“Do you guys even realize how many people watch Yellowstone?” has become, for some people who prefer critic-favored shows like Succession, the new way to marvel at the siloed nature of American culture. A lot of people do, indeed, watch Yellowstone: The Paramount Network show’s Season 4 premiere, which aired in November, had more than 12 million viewers. And for a big, beautiful drama starring Kevin Costner as the patriarch of the Dutton ranching family and co-created by Taylor Sheridan, whose movies Sicario, Hell or High Water, and Wind River have won varying degrees of critical acclaim, it is a little surprising how absent Yellowstone feels from the Online Discourse. Is that because every single character you’re supposed to like on Yellowstone would absolutely hate the very idea of Online Discourse? Well, that’s never stopped the self-hating internet before!
Even though the average reader of cultural criticism (like that on Slate) may still be unsure where they can even watch Yellowstone—if you don’t have cable, it’s streaming on Peacock—the show is so popular that it now has a prequel. 1883, the story of how the Dutton family went west, started this past Sunday; the first episode aired after the new Yellowstone. The cast of 1883 offers almost comical levels of western/country vibes: There’s Tim McGraw and Faith Hill as the central couple, James and Margaret Dutton; Sam Elliott as a cowboy who allies with them in their trip across the continent; and Isabel May as their fiery, wayward daughter Elsa who chafes at her role and just wants to be a cowboy. (“Rebellious and beautiful teenage girl” is a total cliché in historical fiction, but Elsa is also a bit of a hat tip to fans who love Beth Dutton, the fan-favorite daughter played by Kelly Reilly on Yellowstone; she’s not a tomboy like Elsa, but she is fiery with a capital F.)
It makes a lot of sense to take Yellowstone back in time. Everyone in the show’s universe is obsessed with history—mainly with the idea that the Dutton family’s way of life, as owners of a giant ranch adjacent to Yellowstone National Park, employers of many cowboys, and wielders of various kinds of local power, is deeply correct. The driving tension in the plot comes from the fact (undeniable in the show’s universe) that this lifestyle is under threat because of the passage of time and the world’s changing ways. This is not a subtle theme; it’s something that characters say out loud, a lot. These threats come from every side: Capitalists with even more money and power than the Duttons are looking to buy their land for development. Militias with a grudge try to murder them. More than once, a character calls the Dutton ranch “the Alamo,” and they definitely mean it in the “hopeless last stand” sense, not the “Texans who wanted to enslave people were mad at Mexicans who wanted to stop them” sense.
The Duttons of the past, whose backstory we will learn as 1883 unfolds, are omnipresent in Yellowstone, maybe especially in the mind of John. Twice this season, we’ve gotten glimpses into the 19th century Duttons’ world on Yellowstone. In Season 4’s opening episode, John lies in a coma in a hospital bed, shot multiple times by gunmen hired by his adopted son’s biological father to murder the entire family, so that the adopted son can have the ranch. (Threats from all sides, like I said.) John seems to have sort of a vision, and we’re transported to a wintertime scene. Tim McGraw’s James Dutton, along with two sons (one of whom is John’s father, John Sr.), are on horseback; they encounter a group of starving Native people and give them a cow to eat. Outside the hospital, Beth Dutton talks with a boy she meets whose father is also inside, dying. “What’s killing your father?” the boy asks Beth. “The 21st century,” she replies. Meanwhile, we find out in the beginning of the second episode of 1883 that James Dutton was a Confederate officer who spent most of the Civil War in a Yankee prison camp. Duttons across time, it seems, have clung to lost causes.
If it’s not clear whether you’re supposed to like the family members in Succession, it’s extremely, extremely clear in Yellowstone and 1883 that you are supposed to like (most of) the Duttons. Some of them seem borderline psychotic, and most of them have very high body counts to their names, but they are always earthier and saltier than everyone else. Key to the viewer’s allegiance is the unshakable faith you are supposed to have in each show’s central father figure. I gasped—then cried—at the end of a first-season Yellowstone episode where the camera follows Costner, pondering all his troubles, across the ranch, and the soundtrack plays Mary Gauthier’s song “Mercy Now”: “My father could use a little mercy now/ The fruits of his labor fall and rot slowly on the ground/ His work is almost over, it won’t be long, he won’t be around/ I love my father, he could use some mercy now.” We, the viewers, are supposed to have mercy on John—deep in his heart, he means well.
