I’m fresh off of four speedily binged seasons of Yellowstone and have a few thoughts.
Yellowstone is a drama about a family of ranchers in Montana and their attempts to protect their ranch from developers and the neighboring reservation. To the extent it is a family drama, it is similar to Succession, but I think it is perhaps more like The Godfather. Recent reporting has pointed out that its audience is far larger than Succession’s, but it gets a lot less critical attention. We will get back to that.
At a very high level, Yellowstone behaves like a lot of other shows in its tier, which is somewhere below The Wire, and perhaps less believable than a Breaking Bad, but not quiiiiite as thoroughly corrupted by its sweet tooth as Sons of Anarchy, and without a sense of humor about itself like Justified. Sometimes it is a bit of a mess, and there’s a shocking amount of killing that is almost always teed up in such a way that only the most committed pacifists would object. It all benefits from pretty good production values, a beautiful setting, and Kevin Costner occupying the lead role as if he were genetically engineered for it.
If you can watch Ozark, Succession, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, or any of the other bumper crop of decent but flawed shows in the streaming age, there’s no real reason to avoid Yellowstone, outside of ideological objections, of which you will probably find a few.
Before I get to the ideological stuff, I will talk a little more about the texture and tone of the show.
It’s set on a ranch. The family at the center of the action run the gamut from taciturn rancher types to a corporate raider to an ambitious attorney. The supporting cast include a scheming tribal leader with an MBA who’s dismissed in the first season, where he is mostly a heavy, as perhaps not really native because he didn’t spent a lot of time on the reservation. And there’s a whole collection of cowboys living in the ranch bunkhouse who bob in and out of focus, sometimes as well-sketched individuals, and sometimes as a sort of hive character.
If you’ve ever lived among country people, you’ll recognize the pan-regional dialect and mannerisms of the working class characters. The mid-Atlantic accent was one of the last century’s mass culture achievements, and I don’t have a word at all for its rural-coded equivalent, but I know it when I hear it: I’ve heard it spoken in Pennsylvania, Indiana, Minnesota, Oregon, and Texas; and I’ve seen it depicted in geographically diverse entertainments like Every Which Way But Loose (set in California) and The Dukes of Hazzard (set in Georgia). When it is deployed in entertainment, it is meant to denote a country set of values – traditionalism, grit, simplicity, stubborn honor – and while it definitely allows for electric guitars and thrash metal its home musical era is probably best situated around the rise of the new traditionalists, post country music’s “Hollywood” turn.
I’m pointing that out because it’s an entry point into Yellowstone’s world view, or ideology if you prefer, which is pretty conservative, despite the show creator’s protestations that it fronts some lefty ideas. It does, as I will get to, have a running theme of culture war rapprochement that might make it feel more safe for liberal audiences.
We’re getting into some sort of meta stuff here, I think, because we’re completely into the “politics is downstream of culture” thing these days, making everything a tangle of marginally understood ideological positions and acutely felt cultural alignment.
So, is the show “conservative?” On a certain level it is, because it traffics in imagery and language that appeal to people who are socially conservative. I don’t think it shares the nihilism and radical paranoia of the modern Republican party, but it is definitely pitched to the small-c conservatism of rural and small-town America, and it has a few plot lines that manage the weird feat of both acknowledging some genuinely sordid moments in American history while trafficking in creepy reactionary ideas.
For instance, one story line involves a white character who gets an abortion on a reservation. Along with the abortion comes a forced sterilization she’s not told about in advance.
- Yes, there were forced sterilizations on reservations, so there’s a checked box for Acknowledgement of Past Racist Harms
- No, a forced sterilization would not have happened in any reasonable timeline we can extract from dialogue.
- The character it happens to is a classic “damaged woman” trope: promiscuous, meaner and tougher than the men around her, self-destructive, painted as a corporate berserker. Some lefty writers have tried to say it’s the abortion that made her that way, but let’s not get into the quantum levels of differentiation we’d need to engage in to decide if she’s just a traumatized “abortion victim” or something more akin to a corporate raider version of Black Widow with her ‘red room’ trauma.
- Via the fairly commonplace narrative contrivance of forcing her to confront and come to some level of resolution/acceptance of her forced sterilization years later, she is made able to marry and domesticate (a little – it’d be really unfair to claim that her cathartic recollections somehow turn her into a “tradwife.”)
