“This is where change begins.”
We’re a visual people, so most of you will recognize Taylor Sheridan from his role as a deputy chief of police in Sons of Anarchy when the controlled puppet regime had finally left the scene. It’s not a remarkable role, and it’s not a complete surprise that Sheridan found his calling more recently behind the camera. As a writer, his first script did hit it out of the park. Sicario is an awesome film populated with compelling and interesting characters who thrived on a broken system. That theme appears to have stuck with him, because the first season of Yellowstone appears to take us back in time to the days of open frontiers and cattle barons who struggled to keep their land amid lawless communities and raiding parties of American Indians who were portrayed as savage beasts who kill women and children in the middle of the night to become shadows of nightmares and the stories told to keep children in line. These themes are all there, but it takes place in a modern 2018 setting that does indeed make for an interesting new twist on an old idea. This is the dawning of the modern western where lands still stretch for miles and are still owned by a single family. It’s Bonanza in the 21st century, and Kevin Costner thought enough of the idea to star in this television drama series for The Paramount Network.
Kevin Costner plays John Dutton. The name itself recalls those years as a kid watching the myriad western shows that crossed our television screens throughout the 50’s and 60’s. He’s the owner of Yellowstone Ranch, which takes up hundreds of square miles and borders on the National Park of the same name, which we never do get to see. What we do see are the other borders of the Yellowstone. It borders a large and mostly impoverished Native American reservation. The ranch has apparently existed with an uneasy peace with the residents of the reservation. But there is a new chief in town. He’s Thomas Rainwater, played by Gil Birmingham. Rainwater has some kind of a grudge that we never got to completely understand in the first season. He’s a political beast who has turned Dutton and his ranch into a common enemy to fuel his own popularity and ambition.
All of this takes place in the open ranges of Montana, where the Yellowstone Ranch looks very much like the fabled Shiloh of The Virginian. There’s the big mansion where Dutton and some of his family live, and the bunkhouse where the cowboys who work the cattle sleep, play cards, eat, and fight. Looking over the scenery, one can almost imagine you were back in the days of the untamed frontier. That is until the helicopter swoops into view. John Dutton might have some old-fashioned ideas of how to make a living, but he’s a rich man who uses modern technology when it serves him. The ranch helicopter is the one concession to the modern age. He watches from the air during cattle drives and branding activities. As John Dutton looks down on his workers and their duties, there’s certainly at least a splash of symbolism to be found here.
Dutton considers himself a kind of god here. He rules the ranch with a brutal and iron fist. Being fired from Yellowstone isn’t quite like leaving a job at the mall. There’s also a caste system much like that found in the early days of the mafia. Dutton believes that people who have reached the bottom of their lives will be loyal if he becomes their savior. He recruits these “lost” souls into his ranch and its inner circle. But there is a price to be paid to join this elite group. You are branded with the same iron that is used on the cattle. That brand means no one else can touch you, and you’re a part of the ranch family for life. It’s like being made in the mob. Rip, played by Cole Hauser, is one of those lost souls that Dutton “saved” as a child. Now he’s his right-hand man and has grown fiercely loyal to the ranch. He’s not above breaking the law to do what it takes for the ranch.
Like Ben Cartwright, Dutton is a widower who lost his wife to an accident when his kids were still very young. His children are now grown and have their own kind of lives, but they are never completely out of the family business. These are the characters that bring the real drama to Yellowstone, where it becomes more like Dallas than Bonanza. There’s a lot of stubbornness in his children, and it poses more of a challenge for Dutton than the local reservation trying to steal his cattle and provoke a war.
Kelly Reilly is Beth Dutton, the only girl in the family, stronger and far colder than any of the sons. She is a corporate raider by profession but has left her job at a firm to return to the ranch where her father is more than willing to take advantage of her cutthroat instincts. She has been helping John hand-pick the state’s attorney general, and that’s in opposition to son Jamie, played by Wes Bentley. This season finds Jamie in a position where he is against the family and does some bad things. There’s an atonement here that requires Jamie to return to his roots as a humbled ranch hand. This is all after a tragic act that convinces Jamie that he’s just like the others. He just doesn’t have the stomach for it… yet. There is a secret here between Beth and Jamie. She hates him with such a passion that she tries to manipulate him into killing himself. The two actors have some terrifyingly wonderful chemistry, and I’m quite eager to find out where this all comes from. I suspect we will at some point.
