Television

Yellowstone’s Beefy Fantasy

How the biggest show on cable sells cattle ranching to the world.

Two men in cowboy hats sit on horses in front of the mountains.
Paramount Pictures

In the opening scene of the pilot episode of Taylor Sheridan’s hit TV show Yellowstone, we see the wealthy landowner and rancher John Dutton (Kevin Costner) stagger away from a truck-and-trailer accident, and then use his pistol to euthanize a badly injured horse. It’s an effective start, particularly because it highlights the Manichean clash of good and evil that will drive the series: rural life versus the modernity of engines, speed, and pavement.

But Dutton’s one spoken line in the scene signals another of the show’s themes: the fantasy of ethical meat. After shooting the horse, Dutton looks out at a nearby field and sees a small herd of his cattle grazing.

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“The things we lose to keep you fed,” he says in soliloquy.

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The comment tells us that to Dutton, ranching is a high-stakes endeavor. Numerous lives, both animal and human, are lost over the course of the show. But Dutton’s soliloquy is also a nod to the specific relationship between humans and cattle. This isn’t just aesthetic, as in Yellowstone’s many romanticized, slow-motion shots of ranchers and cowboys herding and tending to cattle. Instead, amid the furious melodrama of Dutton’s fight against the modern world, several important questions emerge over the course of the show’s four-plus seasons. Is cattle ranching even sustainable in the 21st century—especially in a Western U.S. suffering from a drought of near-biblical proportions? If it isn’t, why does it rouse such fierce loyalty in people—those who work as ranchers, and the many, many more who watch and love Yellowstone? What about the animals themselves? Are they simply beasts we raise and consume, conditions be damned? Or is there a more intimate relationship between human and nonhuman that requires our attention and action?

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Not that the show offers clear answers to these sorts of heady questions. On the one hand, most of the characters follow Dutton’s lead in viewing cattle ranching as a social and even moral imperative. This is perhaps most clearly articulated in a Season 3 exchange between Dutton and a senior ranch hand named Lloyd (Forrie J. Smith). The two are looking out at a herd of cattle grazing in a large field, and the backdrop is the majestic, snow-capped mountains of Darby, Montana, where much of the show is filmed.

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Lloyd: “Nothing prettier on this earth.”

Dutton: “It’s as free as a man can be.”

Lloyd: “Makes you wonder. Who’s gonna feed this world when there’s none of us left?”

Dutton: “Nobody, Lloyd. This world’s just gonna go hungry.”

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Here, as elsewhere in the series, Dutton’s ranch becomes the symbolic source of the world’s food supply. The problem is that, at most, Lloyd and Dutton are gazing out at perhaps 200 cattle. To state the obvious, most of the world’s cattle are elsewhere, and they don’t graze on grass in vast, beautiful fields like the ones owned by Dutton. Quite to the contrary, as even a cursory Google search about beef production will tell you, conditions are often inhumane, especially once cattle are moved to feedlots at about a year of age. According to the Humane League, approximately 70 percent of the 40 million beef cattle slaughtered in the U.S. each year are raised and killed on factory farms, where overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, and substandard feed are the norm. Moreover, as the National Humane Education Society explains, cattle ranching has a devastating effect on the environment. To produce a pound of steak, factory farmers use 2,500 gallons of water and a gallon of gasoline, and destroy 35 pounds of topsoil. In tropical countries like Brazil, rainforest land is being cleared at an alarming rate for beef cattle farming. Simply put, the industry is a direct and major contributor to global warming.

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Sheridan, who is Yellowstone’s creator and main writer, allows for this critique. Consider a carpetbagging California land developer named Dan Jenkins (Danny Huston), an antagonist in the early seasons of the show, who gets in a heated exchange with Dutton over a plan to build a hotel and casino complex on the border of Dutton’s land. “What do you care what I build? You expect me to believe that you’re concerned about the environment? You raise cattle, you fucking hypocrite,” Jenkins says. It’s true that Jenkins is depicted as a soulless fool. But he’s right about the environmental impact of cattle ranching, and Dutton knows it.

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Dutton’s awareness of the environmental crisis becomes especially evident midway through Season 4. This is when a young woman named Summer Higgins (Piper Perabo) leads a group of protesters outside the Livestock Commission in Bozeman. Here, like a repressed memory surfacing to full consciousness, the discourse of eco-resistance bursts into the narrative full force. “We’re here protesting the existence of a state-sponsored police force that protects industrialized animal farming and the mass murder of millions of animals every year,” Higgins says. The line is overscripted, and we understand that, like Jenkins, Higgins is something of a caricature. She is a politically correct vegan from Portland whose sense of virtue and self-righteousness is blinkered to the point of absurdity.

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West Coast veganism notwithstanding, Higgins, through sheer force of character (and, possibly, personal attractiveness), elicits an acknowledgment from Dutton, and thus from Yellowstone, that climate change is real and that environmental collapse is more than an abstract possibility. Dutton gives Higgins a tour of the ranch, and the two have the following exchange.

Higgins: “I don’t think the planet’s gonna tolerate us much longer.”

Dutton: “That’s because people have stopped living with it and started living on it. But you’re right. There will come a time when the earth sheds us like a dead skin.”

Higgins: “I’m surprised you can see that from here.”

Dutton: “You can see it from anywhere, Summer. It’s impossible to miss.”

