On the danger of telling old stories about the New West
Every issue of The White Pages takes a good chunk of time, but this one in particular was a doozy (mostly on the research side; I watched the entire current run of Yellowstone and then chased it with a whole lot of background reading). That’s to say, if you appreciate this one (or if you’ve appreciated this project in general), thanks in advance for considering a paid subscription.
I guess there’s some minor spoilers in here, though they’re fairly cryptic. But still. If you want to watch Yellowstone as a completely blank slate, maybe consider taking this week off.
Let’s start with the storyteller. We’ll get to the story in due time.
Taylor Sheridan grew up in Texas, the son of a wealthy Fort Worth cardiologist who owned a hobby ranch outside of Waco. That property plays heavily in the Taylor Sheridan mythos, although when pressed about it he has admitted— a bit euphemistically— that “we didn’t depend on our ranch for income.”
What Sheridan did rely on that ranch for was an identity. Family life was complicated and tense, so the Cranfills Gap ranch—with its endless opportunities to play cowboy— was a respite. He grew up learning to ride horses and shoot guns and brood over his family’s land and, well, if a boy plays cowboy for long enough he’ll eventually become a grown man who wants the world to know that he’s not playing anymore.
As I write this, Taylor Sheridan both is a cowboy of sorts— he owns multiple ranches in Utah, Wyoming and Texas— and he plays one on TV. He gets to do the latter because he is the creator, showrunner and writer of the most popular television program in the country, a show about Real Montana Men who live by a code and protect their land at all costs.
That show, of course, is Yellowstone. It’s popularity has both made Sheridan wealthy enough to purchase a number of ranches and to be the subject of multiple long-form profiles where he holds court about his likes (pricey steaks, the open range, the rights of “kings” to do whatever they need to protect their “kingdoms”) and dislikes [Los Angeles, big city folks who don’t understand the West, the kind of expensive food that the snobs in Park City eat (which I guess must not be steak)]. Those profiles— even the more critical ones— have a tendency to gush about his perfectly chiseled jawline, his considerable skills on a horse, or the man’s man details that litter his biography (he never shot a man in Reno just to watch him die, but he did punch a man in his first-ever audition just because that dude was annoying him).
Taylor Sheridan wants you to know that he understands more than you think he does. He wants you to feel his deep empathy for the plight of Indigenous nations. Even more so, he wants you to notice that he’s the one telling Indigenous stories, that it is his characters delivering grandiloquent monologues about Columbus’ genocide of the Arawak and the contemporary crisis of Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women.1 He wants you to know that he respects women, Western women in particular, that he admires their toughness, their pluck and their ability to stare out over a mountain range and think profound Western thoughts. He wants you to be impressed.
Most analyses of Yellowstone have fixated on the question of whether it’s a “Red State” or a “Blue State” show, which of course is our current favorite reductive lens to apply to all forms of culture. The assumption is that a show about gun-toting roughnecks tromping around mountain ranges and railing against “progress” must be beloved by rural conservatives and ignored by big city liberals. While there’s some evidence that the show performs particularly well in markets like Topeka and Abilene and Boise (compared to New York and L.A.) that alone doesn’t prove the “conservative prestige TV” hypothesis. Instead, most articles about the theory lean unconvincingly on vibes-based arguments— it seems like there’s less Twitter chatter about the program than “liberal” shows like Succession. Many writers haven’t overheard hip young city dwellers talking about it. Kevin Costner sure looks like the kind of guy a Trump-y boomer Dad would be into, etc., etc., etc.
For what it’s worth, Sheridan rejects the dichotomy— mostly because he really wants you to notice how many people of color he’s cast or all those Native stories he tells. His protagonists may be gruff, Trump-y guys, but they’re shown doing one unconscionable act after another. They’re anti-heroes, you see, just on horseback: The Godfather Runs Through It. Per Sheridan, he’s too smart and sophisticated an artist to fall for red-blooded Trumpism, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t get what all that fuss is about. He loves Indians and gay people and multicultural pluralism, but he also understands rural backlash. Oh buddy does he understand rural backlash.2
What very few profiles of Yellowstone recognize3 is that the most popular show in the country isn’t about “Red States” or “Blue States” as metaphorical stand-ins for our political divides. It’s about rural Red States as real, physical places. It’s about the West as both an idea and as a tangible, contested geography. It’s about land that some people deserve to live on and some people don’t.