This patriarchal allegiance has a politics to it, especially in the West, where land is everything. Yellowstone depicts the Duttons, in their giant house, with all their connections, with their literal helicopter that they own, as being just as besieged as the Native people of the Confederated Tribes of Broken Rock, living on the reservation nearby. Early on in the show, there’s an opposition set up between John Dutton and the tribal council chairman Thomas Rainwater (Gil Birmingham), who tells John that he plans to take over the Dutton ranch and return it to the state it was in before white settlers arrived: “I’m the opposite of progress. I’m the past catching up to you.”
But as time moves on, it becomes clear that the show wants to establish that the Duttons are much more “Native” (authentic and under threat) than they are like the other white people who have more recently come to Montana to become Montanans. A Native character even says to John, at one point, “You’re the Indian now”—and the show uses that phrase for the episode title. I think the show is trying, clumsily enough, to evoke some sense of solidarity, but men on the frontier have often, in the United States, been painted as “borderline Native,” even as they retain the right to take Native land. (Here’s where I’ll warn you that in the next paragraph, I’ll be talking about plot points that involve suicide and children in distress.)
I almost stopped watching Yellowstone in the first season because of a series of events in which Kayce, the youngest Dutton and a former Navy SEAL (natch), who is married to Monica, a Native woman played by Kelsey Asbille, shoots his own wife’s brother in the course of a conflict between the Dutton family and the reservation. The consequences of this action compound quickly, and they’re grim. Kayce’s wife’s sister-in-law, who’s lost her husband and has no job, no money, and three kids, dies by suicide; she thinks that her children will be better off with their grandparents, who will be forced to take them when she is gone.
Kayce and Monica take care of the children as their grandparents make the drive to pick them up. In one scene in this sequence, the newly orphaned children are in a bath, along with Kayce and Monica’s son. The youngest one, who is probably about 4 or 5, is sobbing his heart out, utterly bereft. This Native child’s pain and trauma is in the story so that we can see Kayce’s reaction and think about his guilt, so that Kayce and Monica’s decision to move their son away from the reservation makes sense, and so that an alienation between Kayce and Monica can arise and eventually be solved. This show is often too much for me, but in this sequence, it was very much too much.
Yet I can’t stop watching this show, four seasons in, for the ways it portrays drama traditionally untapped by the kinds of media that critics are wont to cover. Yellowstone is totally obsessed with drawing lines between city slickers who watch Succession and the kinds of real people who are meant to be in Montana. In the first season, a California billionaire who has been trying to take over the Duttons’ ranch dies, gasping out, “I have every right to be here. This is America.” But he and his ilk obviously do not, since they died, and it’s the strong who survive. The land, Yellowstone tells us, has some kind of knowledge of who is meant to be there, and if you’re still alive in Montana, it must be because the land refused to cast you off. Urbanites could never stand a chance in this show’s vision of the Wild West.
I have seen three episodes of 1883, and so far, it seems like the show has the same mystical sense that there are white people who earn the right to the land and white people who don’t—plus Native people, who will be pushed aside, in the sad course of Progress. The wagon train the Duttons are accompanying across the country steadily sheds German immigrants, lost to wagon wheel accidents, banditry, and snakebite. The opening sequence, which is a flash forward, depicts Elsa, the daughter, doing battle with Native warriors who attack the wagon train. We haven’t yet gotten back to that part of the story, and so it’s not clear how Elsa will survive. But I suspect, given Yellowstone’s feelings about Duttons and Montana, that she will make it.
I’ll watch the rest of 1883 with interest, wondering how this show will continue to turn the rhetorical trick of Yellowstone, which critiques and celebrates the settler-colonial success of the Duttons, sometimes in the very same scene. Because yes, the fact that Yellowstone—an extremely compelling, deeply romantic vision of American history, a story of a bunch of victors who are passionately convinced they are victims—is so popular, so widely watched on cable in the era of cable-cutters, merits a lot more critical analysis than it currently gets.
Here’s an example as to why: In a press release about the show’s still-in-the-works second spinoff, 6666—another contemporary Western about a giant ranch in Texas that is a county to itself and “still operates as it did two centuries before”—Paramount+ described the 6666 ranch’s name as “synonymous with the merciless endeavor to raise the finest horses and livestock in the world.” (Last year, Taylor Sheridan bought the 6666 ranch, IRL.) It’s that lack of mercy for most everyone who’s not a Dutton—or at least Dutton-esque—that underpins life on Yellowstone. What unsettles me most is that these shows really do take this as a moral truth, because the person who is rightest about what the Duttons are is the reporter who dies in Season 2 of Yellowstone, in the course of trying to write a piece on them. “No man should have this much land,” she says. “This isn’t a kingdom, and your father isn’t a king.” And then, one of the Duttons kills her.