Kayce Dutton is played by Luke Grimes and is one of the more compelling characters in the series. He didn’t want any part of the family business, and like Michael Corleone finds himself dragged into the conflict. He lived on the reservation with his Native-American wife and their son. She has left him because of his family. But there is a fierce love still there. Dutton brings him back by making him the ramrod, and that puts Rip’s loyalty to the test. Like Michael Corelone, Kayce is now being groomed to one day be the “boss” of the family business.
In the life of the hands, the best and most prominent continues to be Jimmy, played by Jefferson White. Jimmy is an awkward character who can’t seem to fit in and appears destined to play the part of the “low” man for the rest of his life. This season he finally finds something he’s good at, and it comes on the heels of some rather tragic events. He runs into old criminal partners who threaten him and his grandfather if he doesn’t come up with eight grand he owes them. He needs money, and Lloyd, played by real-life cowboy Forrie J. Smith, takes him under his wing, and they discover Jimmy has rodeo skills. It’s quite a tender moment between the characters as Lloyd comes to take pride in Jimmy as if he were his son. He’s happy that someone wants to follow in his rodeo-days footsteps. Lloyd was pretty much invisible to me last season, but he steps up this year big time.
This season finds two new “villains”. They are the Beck Brothers. Malcolm is played by perennial bad guy Neal McDonough. He’s terrorized the likes of Oliver Queen, better known as The Green Arrow, and the Desperate Housewives. He has evil down cold. His brother Teal is played by Terry Serpico. They are in control of the state’s liquor licenses and are putting pressure on the deal we saw last year between Dutton enemies Rainwater and Dan Jenkins, played incredibly by Danny Huston. When the brothers call on John Dutton to join their fight against these “common enemies”, Dutton refuses and also becomes a target of the brothers. In a rather unexpected turn of events, Dutton does join against a common enemy. He teams up with Rainwater and Jenkins for a completely uneasy alliance. What is it they say about strange bedfellows?
Speaking of bedfellows, we get more flashbacks to the days when the Dutton siblings were children. We see where Beth gets her swagger from and how a relationship formed with Rip when he was just a kid working on the ranch. We also get to meet John’s father in the guise of one of my favorite television actors, Dabney Coleman. We get to see their last moments together, and it gives us some emotional insight into why John Dutton is the man he is. Truth to be told, there really isn’t a “good guy” on the show. They all might have once had admirable motivations for who they are and what they do, but those days are long past.
Each episode is presented in its original broadcast aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec. This is a beautifully shot series. The open ranges look quite impressive in this high-definition image presentation. There’s absolutely a movie quality that pretty much all shows claim to have, but truly exists here. There’s a lot of texture to be found in the horses and dirty clothes of the cowboys. Colors are rather bright and realistic. Flesh tones are pretty much reference, and I can’t help thinking what this might look like in 4K. Black levels are also nice. Paramount doesn’t load the discs up with too many episodes, so you get respectable bit rates and no compression issues. This is the kind of thing that looks so much better on disc than it ever could through a video stream.
The Dolby Digital TruHD 5.1 track is a bit odd. Few discs are using this format anymore. It’s a nice mix. Not particularly aggressive, but it has its moments, particularly when the helicopter is being used. Otherwise this is a very dialog-driven show, and there’s some nice sub leaking into the dialog so that there’s some depth and authority there. The music is mostly subdued.
Behind The Story: Each episode as a 5-9-minute behind-the-scenes feature that looks at that particular episode. There are plenty of cast and crew interview clips as well as too many clips from the episode you just watched.
There is also a collection of several features with a total running time of over two hours. There’s a play-all option, but 90% of this stuff was already in the smaller features. You get some deleted scenes, and the best feature is the Stories From The Bunkhouse, where three of the ranch hand actors talk about each episode over a poker game.
I kind of like the idea of a modern western, and this one has just enough elements of those classic shows and films to rise above the dynastic prime-time soap operas like Dallas. Costner has never been one of my favorite actors, but there isn’t a lot demanded from him here. He can play the quiet heavy, and it works both for him and the character. I’m certainly interested in where the story goes from here. I think that Sheridan is onto something here that can evolve into something special. He doesn’t have the television cred yet. But I loved this second season. “Now we start working on the new one.”