This is the kind of essay that I often put behind the paywall, but I decided (pretty arbitrarily I suppose) to keep it open for all. It is complete nonsense, but it’s our nonsense. If you do get a kick out of it, remember that even nonsense takes time and effort and so if you’ve got a few extra bucks ($5 a month!) for a subscription, it means the world to me. So too does sharing and spreading the word. Thanks so much, you all. You are the Rip to my Beth.
Last week, I wrote an essay about the wildly popular television program Yellowstone. It was long and dealt with heady topics like who belongs in a place and whether the state of Montana can survive this current moment. Folks seemed to like it, particularly other current or diasporic Montanans (although I guess Montana writers telling me that it was my best piece yet is a lot like my mom telling me that my kids are the smartest/kindest/best looking grandchildren in the world).
The piece had its limits, though. In order to make various points about the dangers of the cowboy myth and wealth inequity and whatnot, I could only give limited space to the show itself. That’s a bummer, because Yellowstone is a rich text. It is a wide-brimmed, slow talking cartoon factory. Next week, we’ll get back to self-serious tone poems about race and class and gender and identity. I’ve got some long-simmering topics in the hopper (yes, I’ll be writing about Ron DeSantis and the wildly predictable schools-as-battlegrounds stuff he’s doing; there will also be a personal essay about how much of my (our?) politics is still just about craving acceptance; I may also (deep sigh) have to write about guns again). This week, though, I’m extending my stay at the Dutton Ranch. I’m riding the biggest, meanest bull in the rodeo. I’m staring soulfully into the middle distance and thinking deep thoughts like “wait, the most popular television show in the country is about that?”
A quick forewarning: You definitely don’t need to have watched the show to follow this essay (it’s actually intended for an audience that hasn’t), but if spoilers are a concern, this probably isn’t the piece for you.
LET’S MEET THE YELLOWSTONE GANG
Who is he? He is the owner of the largest fictional ranch in the State of Montana. He also eventually becomes the Governor, although that just makes him grumpier. He is gruff and principled and troubled. You are supposed to sympathize with him, because his wife died, his ranch is under attack from out-of-state developers, and he lives by a code. Oh and also because he is played by Kevin Costner, a man who once single-handedly saved baseball (three times!), an entire Indigenous tribe, and Whitney Houston’s heart. But on the other hand, you’re very much not supposed to sympathize with him because he is directly responsible for roughly one million murders and is officially a Moody Weirdo Dad. According to Taylor Sheridan, this is because John Dutton is an anti-hero! According to me, it is because the show is tonally inconsistent! One of us is an unspeakably successful entertainment mogul. The other of us has a niche newsletter about White people. Who can say which of us is right?
Is he good at his job? If you mean ranching, probably not? He owns a ranch the size of Rhode Island (and also a helicopter!) but apparently it isn’t making any money. Also, whenever something goes wrong for the ranch, his go-to human relations/public relations/contract negotiation tactic is to tell his fellas that they need to murder some dude. If you mean being Governor of Montana, the verdict’s out. He mostly grumbles about how he hates progress and how he wants to kill his son, the Attorney General. He may institute a wealth tax though, which sounds great. And he’s anti-pipeline. So let’s give John Dutton the Governor an “Incomplete.” But if you mean occasionally sleeping with the previous Governor of Montana, who is now a Senator but whose only duty appears to be hanging out with John Dutton?!? He’s great at that.
According to Taylor Sheridan, is he a real Montanan? Yes. At one point, John Dutton sums up his approach to life by saying that you should "learn to be meaner than evil and still love your family and enjoy a sunrise." I have no idea what that means, which is why I currently live in Milwaukee and am afraid of paper cuts and John Dutton gets to scowl at livestock and yell at his doctors when they try to keep him off his horse just because he just had “major surgery.”
Who is she? She is a “complex character” in the sense that she is fifteen characters poured into a single vessel. She is the show’s wild-card, naughty talking firecracker! And also occasionally its moral compass? And its tender romantic lead? She’s also an alcoholic (which you are supposed to react to with some sort of “well, that’s just Beth being Beth” acceptance hahahaha). Her life has been marked by an entire buffet of unspeakable traumas, but when she is needlessly mean and vindictive to others, you (the viewer) aren’t supposed to react with empathy, you’re supposed to go out and buy a “Don’t Make Me Go Beth Dutton On You!” shirt.
And yes, she’s likely intended as a feminist character, because she is allowed to be unfiltered and primal in a way usually only reserved for men. And sure, I believe that all human beings (regardless of gender) have an equal right to wield knives at strangers and berate secretaries for standing too sheepishly and chain smoke in non-smoking establishments. I’m just saying that maybe I missed the part in the Combahee River Collective Statement where that was the mountaintop towards which we were all striving.
