Paramount Network’s Yellowstone concluded its first season on August 22nd, bringing to a close a season of cowboys, backstabbing and backroom deals, a whole lot of punching, dinosaur bones, and enough soap to last a year’s worth of showers. At times wildly uneven, it comes out the other side still enjoyable and tells a pulpy tale of a broken and unstable family trying to put the pieces back together as the wolves (and a bear!) surround them.
The Dutton family faces the law, the reservation, and the business class all at once on their Montana empire, but they are a dynastic clan that will take on any in their path and always win despite the odds. But this first season shows the weak spots in the family and begins each character down a path where these flaws will be exploited, leading to an unraveling. Ambition and self-preservation are at hand, and can be their undoing.
The thrust of the season, two entities trying to take down the Dutton family and take their land from them, took until the final stretch to come of anything. It was a lot of meandering in the meantime, with some fun distractions along the way. Because of the slowness to that main plot, the character drama was the main event, and usually led to the better moments.
Kevin Costner’s John Dutton is the definition of alpha male ruggedness, what he has built seen as his legacy and anything that comes in the way a complete and total threat. He’s a cold character with clear roles for each family member, and any who step out of those lines pays a hard price. Costner’s performance isn’t showy, and is all the better for it, as merely his presence and his gruff line delivery does all you need in a scene.
Luke Grimes’ Kayce Dutton is a character I struggled with, as his wild-horses-can’t-be-tamed behavior is self-destructive to a point that most would snap out of it at some point, rather than doubling down. He did end up having the more ridiculous things happen in his storylines, which led to some excitement of wondering what could possibly be next. His wife, Monica (Kelsey Asbille) and son Tate (Brecken Merrill) stabilized his character by being stronger performances, and thankfully added some depth where it was needed.
Kelly Reilly’s character Beth mostly exists inside bars, causing problems and pushing people’s buttons. This leaves her character somewhat sidelined for long stretches, there to mostly fight with Wes Bentley or to have personal demons eat away at her. Despite that, Reilly is having a ball with the performance, this heartbroken anger that is boiling over and sabotaging and infecting anyone around her. And in the final stretch, her character is given more to do, and Reilly plays it to perfection.
Bentley’s Jamie Dutton is relegated to family fixer, taken for granted and dismissed for being more comfortable in a suit than a cowboy get-up. He is slightly (very slightly) the more sympathetic member of the family, though his cruelty holds him back a good deal.
Gil Birmingham’s Thomas Rainwater and Danny Huston’s Dan Jenkins are both twirling mustache types of foil, both fading into the background and not adding much to the season. They are more business and story machines than characters, to the detriment of both great actors.
But the character who caught my attention the most all season was Cole Hauser’s Rip, the enforcer for John Dutton and all-around badass. He could have been incredibly one-note, but ended up being quietly fascinating with his loyal protection of the family and devoted care for Beth.
It can be difficult to care about most of these characters, as there can be missing characterization beyond their bad behaviour or downright meanness. Some, like Beth, are served with reason for their brokenness, while others are almost empty. Some plot points or character decisions come rather suddenly and without warning. Characters can turn on each other for the hell of it, especially later on, in what feels like artificial drama just because they didn’t answer the phone for a few hours.
The show can border on the absolute ridiculous at times, would it be perfectly timed exploding meth labs, a child fighting a rattlesnake while his father saves a woman from weird perverts, saving people on a cliff while a bear attacks, a fence impaling incident, and a subplot about dinosaur bones. The ridiculousness led to some (I’m guessing) unintentional laughing outbursts, at the complete madness of what was on display, but there was a charm to its madness that won me over. I was never really bored, as something crazy was just around the corner if the story was sagging or a scene wasn’t working.
For all of its many faults, there is something completely watchable and entertaining about the show. Wondering what crazy thing will happen next, and seeing what certain characters will do next, led to some fun and rewarding moments. Taylor Sheridan’s direction is riveting and gorgeous, and some lines are extremely witty.
The solution to many of the show’s problems appears to be punching. It was a rare sight for a character to reach the end of the season without a black eye or bruise on their face, as endless fists flew and even some overzealous ones catching innocent characters in the crosshairs.
The season had some classic soap melodrama, which can make some of my issues with the story moot. It’s pulpy on purpose, and not striving for the dramas I had maybe been expecting to see at first glance. It’s going for something different, harking back to the dramas of the Dynasty/Dallas days, but with pristine production values and a talented creator in writer/director Taylor Sheridan. Yellowstone is a show that some will love and others will struggle with. I found myself in the middle, not sure what to make of it at first, but soon allowing the tale to take over and see where it would lead. There’s a whole host of problems, perhaps in Sheridan trying to adapt his screenwriting over to television and it not gelling as well. But with a second season ahead, hopefully the mistakes are learned and the stronger stuff is ahead. This is a good start, and I hope for more crazed subplots ahead.