Of course, Yellowstone isn’t just about any rural Red State. It’s about Montana— my home state— the often mythologized Last Best Place that may very well be on its last worst legs right now. It is a state facing a number of intertwined crises— non-millionaires can’t afford to live in a growing number of our communities, environmental protections have been rolled back even as our mountains burn, and our state government is led by oligarchs who like to dabble in corruption and fascism.
Yellowstone did not cause Montana’s crises. Those seeds were planted decades ago, when the state’s powers that be invested in real estate and tourism— supposedly green, ethically neutral enterprises— to replace our previous reliance on extractive industry. Yellowstone the show didn’t birth Yellowstone the Club— the ultra-rich enclave between Bozeman and its namesake National Park that established that corner of the state as an Aspen or Park City alternative. It didn’t inspire Ted Turner and Rupert Murdoch to buy up the state’s largest ranches. And of course, it didn’t introduce the idea of Western land as something that could be bought/sold/stolen in the first place. That seed was planted centuries ago by the U.S. Calvary and the Homestead Act and all the great-great-great grandfathers whose bloody hands White Montanans don’t talk about when we brag about our deep roots in this state.
A Yellowstone defender might argue that not only did that show not create Montana’s crises, but that it is the single most influential voice against the forces that threaten it. The show’s villains are almost all greedy out-of-state land developers. Its driving conflict is about long-time Montanans— Native and White alike— trying to stop a bloated mega-development. Its very first episode features an extended scene where a Real Montana Dad eats ice cream with his Real Montana Son on Bozeman’s gentrified Main Street. The son asks the father what a transplant is, and the father mutters back a reply about how it’s a “person who moves to a place and tries to make that place like the one they left.” The older and younger Real Montanans both agree that “that don’t make no sense” before returning to their fancy cones. Take that, ice cream.
Yellowstone has a lot of scenes like that. Transplants are shown failing to catch any fish on a river that’s full of them. They complain about how nothing’s open at night. They’re shocked that— unlike in the supposedly uncaring places they come from— Montanans stop to help them change a tire. Some of them are high-minded but short-sighted activists who pour blood on themselves at protests but won’t help cook dinner when they’re a guest at a ranch. The vast majority, though, are ravenous, profit-hungry villains who don’t know how to rope, don’t know how to ride, and most of all don’t know how to appreciate a mountain, just how to buy and sell it.
The not-at-all-surprising irony, of course, is that a show that truly believes itself to be taking a stand against development and displacement in the West has only hastened those trends. Yellowstone may not have created Montana’s crises, but it has thrown gasoline on an open fire. Whether you’re going by data or anecdote, Montana has a Yellowstone economy now— one marked not just by a steroidal and deeply inequitable real estate market but also a noticeable increase in new arrivals eager to live that show’s Don’t Tread On Me lifestyle. People aren’t just moving to Montana for beautiful views— they’re moving to live like the show’s New West anti-heroes. While Yellowstone believes that it’s telling them “don’t come here,” the message it’s actually sending is “come and prove you belong through expensive feats of bravado.”
I wish that I could appreciate Yellowstone merely as a silly, shiny fantasy. Goodness knows we can always use more of those in our life. Its White characters mumble sub-Cormac Mccarthy aphorisms about bucking horses and cutthroat trout. Its Native characters deliver Shakepearean monologues about Resilience and Loss in accents that sound miles removed from any real reservation. There is romance and sweeping cinematography and quippy insults and furrowed-brow whiskey drinking. There is so much cartoonish, extrajudicial murder: murder by gun, murder by fist, murder by cliff, murder by rattlesnake thrown out of a Rubbermaid cooler. You know, all your basic forms of murder. The scenery is gorgeous (of course)4 and the Sturgill Simpson/Tyler Childers/Zach Bryan needle drops come right on time.5 Mountains. Sexy cowboys. Siblings who hate each other. Why am I complaining?