Is she good at her job? Beth is employed in the opaque world of “making extremely rich people even more money.” We are told that she is not merely great at her job, but literally the best at it. We get to watch a number of scenes where she smokes and drinks and cackles while typing on a keyboard. Apparently, those scenes are about “shorting stock,” which I’m still not convinced is a real thing. She escalates a lot of situations, and many of those escalations result in short-term victories and long-term defeats but also nothing in this show is real, but especially not the parts involving moving money between bank accounts. I mean, that’s not even real in our world. Money is make believe. You deserve free healthcare. The fed should mint a trillion dollar coin. And sure, whatever, Beth Dutton is great at her job.
According to Taylor Sheridan, is she a real Montanan? She is the most real Montanan of all, because she takes no gruff and has no fear and she may be violent and out-of-control but that’s just how we are out on the frontier. Also, have you noticed that she is a lady? She is! So don’t you tell me that Taylor Sheridan’s vision of the West is just reheated toxic masculinity tropes. In Montana, you see, women are cowboys too, as long as the women in question are violent misanthropes with drinking problems.
Who is he? An extremely sexy and EXTREMELY BROODING family man who was once in the Marines and now travels around the Paradise Valley brushing the hair out of his face and accidentally killing people.
Could you fix him? Yes. You could. If only he would let you in.
Is he good at his job? This is hands down my favorite plot line in the show. After a long and storied career as a “guy who takes matters into his own hands” Kayce Dutton suddenly becomes the Livestock Commissioner for the State of Montana, which in this show means that he is in control of the most fearsome paramilitary force our country has ever seen. The accidental killings morph into Public Service Killings For The People Of Montana And Our Cattle. There are multiple scenes where full grown men come into Kayce’s office and openly weep because he is the greatest thing that’s ever happened to them and Kayce just stares back at them— confused and dumb and gorgeous— and shrugs.
Is he a White character married to a Native character who eventually becomes so respected by Yellowstone’s fictional Indigenous tribe that he is basically depicted as having transcended his own Whiteness to become fully Native? Say it with me: Multi-episode vision quest story arc! Featuring wolves!
According to Taylor Sheridan, is he a real Montanan? The Montana flag has recently been replaced with a picture of Kayce Dutton expressing soulful regret because he just killed a drifter with a tire iron.
Who is he? NOT A REAL DUTTON! REPEAT, NOT A REAL DUTTON! HE WEARS SUITS INSTEAD OF COWBOY HATS. HIS SUIT ISN’T EVEN MADE OF COWBOY HATS. Also he’s whiny. And yes, he does engage in extrajudicial murder, but somehow when he does it we’re supposed to be like “Ugh Jamie you’re the worst! You’re a coward! Beth is right when she calls you that one slur that infers that you’re acting like a woman and/or a gay person (the show uses that word a lot!)” and whenever anybody else does it you’re supposed to be like “Oh Kayce, I’m so proud of you… here, let me wrap you in my gentle arms and heal your wounded soul with my love.”
Is he good at his job? I don't know, man. Sure. He can, like, lawyer it up real good. But that’s not the point. You’re supposed to hate Jamie. Again, I’m not sure if I put a fine enough point on this, but HE WEARS SUITS. And he is sad in the wrong way.
According to Taylor Sheridan, is he a real Montanan? According to Taylor Sheridan, Jamie is not even protected under the Geneva Convention.
Who is she? She is both a Professor and a middle school teacher who somehow is able to keep up both jobs while living hundreds of miles away and never being at work?!? She is also a Proud Indigenous Character, written with pride by a White man who likes to tell stories about how he has friends on Pine Ridge and played with pride by a half-White/half-Asian actor whose claims to Eastern Branch Cherokee ancestry have been doubted by haters like, um, the Eastern Branch of Cherokee. You know she’s a proud Native character because at least 60% of her dialogue consists of monologues about anti-Native atrocities and also because Sheridan’s scripts require her to suffer some form of intense trauma roughly about every third episode. She has been abused and abducted and racially profiled and almost murdered and it’s too much but… she’s still here! Resilient!
Also, she IS married to Kayce Dutton and guess what, wannabes? She DID fix him!
Is she good at her job? According to her husband, she is “the best teacher in the state of Montana.” When we see Montana’s best educator in action, her pedagogical approach can be best described as “delivering lectures that sound suspiciously as if a White screenwriter transcribed the first 25 pages of A People’s History Of The United States while patting himself on the back.” Also, at one point her students are all hanging out before class looking at their phones (a reasonable thing to do) and she harangues them in an extremely Old Man Yells At Cloud way about how the world is passing them by. So yes, I agree. She is the best teacher in the state of Montana.
