Hyperprolific showrunner Taylor Sheridan, of Yellowstone fame, loves to resurrect dinosaurs and make them into leading men. Sheridan’s May–December romances are relatively moderate—Yellowstone’s Kevin Costner (age 67), has, at various points in the series, bedded a hottie governor of Montana (played by Wendy Moniz, age 53—sure, sure) and a petulant West Coast vegan (Piper Perabo, 46—hm). In 1923, the new Yellowstone prequel, Harrison Ford (80) is paired with Helen Mirren (77—appropriate!).
That’s not bad, all told! Nothing like what goes on in a Woody Allen or Clint Eastwood movie. And yet, there’s something about being asked to swallow all these extremely, uh, classico men as linchpins of television series that hurts, a little. These plots are standard masculinity pathos. The patriarch in winter? The lion in his den, observing his power recede as the world changes, and he loses his grip? People don’t do what you want anymore? Every woman on earth is crying you a river.
This general sense of meh-ness around Sheridan’s lead actors is why we found ourselves mildly confused to be actually riveted by Sylvester Stallone’s turn as Dwight Manfredi in Sheridan’s Tulsa King, the Paramount+ series that’s about halfway through its first season. Stallone is 75. Yet there’s something about Manfredi, the Mafia capo who spends 25 years in prison, emerging to be rewarded for his loyalty with a not-so-plum spot in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that is actually—oh please, no, help—kind of hot.
How did Taylor Sheridan and Sylvester Stallone do this, and how can we keep from it happening again? A Gen X-er and a millennial discuss.
Rebecca Onion: Cheyna, when was the first time you realized that Dwight Manfredi could get it? And did you have any interest in Sylvester Stallone beforehand? I, for one, had not.
Cheyna Roth: Rebecca, can I please say that I am so grateful you asked me to do this with you because my feelings on all things Sly have been an absolute brain scramble. I knew Stallone as Rocky, and quite honestly did not find him attractive in his youth. Ripped meatheads who mumble a lot are usually not my thing. Plus, by the time I came of age, Rocky was already a punchline. I was absolutely floored when I was watching the first episode and found myself thinking, “Is … is this man hot?”
My feelings began at a very specific scene. Stallone takes a bunch of bachelorettes to a strip club, and while he’s sitting there essentially playing guardian, he notices one of the women getting felt up by a creep. He walks over, gut punches the guy in a way that doesn’t draw attention from anyone but the guy, who now can’t breathe, puts the creep’s hat back on him, and walks away while adjusting his shirt collar. It’s a subtle protectiveness that I am ashamed to admit I found, from the safety of my couch, attractive. Then it’s compounded when he’s flirting with one of the partygoers, Stacy, who eventually becomes his love interest. It’s cute. It’s playful. It’s got a hint of danger. So despite this man looking like, as my husband said, a melting candle, I was head over heels by the time Stallone exited the club and put his coat around Stacy’s shoulders.
I’m apparently very much susceptible to old-school masculinity in ways that I—a feminist and producer of Slate’s own feminist podcast The Waves—expected to be above. Do I need to have my feminist card revoked and find a new job?
I would never say so! And he does look like a melting candle. But even so, there is something fetching about the contrast between his black eyebrows and silver hair. When Stacy (who is, by the way, played by Andrea Savage, age 49, which—!) ends up in bed with Dwight in the first episode, after the night out that you describe above, we don’t see the action, but we totally understand how it could end up happening. The next morning, Stacy is putting her clothes on when she finally finds out how old Dwight actually is. She confesses that she thought he was “a hard 55,” and honestly, I see it. She describes the gap between them as “more like an age canyon.” I thought, after that scene, that I would die laughing at Taylor Sheridan if this woman ended up dating this man long-term, and I would possibly not return to Tulsa King.
But despite the fact that Stacy and Dwight are now on-again, off-again, I stayed. And my theory is that it has to do with Dwight Manfredi’s wry attitude toward the world. I know you are also a Yellowstone watcher, so I think this contrast may hit home. Kevin Costner’s John Dutton is probably more handsome, in a conventional way, but he’s always so pissed off and grim, it feels like he’s embodying the worst traits of an older person who’s trying to hold onto the world and make it bend to his will. Dwight Manfredi’s life is bad (his daughter is rightfully angry at him for leaving her to grow up alone; the fellow mafiosi he sacrificed a quarter-century of his life for are betraying him; his brother dies right after he gets out of prison, and he has to say goodbye over FaceTime), but he has this sort of continuing interest in the new that makes him funny to watch. I liked the scene where he goes with his new confederates to a weed farm, and ends up eating THC-infused apricot preserves, for example.
Am I getting anywhere with this? Or am I also just really into the Taylor Sheridan vibe in general, and making up excuses?
I think you’re spot on! There are absolutely some physically attractive traits about this man—his lush hair for one, his carved-from-granite form for another. And the fact that his romance is not with a flighty 20-something but with a worldly middle-aged woman is extremely attractive because it shows a non-physical maturity that you wouldn’t expect from a guy just getting out of the clink.
