As a certified Yellowstone sicko who has been oddly compelled to watch every minute of Taylor Sheridan’s flagship show, full as it is of highly analyzable propaganda for cattle, hats, and the American way, I was surprised to find myself with a new feeling after watching the back-to-back episodes that open its fifth season: boredom, plus a little bit of sadness and fear. Yellowstone has always been reactionary, interested only in the feelings of a family of settlers that has owned a ranch since, well, around 1883, but now its concerns have narrowed, its flesh becoming gaunt and its culture-war bones poking closer to the surface.
There are soapy B and C plots in these first two episodes—a car accident leads to a lost pregnancy, two siblings torment one another as part of an ongoing rivalry—but the main dish is politics. It’s always been part of the show, to be sure, but now the subtext is text. John Dutton (Kevin Costner) has won a race to become Montana’s new GOP governor, telling the electorate that his opponent is “East Coast politics invading the mountains.” His signs read “Dutton: For the Land.”
At the beginning of the first episode, John is mostly pissed off about having won his election, because John Dutton is truly never satisfied. The season opens with him staring into the distance on election night, telling his daughter Beth (Kelly Reilly), who is his all-purpose aide and forever-loyal Girl Friday, when she congratulates him: “Joy ain’t what I’m feeling.” The Democratic candidate, who’s only lived in Montana for nine years, calls to concede. He asks John, putting a quavering question mark at the end of the sentence: “Hope you’ll fight as hard for my supporters as I’d fight for yours?” John replies, no hesitation: “I fight for what’s right. I don’t really care who supports it.”
This statement triggered an immediate eyeroll from me, accompanied by a jack-off motion. Immature, perhaps, but that’s more and more what Yellowstone deserves, as it continues its game of testing how far will we go to stay on John Dutton’s side. Multiple times, in the course of these two episodes, we hear straight from his mouth that he has only become governor in order to keep a proposed development project from ruining his ranch. In past seasons, through a series of negotiations, a bunch of city slickers have won the right to put in an airport and a housing development. You better believe John Dutton will do anything to stop this—even become a single-issue governor, caring only about running “out-of-staters” (including the money people funding this development, one of whom improbably calls the Duttons—wealthy and politically connected beyond belief—“fucking hillbillies”) out of town. They simply do not, you see, understand the importance of The Land—especially John Dutton’s ranch.
John Dutton has the governor’s office, but he does not want to be there. Mournful music plays over the scene of his inauguration, as a young Black girl sings the Star-Spangled Banner, her presence at this all-GOP party reinforcing the point Tressie McMillan Cottom made about the show earlier this year in the New York Times: Yellowstone, while being “conservative” if you use that word at its bluntest, is “multiethnic, multiracial, and multiclass,” offering “nominal diversity” that “implies that conservatives don’t hate anyone, as long as everyone is willing to conform to their way of life.” After the girl is done singing, Dutton tells the audience he’ll cancel the airport project. More than that, he’s going to tax the heck out of anyone who comes from out of state. He’ll double their property taxes, add a 6 percent sales tax, and new vehicle registration fees.
“The message I will send is this,” he says, each word almost mournful in its gruffness, in the Dutton way. “We are not your playground, we are not your haven from the pollution and traffic and mismanagement of your home states. This is our home. If you choose to make Montana your home, you will start treating it like a home, and not a vacation rental.”
Yellowstone has barely acknowledged the pandemic—when, in an episode a few seasons ago, a newscaster on Beth’s car radio mentioned something about the coronavirus, I started in confusion, so absent had it been from the action of the plot—but the way the show is leaning into its long-held rural antagonism to outsiders feels like a response to the post-2020 migration from urban centers—especially to places like Montana. In the second episode of the new season, Beth is drinking in a bar when a tanned, well-put-together man approaches her and tries to strike up a conversation. She cuts him down as if she’s acting out the Marine Todd meme in real life:
You’re a professor somewhere fancy. Got a couple grown kids. Once they left the house your wife divorced you so fast she left skidmarks, but how nice for you, huh? Let me guess. No longer cool to boink the co-eds, so you decided fuck this city, got a nice little place in Bozeman, ’cause it’s your favorite place to ski. And now you teach Zoom classes from the living room of your creekside cabin and lecture about inequity and the concentration of wealth and how it’s decimating the middle class, all while you draw your six-figure salary to finance your dream home with a loan from the university that is 275 basis points below the loans your students need to take out to listen to this bullshit—and my guess, if I had to guess, is that you paid over asking price for it. Because it’s just fucking Monopoly money to you, isn’t it. So, you run up the house prices here, and you fuck the middle classes in two states. Bravo, you fucking hypocrite.
This scene accounted for a lot of my uneasiness upon re-encountering Yellowstone this season. I watch this show for the soap, for the Western scenery, and as an object of sociological interest. Then, every once in a while, a curtain falls to the side, and I realize that I (or, more accurately, the person the show imagines me to be) am actually its enemy.
It feels like many people in the United States (yes, upper-middle-class people like this skiing professor) have started to think more intently about internal migration: leaving cities to get some space from COVID; leaving red states for political reasons; plotting out where best to weather the effects of climate change. Yellowstone’s always had it in for anyone who hasn’t lived in Montana for generations, but this season seems like a step up—a COVID-intensified antagonism for anyone who likes the way the land looks, but who hasn’t earned the view.
In one scene in that second episode, John, Beth, and Jamie are riding in a limo, fighting over John’s plans to cancel the airport. Jamie, an attorney who is the most worldly of all the Duttons (and therefore, of course, the most villainous), can’t understand why John won’t sell the ranch, or allow the airport to build; he’s losing money every year. Beth volunteers that she’s found at least one way to make money: charging the Dutton campaign, through a shell company, $1.5 million for the governor’s inauguration party. (I have no idea how this isn’t a veiled reference to the Trumps, another dynasty with Dutton-ish internal dynamics.) “We’re going to jail,” Jamie moans.
Well, if the Trumps are any guide, they’re not! But the real reason they’re not, in Yellowstone and outside of it, is because of guys like the limo driver, who says, after John asks for confidentiality regarding what he’s just heard: “I won’t say a word, Governor. Except this—if I had your ranch, I’d do the same thing.” Dutton approves: “You make sure this is my driver every time.”
Yellowstone is a show for people who imagine themselves to be John Dutton: embattled, operating with black-and-white certainty, fighting against a world that demands compromise. Viewers who actually like this show—not “like it” in the way I do, where I make that jack-off motion three times an episode, and seek out critical essays about it to read when I’m done—consider themselves real Montanans at heart, fighting a rear-guard action against the movement of capital and people across state lines. What percentage of Yellowstone’s many viewers, I wonder, would be welcome in John Dutton’s Montana? I’m not even sure it matters.