, a newscaster on Beth’s car radio mentioned something about the coronavirus, I started in confusion, so absent had it- she’s been part of the plot—but the way the show leans into her longstanding rural antagonism toward outsiders feels like a response to post-2020 migration from urban centers—especially in places like Montana. In the second episode of the new season, Beth is drinking at a bar when a well-groomed, tanned man approaches her and tries to strike up a conversation. She cut it like she was playing the Marine Todd meme in real life:
You are a teacher in a posh place. I have a few adult children. Once they left the house, your wife got divorced so quickly she left skid marks, but that’s good for you, huh? Let me guess. Fucking college girls isn’t cool anymore, so you decided to fuck this town, get a nice little place in Bozeman, because that’s your favorite place to ski. And now you’re teaching Zoom classes from the living room of your creekside shack and lecturing on inequality and the concentration of wealth and how it’s decimating the middle class, while pumping your six-figure salary to fund your dream house with a loan from the college that’s 275 basis points below the loans your students have to take out to listen to this bullshit – and I guess if I had to guess it’s that you paid the asking price for it. Because it’s just Monopoly money for you, isn’t it. So you’re driving up real estate prices here, and you’re screwing up the middle classes in two states. Bravo, fucking hypocrite.
This scene largely explained my discomfort during my reunion Yellowstone this season. I watch this show for the soap opera, for the western landscape and as an object of sociological interest. Then, every once in a while, a curtain falls to the side, and I realize that I (or, more accurately, whoever the show imagines me to be) is actually its enemy.
Seems like a lot of people in the US (yes, upper middle class people like this ski instructor) have started to think more carefully about internal migration: leaving cities to get space due to COVID; leaving red states for political reasons; determine where best to resist the effects of climate change. Yellowstonehas always been the envy of anyone who hasn’t lived in Montana for generations, but this season seems like a step up – COVID-intensified antagonism for anyone who loves the look of the land, but hasn’t earned view .
In a scene from this second episode, John, Beth, and Jaime are riding in a limo, arguing over John’s plans to cancel the airport. Jaime, a lawyer who is the worldliest of all the Duttons (and therefore, of course, the meanest), doesn’t understand why John won’t sell the ranch or allow the airport to be built. it loses money every year. Beth volunteers to say she’s found at least one way to make some money: getting the Dutton campaign, through a shell company, to pay $1.5 million for the birthday party. inauguration of the governor. (I don’t know how it’s not veiled reference to strengthsanother dynasty with an internal Dutton dynamic.) “We’re going to jail,” Jaime moaned.
Well, if the assets are any guide, they are not! But the real reason they’re not, in Yellowstone and apart from that, it’s because of guys like the limo driver, who says, after John asks for confidentiality about what he’s just heard, “I won’t say a word, Governor. Except if I had your ranch, I’d do the same. Dutton agrees: “You make sure that’s my driver every time.”
Yellowstone is a spectacle for people who imagine themselves to be John Dutton: under siege, operating with black-and-white certainty, struggling against a world that demands compromise. Viewers who actually love this show – not “love it”, like I do, where I do this handjob move three times an episode and are looking for critical essays about it to read when I’m done – consider themselves real Montananese at heart, leading rearguard action against the movement of capital and people across state lines. What percentage of Yellowstoneit is many viewers, I wonder, would be welcome in John Dutton’s Montana? I’m not even sure Questions.