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Clearly, Dutton believes in climate change. But he also feels that if everyone would live “with” the land, as he does, then all would be well. In fact, he repeats this line almost verbatim at the recent start of Season 5, in his first speech as governor of Montana. This is also the source of his frustration in Season 3 about “these people in the city suing us and complaining about the way we raise the food they eat.” Ditto his Season 1 complaint that “someone kills a bear, and 10,000 vegans send letters to their congressman.” Dutton concedes there’s a problem, but he thinks the blame rests with the city, not the country.

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Again, though, Dutton’s version of living with the land isn’t realistic. Not everyone can live on a ranch that is, as another of Dutton’s rivals puts it, the size of Rhode Island. But again, Yellowstone isn’t interested in realism. Instead, it’s fantasy entertainment—and the fantasy here is that multispecies relations on a cattle ranch are both ethical and sustainable.

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This is one way to explain the repeated emphasis in the series on the intersection of the human and animal. Consider, for example, the dramatic scene early in Season 2 when Dutton suddenly begins spitting up blood and then collapses in the Yellowstone ranch horse corral. Fortunately for Dutton, the ranch’s veterinarian is on hand. Within minutes, he’s lifted onto the table usually reserved for livestock, and X-rayed. Not surprisingly, given the show’s penchant for theatrics, the situation is dire. Dutton has a perforated ulcer, and even with a helicopter at his disposal, the ranch is too far from a hospital for him to receive timely medical care. Instead, the vet has no choice but to pull out her medical bag and perform an emergency operation to cauterize the site, sans anesthesia. Dutton, that is to say, is reduced to the status of one of his ranch animals.

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Is this a bad thing? Not in the world according to Yellowstone. It turns out the vet’s diagnosis corrects the inaccurate suggestion from Dutton’s oncologist that he may have a recurrence of colon cancer. It’s as if, by treating him like a sick animal, the vet has cured Dutton of a pernicious human disease (one often linked, we should add, to the overconsumption of red meat). Better, it seems, to be part animal (especially part cattle) than all human.

This same logic is at work in the ranch’s otherwise mystifying practice of literally branding many of its hands on the chest with the Yellowstone Y—the same brand seared into the flesh of Dutton’s cattle. There are multiple scenes in which we see humans marked in this way. And these aren’t just low-status laborers. Dutton’s son Kayce (Luke Grimes) bears the brand on his chest, as does Rip (Cole Hauser), the ranch foreman and Dutton’s eventual son-in-law. The somewhat vague explanation is that the Y is reserved for criminals and ex-cons who’ve been given a second chance by Dutton and have agreed to commit to that second chance wholeheartedly. But the brand also indicates that, like cattle, the characters who are branded belong to Dutton.

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This, indeed, is the critique that the branded ranch hand Jimmy (Jefferson White) receives from his girlfriend Mia (Eden Brolin). “Do you know what a brand means?” she asks him in Season 4. “You brand something so that if it gets lost, everyone knows who it belongs to. … Don’t be one of that rich man’s cattle.”

Mia’s advice is well intentioned. But it’s a sign she doesn’t understand the logic of the Yellowstone ranch. Jimmy and the other ranch hands want to be Dutton’s cattle—and not simply as an act of subservience. Rather, to be cattle, or part cattle, is a means of living with the land, and not on it. In fact, Mia’s disconnect is probably the reason her relationship with Jimmy doesn’t last. Instead, he becomes engaged to a veterinarian he meets at the famous 6666 Ranch, in Texas. One senses that, as with the vet who operated on Dutton, Jimmy’s fiancée will help him blur the line between himself and the cattle he works with.

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Again, this is the stuff of popular mass culture fantasy. But in Yellowstone, this is how you survive the coming environmental apocalypse. You turn back the clock, and you create a storyline whereby you aren’t responsible for what Bill McKibben notably termed “the end of nature.” Rather, you see yourself as part of the original order of things. And if you’re as stubborn as Dutton, you might even see yourself as part of the solution.

In the recently aired Episode 4 of Season 5, Dutton pardons the vegan Summer Higgins after she has been jailed for her violent animal rights activism. “Help me understand you,” he says. The line implies that Dutton-as-governor might enact legislation that addresses factory farming. But this is unlikely. Indeed, in the ensuing episode, we learn that Higgins must spend six months at the Yellowstone ranch, where, it seems, her job will be to act as audience to Dutton’s more authentic connection to the land and the animals he raises on it. Dutton, in other words, will remain committed to the fantasy of living with the land—only now with the power of the state behind him. Dutton’s election as governor of Montana may be the point at which the show truly reveals its inner ideological workings. For as governor, Dutton is now the figure through whom politics, corporate economics (Big Beef and, by extension, Big Agricultural lobbying), and fantasy join hands out in the open.

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The question is whether this acknowledgment of the reality of corporate agriculture—and its attendant systemic violence to animals and the environment—will puncture the seductive appeal of the show’s nostalgia. Because at its core, Yellowstone offers a specific fantasy bribe to its millions of devoted fans. By imagining the Yellowstone ranch as a kind of Eden, the show allows viewers to envision a harmonious stewardship of the land. The price for this illusion is to accept the fact that Dutton’s benevolent dominion masks what we all want not to know: Big Ag is unsustainable and a major driver of climate change. And what this implies is that, though fans may rejoice in Dutton’s various triumphs over his enemies, the audience is shut out from the spoils of those victories, just as surely as we were all shut out of Eden, never to return.

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