The problem is, Yellowstone is telling a tired but dangerous story. And although Taylor Sheridan has clear biographical and psychological reasons for dusting off this particular myth, it’s basically the same one we’ve been living with since the Lewis and Clark Expedition. It’s the Western canard that you can both own and do whatever the hell you want in a place as long as you nail the aesthetics. A White man gets to be a Montanan if he can hunt and ride and curse and chase his troubles down a bottle. A White woman gets to be a Montanan if she can do all that while also putting supper on the table and giving the fellas a talking to when they get too rowdy. And then, once you’re a Montanan, you get to sneer at all those who— in your estimation— don’t make the cut.
I never bought into that core myth, but it’s always been malleable enough to allow for variations. In my once-crunchy, now-gussied-up hometown of Missoula, we’ve long told ourselves stories about how we deserve this land if we’re able to write about it, if we can be the one great voice that best puts into words what the August sunlight looks like as it bounces off the Clark Fork. Depending on what generation you came up in, we told ourselves that this place belonged to us if we were here that summer when the Rainbows and Hells Angels took over the town or when the cowboys and hippies alike would stumble home together from the Aber Day Kegger.
Like Sheridan, most of us are savvy enough to temper the myth with some sort of guilty recognition (an, ahem, acknowledgement, if you will) that this is stolen land, Indigenous land, and that we of course feel truly awful about the whole affair. But the myth is always there waiting for us after the perfunctory mea culpas. There’s always a new “transplant” that we get to compare ourselves to. In Yellowstone the show, the protagonist Dutton family sneers at baristas and goes to war against corny billionaires who (*scoff*) prefer catch-and-release fishing. In the actual state of Montana, some of us snicker at the influx of Dutton-aping super fans, their clothing too ostentatious, their hands too uncalloused. Others run for the state legislature and proclaim that the real interlopers are trans kids who were born here— guilty of the crime of being neither a Real Western Man nor Woman.
I understand why the myth is so seductive. Just as the cowboy life allowed Taylor Sheridan to be something more than just a cardiologist’s son, so too does the dream of being a true Montanan offer White people like me not just a home, but an actual identity. It’s our imagined ticket out of being just another White person, just another colonizer.
We’ve been playing this game for decades, too proud to admit that it’s made almost all of us losers. As Kathleen McLaughlin— one of Montana’s great chroniclers of class and inequity— notes, Montana politicians of both parties love to whip up resentment about “Californians” and transplants while still slipping down to the Yellowstone Club for a big money fundraiser. The real culprit—obscene wealth and the system that keeps some people rich and most people poor— never gets challenged, because we’re pacified with the easier and more flattering lie that the problem is some aesthetically tacky newcomer who isn’t a real Montanan like us.
As I write this, both real Montana and Yellowstone Montana are led by wealthy, self-styled cowboy Governors. The fictional one is a seventh-generation owner of a ranch the size of Rhode Island. The real one is a California-born, suburban Philadelphia-raised multimillionaire who earned his money at a Bozeman tech startup but who established his bonafides as a Real Montana Man by leaning into every possible proto-Yellowstone cliché (mostly shooting every animal in sight, including wolves and mountain lions and, you know, assaulting a journalist). He’s been described as a Christian nationalist, which is a term that’s often overstated but in this case is frighteningly accurate. He’s also working with a legislative supermajority full of fellow self-styled Real Montana Cowboys of various vintages. Among the targets in their sights (in addition to trans kids) are reproductive rights and our state’s populist 1972 Constitution.
That Constitution— which limited corporate power and included landmark environmental and civil liberties protections— was written as a correction to Montana’s original founding document, a rush job produced by and for the powerful and ruthless Copper Kings. Those Copper Kings once ruled Montana with an iron first, but not without opposition. In the early 20th Century, Missoula and Butte were home to some of the most legendary labor actions in the country. Elsewhere in the state— where the strings were pulled by bankers along with mining barons— farmers across the Hi-Line were once part of the great rural cooperative movement. Often times the big money folks would win, electing their own to the U.S. Senate, controlling the newspapers, buying and selling the state legislature. Other times, the reformers would score their own victories: Jeannette Rankin, Joseph Dixon, Mike Mansfield and most of all, that 1972 Constitutional Convention.
That’s all to say, this isn't the first time that a post-colonization Montana has been left with a choice of what kind of last best place it wants to be. It will be a fatal mistake if Montana (and White Montana in particular) faces this current moment with nothing but recriminations about who deserves to be here. The real answer to that question isn’t a mystery, and to whatever extent we can all actually move the arc of history towards reparations and land back to Indigenous Montana, that’s undoubtedly the fairest and most just outcome.
