Television

Outer Range Offers a Quiet Rebuke to Yellowstone

The sci-fi Western borrows a lot from the hit drama, but its take on the American West couldn’t be more different.

Side by side photos of Josh Brolin standing in a field holding a hat by his side and Kevin Costner in a cowboy hat sitting horseback
Josh Brolin in Outer Range and Kevin Costner in Yellowstone. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Amazon Prime and Paramount Network.

This post contains spoilers for Outer Range and Yellowstone.

Some viewers of Outer Range’s first season may have been focused on parsing the Amazon Prime series’s Lost-style mysteries: What is up with the big, swirling time hole in Royal Abbott’s pasture? Why did Rebecca Abbott, his daughter-in-law, vanish without a trace? What does Autumn, the charismatic hippie camping on Royal’s land, want with the Abbott family? I had a different question about the sci-fi Western: What the heck is this show doing with Taylor Sheridan’s megahit Yellowstone?

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Brian Watkins, Outer Range’s creator, has described his creation using a slew of other, mostly higher-brow cultural touchstones: Cormac McCarthy, Simone Weil, Sam Shepard, Raymond Carver, Marilynne Robinson, Bruce Nauman, Steven Spielberg. But I’m not alone in noticing Outer Range’s resemblance to Yellowstone; headline writers have made hay out of the similarities between the two shows. Allow me to briefly break them down.

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Yellowstone is about patriarch John Dutton (Kevin Costner), whose ranch, which has been in the family for generations, is constantly in danger of being split up and taken over. Despite the fact that he could sell it for enough money to, as Dutton’s daughter puts it, “buy half of Oklahoma,” he cannot bring himself to give it up. Outer Range is about patriarch Royal Abbott (Josh Brolin), whose ranch, which has been in his wife’s family for generations, is in danger of being encroached upon by his wealthier neighbor Wayne Tillerson. Royal’s sons remark to one another that they can’t compete with bigger commercial ranches and should have sold 10 years ago, but Royal cannot bring himself to give it up.

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[Read: What You’re Missing if You’re Not Watching Yellowstone, the Biggest Show on Cable]

Other echoes abound. In each show, there is a vanished mother (John Dutton’s wife, dead before the show begins; Royal’s son Perry Abbott’s wife, disappeared into the ether). There is a beautiful, sometimes troubled preteen who’s the only member of the youngest generation of the family (Yellowstone’s Tate and Outer Range’s Amy). Character actor Will Patton plays a campily evil father in each show (Garrett Randall, Jamie Dutton’s birth father, in Yellowstone; Tillerson, head of the neighboring ranching family, in Outer Range).* And there’s a blond hippie from a major Western city who comes to camp on the land and makes the old rancher Feel some Feelings (Summer, from Portland, in Yellowstone; Autumn, from Boulder, in Outer Range).

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Summer and Autumn! Are you kidding?! I really started to feel like Outer Range was fucking with me. But despite the obvious similarities, where the shows diverge is in how they comment on what the American West means to viewers in 2022. And the key to that difference lies in the main character of Outer Range.

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Royal arrives on the Abbott ranch at a young age, having experienced a family-annihilating tragedy, accidentally killing his father in a hunting accident. Though the show takes place in the present day, we find out in the penultimate episode of Outer Range that Royal, a settler child, killed his father in 1886. He couldn’t face telling his mother and sister and ran away, jumping into the time hole and emerging in 1967. Royal stumbled onto the Abbotts’ ranch, where he was adopted, and eventually fell in love with and married their daughter, Cecilia.

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This is where Yellowstone’s politics of history, which celebrate John Dutton for being, as he describes himself in Season 4, “the opposite of progress,” look increasingly retrograde in comparison to Outer Range’s weird philosophy of time. John Dutton is proud of his family for being deep-rooted settlers who are more connected to the land than the arriviste hipsters of Montana’s cities; he’s obsessed with the past and often flashes back to it. The Sheridan show 1883, a prequel to Yellowstone showing how the Duttons came to their land, did well with viewers last year, reinforcing a pillar of the universe’s self-belief: that the Duttons deserve their Montana land more than anyone else.

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Outer Range is much less convinced. Royal is literally from the 1880s, like those old, dead Duttons, and he’s just as rugged and dusty as John Dutton, but his connection to the Abbott land is very obviously about a lost person grasping onto something, anything, to stabilize his life. The time hole, and the themes of impermanence and overlap it brings, highlight how temporary any presence on the land truly is. In voice-over at the beginning of Episode 3, as the landscape fills with buffalo and tipis and cattle in rapid time-lapse waves, Royal says: “The land and the sky don’t give two shits.” As a time traveler, he has a distance from the world of contemporary Wyoming; the show uses that distance productively. “This family, this land, has always been like a dream to me,” Royal says. At the show’s best moments, it starts to look like a dream to us, too.

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The county assessor and Texan transplant who, bought off by the Tillersons, is going to help them take the Abbotts’ west pasture, says to Royal in an early episode, “I don’t know why you folks put up with all the oddities around here”—by which he means “immigrants, Indians, buffalo, Kanye West, Kim Kardashian.” It’s a funny moment, because Outer Range makes it clear that the “oddity” is not any of these things, but rather, the Abbotts and the Tillersons, who represent the hardscrabble and wealthy ways of being white and owning land in the West. In the climax of the last episode, the time hole vomits up buffalo, a mighty, pre-extirpation herd that, in a magnificent bit of symbolism, runs over multiple main characters. The Native sheriff, Joy Hawk (Tamara Podemski), stands on a bluff and watches the buffalo run.

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[Listen: Finding the Feminism in Western Movies]

This time-folding undoes all the settler cultural stability Yellowstone fetishizes, and even if Outer Range is uneven in tone, the show’s uncertainty about what the West is all about makes it so much more interesting. The uncertainty also transforms the family-of-ranchers plot so that the disintegration of the Abbott family has real emotional heft to it, much more so than the ever-ongoing, much-bemoaned dissolution of the Duttons, which begins to wear thin after four seasons. John Dutton goes on and on about how nobody wants to live in the lodge with him, guilting various sons and daughters into moving in, and then, when their significant others are like, “Obviously, I cannot live with your dad in his super fancy lodge forever,” looking mournfully out over the land.

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None of that Dutton back-and-forth has the punch of the last episode of Outer Range, when Cecilia, not knowing that one son has already vanished into the time hole, desperately sets the table for a kitchen-table family dinner she wants everyone to have later that night. One by one, that evening, the family members vanish—Perry into the time hole, Rhett leaving town with his girlfriend, Amy taken by her long-lost mother, Royal driving around on his mad mission to stop Autumn from taking the ranch from him by way of time magic. The passing buffalo rattle the lid of the Crock-Pot. Cecilia sits at the table, alone.

The next season of Outer Range will reveal how permanent this spinning-apart may be. I can’t wait to see what other parts of Yellowstone this Frankenstein’s monster of a show rips out to incorporate into its odd body. White supremacist militias? A bull let loose in a bar? Brands ripped off chests with knives? Whatever bits and bobs Outer Range decides to take next, I’m sure it’ll make them count.

Correction, May 9, 2022: This piece originally misidentified Will Patton as Josh Patton.

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