There’s more than a little of this stuff in Yellowstone. One episode manages to take the entire missing and murdered indigenous women crisis and solve it in an hour. A creepy white guy gets his head blown off, a field of corpses we’re meant to assume is the creepy white guy’s personal dumping ground is discovered, and a few white leads are offered the chance to look sorrowful at the discovery. It’s hard not to read the whole hour as a sort of dramatic alchemy, by which years of institutional neglect and white obliviousness are transmuted into a problem we can fix by killing one bad person somewhere in rural Montana, with upset white people standing around to help us understand that the show is firm in its anti-indigenous-woman-murder politics.
Another plot line involves a violent militia, and the set dressers go out of their way to decorate the militia lair with swastikas and other Nazi imagery. It’s so overt, so obvious, and so definitely chosen that it was almost comical. What to make of it? A play to avoid offending non-Nazi militias? A way to suggest to any liberals watching that while the ranchers are all small-c conservative gun people, they at least understand Nazis are for murdering?
I honestly don’t know. It’s a weird show that way, to the extent no entertainment produced for a mass audience can afford to stray too far from broad cultural consensus; and to the extent broad cultural consensus is increasingly hard to find. It makes sense that The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, and the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe have been so characteristic of recent popular entertainment: by virtue of their settings or genre conventions, they can avoid dealing with the cultural problems Yellowstone has to solve by simply being set in the present day, where your brand of beans is a potentially offensive political statement.
So Yellowstone seems to thread that needle by signifying its awareness of assorted social ills and injustices – nodding to them and acknowledging them and sometimes even “fixing” them in the context of the show.
Other writers have been put off by this. One reviewer called out a scene where two of the ranchers discuss the injustices done to the tribes in the area and the fact that their ranch sits on stolen land, and then didn’t do anything about it: Nothing’s fair in the end, one of them says.
The thing is, I’m not sure what the show should “do” here. Direct the story in such a way that the ranchers give the land back? The same way people have given back the hockey arenas, corporate campuses, and government buildings where land acknowledgements are performed daily? What is the thought in the crowd once the land acknowledgement is intoned if not “nothing’s fair in the end.”
Stepping away from the stories of malfeasance or institutional failure – forced sterilization, missing indigenous women, stolen land – and turning to the cultural, it is hard to miss a note of yearning for a cease fire in the culture war:
- A rancher helps local Native Americans recover stolen horses.
- The rancher is assisted in conducting a vision quest
- The ranchers and the (ordinarily conniving) chairman of the local tribe unite to go kill Nazi militia people, and one of the Native Americans paints sigils on a white character’s horse to protect him before he charges into battle.
- The patriarch of the ranch takes an angry protester (from Portland!) on a tour of his ranch, and pleas to a judge on her behalf when she’s threatened with prison on trumped up charges because the tour helps bridge their cultural differences.
That last plot line is a pretty good example of all the needle-threading: The script pokes fun of the protester’s dietary preferences (“what’s GLUTEN” asks the ranch cook), suggests that sometimes environmental protesters may just be pawns, but also tries to make the case that an eco-terrorist Portland liberal is right about at least one thing, which is that you should not build airports on the main character’s ranch, and especially not next to a national park.
I suppose the show’s politics around that character go a little deeper than that. There’s one exchange, while that character is protesting outside a fur store, that makes a fairly good case – out of the mouth of a conservative character – that her focus on individual consumption is doing nothing to address the broader injustices she thinks she’s fighting. So yes, there’s definitely a critique of liberal politics and values woven throughout that character, but it’s a constructive one, which is worth something.
Not so needle-thready: Most of the bad people seem to come from California. One of the evil real estate developers advocates for drinking green smoothies and naked yoga. Outsiders generally are clueless idiots wandering into the crossfire (or falling off cliffs owing to a misadventure with a bear.)
Basically, the show has a side in the culture war, but underneath its conviction that for all their roughness and simple ways, country people are the best people it would like to draw up a treaty of some kind that might point a way out of the curdled polarization and toward something like mutual tolerance, if not complete respect or affection.
So, I don’t know. Did you like Sons of Anarchy or Justified? Could be for you. Do you like rodeos? There’s a lot of that, so it ought to work. Do you like entertainment that wasn’t written for your sensibilities because it’s interesting just as an artifact? That’s a lot of how it works for me, at least when it hits the occasional slow spot (which isn’t often). Recommended, but don’t try to put its politics in my mouth.