I have a sense, though, that for the foreseeable future (for better or worse), there will be a pluralistic Montana that includes White people. And if that’s the case, the question of which of us are “Montana enough” or “Cowboy enough” isn’t going to help us survive the current plagues.
Montana is a gorgeous place where a whole lot of people are suffering and a much smaller number are making off like bandits. There are sixth-generation wheat farmers outside of Plentywood who are frightened as hell of foreclosure and first-generation ice cream scoopers at fancy Bozeman parlors who are sleeping in their cars. There are queer kids in Box Elder and Whitefish alike who are wondering if their home state hates them. There are “Californians” barely making ends meet at the Lockwood refinery. Some of the people suffering wear Carhartts and know how to ride a horse. Others don’t. That’s not the distinction that should matter.
What should matter— if we claim to care about a place— is whether or not our care extends merely to the mountains and rivers and our own personal plot of land or if its deep enough to extend to all our neighbors.
I am writing this from Milwaukee, thousands of miles away from the place I love more than anywhere in this world. I have no unique claim on that state. It’s my home because one day many years ago my mom caught a train from East River South Dakota to wait tables at Glacier Park. The mountains got her, just as the mountains will get somebody for the first time this summer. I grew up and moved away. A lot of us do.
But every week, if I choose, I can see Western valleys I know at a bone-deep level displayed for all the world to see on the most popular television show in the country. That show was written and created by a self-conscious cowboy with a specific but not particularly novel view of how the West was and will be won. It’s not his fault that myth exists. It’s not his fault it’s so popular. It’s just a shame, really. Stories matter. Stories appeal to our better or worst angels. Life imitates art.
I don’t begrudge Taylor Sheridan his success. The problem is, my home state’s in a real jam right now. And we don’t need a Hollywood golden boy to save us. What we do deserve, though, is a better set of stories.
Song of the week:
Nostalgia is a tricky thing out West, but some times it’s all what we’ve got. That’s to say, please rise for a (not the) Montana State Anthem… “Fountain of Love” by Mission Mountain Wood Band.
This week’s discussion for paid subscribers:
I just spent 3000 words talking about a television show that fills me with a complicated mess of feelings. Seems like as good a time as any to do our first-ever “What Are You Watching (That’s Good) And Why Should We Watch It Too?” discussion. If you’re a paid subscriber, look forward to that in your inbox tomorrow. As always, if you want in but can’t afford a subscription, email me at email@example.com and I’ll comp you.
Oh and also… I have just mainlined hundreds of hours of Yellowstone, so if you do want to have a spoiler-heavy gossip fest about a soap opera which truly is having a terrible impact on my home state but whose plot-lines I now have opinions about (a taste: I’m happy for Jimmy; I couldn’t care less about Beth vs. Jaime), hit me up at the Flyover Politics Discord or drop me an email.
It should come as no surprise that many Indigenous Americans have their own opinions about whether want a White guy from Texas with a mixed-record of casting Native folks in Native roles to be their savior storyteller (particularly at this moment, when shows like Reservation Dogs and Rutherford Falls are finally breaking the White ceiling that has kept Native creators from telling their own stories). This piece, by Liza Black for High Country News, is a particularly excellent explainer as to why Indian Country isn’t throwing ticker tape parades for Taylor Sheridan.
One of Sheridan’s more infamous quotes came in a 2018 Esquire profile, where he went on an extended rant about how “white privilege” are the two worst words of modern invention and how you can never convince a rancher about to lose his home that he has privilege. It’s classic Sheridan, blustery and profane and half-right. He later walked it back a bit, explaining in a later Atlantic profile that he was just trying to make a point about catering your message to your audience.
One notable exception is this Tressie McMillan Cottom essay for The New York Times, which does wrestle with the show’s complicated, contradictory politics.
For the record, February in Montana is as ugly as it is in any state. Dirty snow season and all that. Yellowstone doesn’t film in February, just like it doesn’t film when the summer air is filled with wildfire smoke. Print the legend.
I texted my Yellowstone-watching buddy “this soundtrack is Sean Brock Dinner Service/Iowa Writer’s Workshop country and yes, I’ve been effectively microtargeted.”