The opening season of the Paramount Network’s Yellowstone began with what we’ve come to expect from creator Taylor Sheridan (Hell or High Water, Wind River): A deliberately slow-paced but compelling character drama with gorgeous cinematography, and a slow, meticulously crafted story about maintaining one’s way of life in the face of an ever-evolving — or devolving — outside world. Like the meditative Rectify, Yellowstone was an introspective series that was not about big plot turns, but about smaller moments with big ripples.
Unfortunately, about halfway through the season, Sheridan seemed to lose the handle on Yellowstone, which morphed into something more akin to Knots Landing or Dynasty, a series that felt like it needed to drop a major plot turn or a bombshell every 20 minutes to keep viewers glued. Granted, it worked — Yellowstone was the highest rated new series of last summer — but the series seemed to lose some of its identity and its enjoyment value.
Thankfully, Sheridan has found his groove again in the much more restrained season two, which has gone back to its roots as a show about characters moving the story organically rather than forcing them along hurriedly in time for the next cliffhanger. The show is best when it remains on the ranch, and when its focus is on the corrupting influence of Kevin Costner’s John Dutton, a man who inspires slavish devotion from his employees and wills his own grown children into doing his bidding. Everyone around him is so blinded by a need for Dutton’s approval that they’re willing to allow themselves to be manipulated into doing his bidding knowing that failing to do so might evoke his wrath. Costner’s character, in some ways, is a narcissistic Trumpian figure — the sort that demands unfailing loyalty — only Dutton is a man of few words who can bend those to his will with a terse pronouncement or a disapproving glance. He doles out just enough affection to keep his children wanting more. He’s like a series of Dixie cups full of water placed strategically along the desert to lure his children out so deep into the sand that they have no choice but to abide by his wishes or die of dehydration.
His son Kayce (Luke Dutton) had gotten out. He’d gotten married, had a kid, and made his own life on the reservation with his wife, Monica (Kelsey Asbille), but his brother’s death in the pilot last season was just enough to pull Kayce back in his father’s orbit. A season later, and Kayce is separated from his wife, living on the ranch, and trying to take over as his father’s number two.
That brings us up to speed to this week’s episode, in which Dutton orchestrates a scenario that would allow Kayce not only to take over as his right hand, but command the respect of his rancher. Unfortunately, it also means manipulating Rip (Cole Hauser, the strong but silent MVP of Yellowstone)) — the existing number two — into taking a fall for the team, and by “fall,” I mean letting Kayce beat the hell out of him, and “for the team,” I mean, “taking one for Dutton.” Make no mistake, in an environment of cowboy masculinity — which is not quite toxic, but it’s not not toxic, either — allowing Kayce to beat the sh*t out of him meant swallowing a lot of pride, particularly given the dynamic on the other side of that equation, the layabout ranch hand Walker, who — by refusing to fight in solidarity with his fellow ranch hands last week — has somehow become a sniveling villain because he refuses to drink the Yellowstone Kool-Aid.
Such is the nature of Yellowstone, which even does a number on the viewer — we want Kayce to bend to his father’s will, because we also seek Dutton’s approval. He’s like Coach Taylor, except his only agenda is himself. Beth Dutton (Kelly Reilly) at least recognizes it, but she, too, is powerless against her father. Beth may not be family, but like Rip, she’s a “tool” for her father. As tools go, however, Beth is a bad-ass sledgehammer who uses cunning, intelligence, her sexuality, and her foul mouth to humiliate and command others to her will or, more accurately, the will of her father. Beth is working with an outside investor to buy up all the land around Yellowstone to both bilk a government program for millions, but also built a moat around Yellowstone and ensure her father’s legacy lives beyond him.
Monica, meanwhile, has one of the most compelling storylines this season. Relegated to spurned wife in season one, Monica is now taking charge of her life and teaching a class on Christopher Columbus at the local university, but as Howard Zinn might, from the perspective of the displaced Native Americans. In this week’s episode, Monica delivers a stinging rebuke to a punk-ass college student who treats his professor as a sexual object. It is divine. Afterward, Monica contemplates moving into faculty housing with her kid, which might pull her and Kayce even further apart. But let’s not kid ourselves: Kayce is going to find himself right back in the picture, and the pull between his wife and his father is going to destroy Kayce. It’s going to be fun to watch, but Sheridan would do well to slow walk it and break our hearts one agonizing episode at a time.
— B-movie star Cole Hauser is so good — and so unrecognizable — in this role. He’s the Smithers to Dutton’s Mr. Burns and still, somehow, the moral center of the series, a selflessly loyal henchman determined to let Beth railroad him and his heart every other week.
— Was Rip really going to run over Walker’s head with his horse, or was that all part of the plan to bait Kayce into a fight? Also, being trampled in the face by horse hooves is not a good way to go.
— I love how tough-guy Dutton — who had his stomach cut open by a vet last week without anesthesia — is reduced to physical rehab with a paddleboard in a pool with a bunch of kids this week. There is no bigger humiliation for an all-powerful millionaire rancher than to be reduced to swimming in chlorine with a piece of foam to help keep him afloat.
Header Image Source: Paramount Network