One of the things I’ve noticed on a rewatch—for research purposes only, obviously—is that the show really goes out of its way, from the start, to show Dwight as a nuanced man. He’s not your average bruiser. To use a Sopranos reference, he’s a Furio, a dedicated thug with a beating heart. For instance, in the opening scene of the show when he’s talking in voiceover about how the life of crime wasn’t worth what it cost him, there’s a lingering shot on a stack of books: The Laws of Human Nature by Robert Greene, Faust, Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche, Othello by William Shakespeare and—most important for our purposes—Middlemarch by George Eliot. Is this book stack giving a little “college syllabus”? Sure. But it includes an epic tome written by a woman, with strong female characters and some delightful romance.
Then there’s his relationship with his driver Tyson (played by an amazing Jay Will). When Tyson can’t buy a car with the cash Dwight gives him because the salesman thinks a Black man with that kind of money must be a crack dealer, Dwight doesn’t just go buy the car himself—he schools the man on who he should really be afraid of. And because it means making a racist afraid, Dwight leaves with the higher ground (if you, as a viewer, can set the white savior undertones aside). We see Dwight as being a man who lives by a code, who wears his regrets and guilt on his sleeve, who has a sense of humor, who creates his own crew of misfit toys by always being open to bringing new people into his fold and lifting them up (in his own, albeit, illegal way).
One thing I found as I watched was that as the series went on, the shine on Dwight started to dim. And it really took a header when (spoilers ahead) Dwight killed a man who raped his daughter. Which I get! Should probably make him more likable—he stood up for his daughter. The guy was a lowlife. But I’m so so sick of the trope of using a woman’s pain (usually rape) as an impetus for violence by a man and to move a man’s storyline forward. Rebecca, have your feelings about Dwight/Stallone’s attractiveness evolved throughout the show?
For sure. We are about halfway through the season, and I really hope that Dwight doesn’t spend the rest of it doing violence on behalf of the younger people who surround him, his actual and surrogate children—his daughter, his driver, the poor weed-store owner who’s found himself ensnared in all this (Martin Starr, always great), the bar owner who becomes his partner (Garret Hedlund)—and then debating whether doing that violence was the right thing. The scene where he kills the rapist was fairly horrifying—thanks for that crunch and snap, Tulsa King foley artist!—and also honestly pretty boring. We’ve seen that before!
I have hope that perhaps, the rest of the season might see Dwight truly examining whether the old Mafia ways of doing things are the right ways. It feels like Sheridan et al. are setting him up for that. At the very least, he has paused a few times on the threshold of conflict and contemplated using diplomacy instead. But so far, it’s always been back to the guns and the fists, a type of forceful masculinity that it would be much more interesting to see an ex-pugilist who’s basically shaped like a rectangle forswear in favor of more subtle means of persuasion.
How do you think they should develop the relationship with Stacy? What, do you think, would be the way their situation might go that would restore and preserve Dwight’s shine in your eyes?
Boring! Yes! Exactly the right word for that violence. And precisely my concern for the relationship with Stacy going forward. What I loved about those two in the first handful of episodes is Stacey and Dwight felt very much on the same level. She is an ATF agent, exiled to Tulsa because she had a breakdown after she saw the Sully plane crash and thought 9/11 was happening again. They didn’t do the old “She’s gotta keep her job a secret from him” bit. Instead she knocks on his door and tells him what’s what and says she’s not going to help him. But they still have cute little meetups and the scene when she tells him about when she “lost my shit” is a very sweet scene. It’s nice to see a female character given such depth and having a reason for losing her shit at work that doesn’t involve a man.
But since then … ugh, they’re really flattening her, I feel. She’s now seen often with a drink in her hand, her conversations with Dwight are stilted and businesslike, and she’s helping Dwight in a way that could really mess up her career.
So what I would like is to give Stacey more badass time. Let’s see her taking down more of those white supremacist biker gang members on her own (and please stop calling them “1 percenters,” Taylor Sheridan!!! They’re “3 percenters.” “1 percenters” were what the Occupy Wall Street people called rich folks). Let’s have a side mission for Stacy that is completely removed from Dwight, and that showcases her skills. And I think restoring Stacy a bit would shine up Dwight. These two sizzle with chemistry when they’re allowed to be playful. Let them do that! Let’s have Dwight get into a benign, non-illegal scrap that Stacy has to roll her eyes and get him out of. Let Dwight send her a few dog toys for her new pooch. This show is at its best when it’s not taking itself too seriously—and seeing Dwight stoned out of his mind in the car was one of the highlights that made him attractive. We’ve been watching Stallone punch guys for literal decades. I want to see him laugh.
Agreed. I think, after processing this through chat, that if Stallone is the only 75-year-old I’ve ever been willing to tolerate as a lead actor who’s got romances going on with much younger women, the reasons why are the same reasons I actively rush to watch new Tulsa King episodes, where a half-season of Yellowstones might languish in my Paramount+ queue, until I sigh and get to them. Sly’s got dash, and so does the show. I hope it stays that way.