According to Taylor Sheridan, is she a real Montanan? That’s not the important question, silly! What matters is whether she eventually overcomes her skepticism of the Duttons and officially declares THEM to not just be real Montanans, but basically Natives themselves. Thanks Monica!
Who is he? As you can see above, he is the current World Record Holder in both Chest Puffery and Lip Pursing. He is also the Chairman of the Confederated Tribes of Broken Rock, a tribe that does not exist.
Does he too originally start out skeptical of the Duttons but eventually grow to respect them because of how damned Western they are? Yes!
Ok, we can move on But he went to Harvard! Which is mentioned frequently. And there are challenges for his leadership! And he hangs out with a legitimately pretty interesting character named Mo! And he too thinks he can fix Kayce!
This is already too long though! We need a speed round!
Who are they? Very bad people. All very rich. And shrewd. But also wimpy, capable of being cut down by one of Beth’s insults. There are a lot of Californians in Yellowstone, some of whom aren’t technically Californians (the second season’s antagonists are weirdo twin video poker magnates from Montana). But if a character is bad, they’re a Californian. They’re like hydras. As soon as the Duttons cut off one head, another one emerges. But they will lose, because they may be wildly successful in their home state but (pause for effect, turn to camera, scowl)… they ain’t in California no more.
At some point, is there an unnecessary subplot featuring a motorcycle gang from California who at first seems super tough but then is revealed to be a bunch of wimps? You already know the answer to that question.
The Bunkhouse Crew
Who are they? Cowboys! They sometimes engage in meaningful plot lines but mostly are there to look rugged, engage in hijinks, and occasionally be enlisted in murder schemes. There’s a lot of poker playing and ball busting and workplace sexual harassment (which the show is in favor of because, get this… it is a cowlady who is sexually harassing a cowdude!). More than one of the cowboys are Black (I texted my Yellowstone watching buddy “I think that Montana’s actual Black cowboy population should sue this show for over-representation”) and most of them seem like fun hangs. There’s this one cowboy with a guitar named Walker and man is he a drag. I will not be discussing Walker further. He knows what he did.
Wait, do any of the cowboys deserve their own subheadings?
Ok, but just two!
Wait, can we talk about that shirt? I promise it was the most PG rated one I could find. I had to do a virus scan after searching for “Rip Shirt Yellowstone.”
So, he’s like the biggest, toughest cowboy, right? Do you remember the old Dana Carvey stand-up routine about how funny it was that an English musician named Gordon decided to change his name to Sting and made everybody in his life start calling him “a verb, present tense?” Well, this guy is named Rip.
Not Sam Elliott
Sam Elliott is not in Yellowstone. He is in one of the two Yellowstone prequel shows, but he claims to have never watched the flagship show because his Montana friends told him not to waste his time. A true king. I bring him up because one of the cowboys is an older gentleman with a mustache whose vibe is “Sam Elliott, for the moments when Sam Elliott is not available” and you know what? That’s ok too. I’m all in on Not Sam Elliott.
Oh God we need to wrap this up…
That means that I won’t tell you about the character Taylor Sheridan wrote for himself (his emotional arc is “I’m a very cool cowboy who is perfect”), or sweet, sweet Jimmy and Emily, who belong in a different show because they are normal, likable characters (they are, in fact, getting their own spinoff and damnit Taylor Sheridan did you just trick me into watching your next show?). I also won’t tell you about Gator, the cook, who seems nice but doesn’t get to hang out in the bunkhouse, presumably because he has a lady job. But that’s ok. You get the deal.
Garrett, I know that this show has had a complicated impact on your home state, and it also sounds ridiculous, but should I watch it?
Watch what makes you happy! I own all nine Fast and The Furious movies! Who am I to judge? All I ask is that if you come to Montana on vacation this summer pick up after yourself and toss some money to grassroots community organizers and please, please, please don’t buy a cowboy hat (or a second home).
Song of the week:
You’ve now had to put up with two weeks of me leaning hard into the “prodigal Montanan, currently living in the Midwest” part of my identity. The least I can do is leave you with a track by the best representatives of that demographic, the late great Silkworm. “Garden City Blues” would probably be most on the nose, but let’s go with “Don’t Go Back.” Oh jeez, Silkworm ruled so hard.
As always, you can find the collected song of the week playlist on Apple Music or Spotify.
This week’s discussion for paid subscribers:
By request, let’s do a repeat favorite: We’re going to be sharing gorgeous sentences that we love. They could be from books, articles, poems, songs or heck… even wildly popular melodramas about the American West. If you’re a paid subscriber, you’ll receive a link to that discussion in your inboxes tomorrow. And as always, if you’d like in on the scene but don’t have the cash right now, just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll comp you.
I am very happy for you and other people of Montanan experience about this extremely normal sounding show, but mostly I'd never heard of Silkworm and that album absolutely fucks, thanks so much for the rec!