August 23, 2018

SHOWBUZZDAILY Season Finale Review: “Yellowstone”


The first season of YELLOWSTONE was a feat of auteurship.  Every episode of the recently-rebooted Paramount Network’s prestige series was written and directed solely by series creator Taylor Sheridan, something not even David Lynch or Sam Esmail can claim.  The result was 10 hours of television that qualified, to an extent rarely seen, as one storyteller’s singular vision.

In this case, that vision was a deeply conflicted view of a masculinity Sheridan seems to consider both toxic and worthy of awe, making for a very 2018 kind of discomfort.  The show’s protagonist, the multimillionaire Montana rancher John Dutton (Kevin Costner) is in many ways a monster, so singleminded in his determination to preserve his land and ethos that he commits and orders murders and rips his own family to shreds.  But Sheridan clearly sees Dutton as representing the spirit that made America, a strength that’s as necessary as it is harsh.  Sheridan embraces the trope that the most educated Dutton, the lawyer son Jamie (Wes Bentley), is the least manly (John beats his son, who cowers pathetically before him and then gets petty revenge by betraying him).  Naturally, that makes Jamie’s cowpuncher brother Kayce (Luke Grimes) the true Dutton heir–he also murders according to a code.  Meanwhile, ranch foreman Rip (Cole Hauser), the most obedient and violent of Dutton’s minions, embodies the perfect employee who follows every order but knows his place.

This kind of worldview leaves little room for women.  John’s daughter Beth (Kelly Reilly) is presented as a damaged figure (her mother cruelly dominated her literally unto death) whose entire existence revolves around telling everyone she meets what a ballbuster she is, as she drinks enough to make Sharp Objects‘s Camille look for an AA meeting and has just enough sex with Rip so that he’ll know she’s ultimately untouchable.  Her opposite is Kayce’s wife Monica (Kelsey Asbille), the show’s most moral character, who left Kayce but for her sins was last seen badly disabled by a life-threatening concussion, weeping at her life.  (And she doesn’t even know about the lust-at-first-glance looks the ranch’s new cool girl ex-stripper cowperson started throwing Kayce’s way as soon as he entered the bunkhouse.)

The finale wrapped up some story but mostly set the stage for Season 2.  At John’s order, Kayce, Rip and the rest of the ranch hands murdered Dutton’s competitor Jenkins (Danny Huston in a thankless role), lynching him, which seemed like a notable choice in a show nearly devoid of black characters.  After John had Beth cut Jamie out of the family (he disobeyed his father for the first and only time), Jamie prepared to tell all about the family to a reporter.  We were told frequently about John’s fatal cancer, although it’s hard to take the disease seriously in a series that needs Costner as its lead in order to stay on the air.

Yellowstone, which is beautifully shot by Ben Richardson (his credits include the gorgeous Beasts of the Southern Wild) is compelling but also muddled and sometimes disturbing in its backhanded endorsement of ruthlessness and both physical and psychological violence.  Sheridan seems to want to disapprove of the world he’s created, but he also revels in its lawlessness and neo-western code.  (With its corrupt Native American reservation chief as a bad guy, Yellowstone has found a new way to favor cowboys over Indians.)  Unlike Succession, another series about the super-rich, Yellowstone sees its patriarch as a morally tarnished hero.  The show is reportedly paying Costner half a million per episode, but it’s money well spent, as the actor’s old-west charisma keeps Dutton from being an all-out villain.  The other actors are committed but somewhat adrift, with Bentley and Reilly repeatedly forced to play scenes on the edge of caricature.

Yellowstone has been a success for Paramount, especially with older men, and has already been renewed for Season 2.  There’s little reason to expect any change in a formula that’s working, so the show’s ambivalent celebration of how the west continues to be won is likely to ride very much the same range.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."