“It’s called life.”
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. 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. 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.
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.
The first episode begins exactly where the third season ended. There was a coordinated attack on the Dutton family. Patriarch John (Costner) has been gunned down. Daughter Beth (Reilly) was in her office when it exploded, and Kaycee (Grimes) was in his office at the Cattlemen’s Association where he’s their law officer, when men armed with assault rifles attacked. The attack involved a ton of people, and they were all timed to happen simultaneously. The season ended with a big question mark. Did any of the Duttons survive? We’re about to find out. If you haven’t watched the previous season, you don’t want to read this review. I’m going to give out what would be considered spoilers for the third season in order to describe the fourth.
The first episode delivers the rest of the attack with Kaycee going absolute commando as he chases down some of the bad guys and shoots them to such ribbons it makes what happened to Sonny Corleone look like a paper cut. It’s a frantic finish to the fight.
Then we jump ahead about two months. John has been in a coma and has finally wakened to the news of how bad the attack really was. Beth’s body is scarred by burns, and she has a gash on her face that leaves quite a large scar. Kaycee’s family had to fight off one of the bad guys, and his son ended up killing the assailant before he could kill Monica (Asbille). It appears the only one not hurt is adopted son Jamie (Bentley), and that makes Beth believe he was behind the attack.
Beth really gets the biggest chunk of screen time and attention this season. She and Rip end up moving into the mansion because Rip’s home was burned to the ground in the attack. She also befriends a young boy while visiting her father at the hospital. She ends up standing with him as his father dies of an overdose of heroin. She sees a bit of Rip in the troubled child and brings him home to the ranch. Rip isn’t happy at first, and the kid does his fair share of trying to screw up this opportunity, but even Rip sees something in the kid. Beth also is on the offensive with Market Equities, the company building an airport on nearby property. She finally meets a woman as strong and as ruthless as she is in Caroline Warner, played by Jacki Weaver. The two butt heads hard enough to shake buildings. Beth ends up accepting a deal to work for the company, but she takes it to get revenge on some of the employees she’s had trouble with and in the hope of sabotaging the project from the inside. Her lack of scruples in that fight pits her against her father and the one thing she cares most about in the world … his approval. She uses an environmentalist that John’s befriended rather intimately and puts her in the position of facing life in prison. So it’s a big season if you’re a Beth fan. This is absolutely her year.
For Kaycee it’s more about protecting his own family. They end up getting a place of their own so they can heal emotionally while his son recovers from his own nightmares of killing a man. He ends up embracing some Native American ways and seeks spiritual guidance.
Jamie is having a reconciliation with his own father, played by Will Paxton. He’s finally gotten a spread of his own. He’s reunited with his son and wife, and he’s going to be endorsed by the governor to replace her as she runs for the Senate. But Jamie isn’t fated to ever be happy, it appears. John steps in to deprive him of a shot at the governorship, and he discovers some dark secrets about his father that push him to cross a line he always thought separated him from the “real” Duttons. It doesn’t help that Beth is trying to make his life miserable and assures him she’s going to kill him. It’s another bad year for Jamie, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to get any better in Season 5.
In the bunkhouse it’s Jimmy (White) who gets to shine. John is angry that Jimmy broke his word and went back to the rodeo where he was almost killed. Jimmy wears the brand, and we know where that usually leads a branded cowboy. You know that little cliff just over the state line? But Jimmy’s special, and so John sends him to a famous ranch in Texas to see if he can grow up and become a real cowboy. There he does a lot of growing up and falls in love with a vet named Emily (Kelly). Jefferson White does a great job of playing out these changes in Jimmy, but it’s possible that Jimmy’s growth might be the end of his character on the show. I hope it’s not.
The stand out is Lloyd, who is played by Forrie J. Smith, who himself was a rodeo man and cowboy for 50 years. He lends the greatest bit of authenticity here and is just becoming a compelling personality. Lloyd gets a great arc this season. He’s starting to feel like the ways of the job are passing him by. He’s unhappy Jimmy is being sent away, and Walker (Bingham) is getting under his skin. He starts to mess up and then gets into a couple of fights that pits him reluctantly against Rip, who loves him but has discipline to maintain. Smith gives this show a lot of its emotional center. He’s the link between the old ways and the modern days, and for a guy who wasn’t really an actor, he has been my favorite character to watch, more this season than ever before. He just comes across as the character on the show I’d most want to hang out with in real life. Come on over, Forrie. I make a mean meatball. Speaking of food, we learn that real chili doesn’t have beans, and so I hope my wife doesn’t happen to catch that episode.
Finally, more about the young new cast member. Finn Little plays young Carter, and he’s become a compelling part of the story. I kind of like the fish-out-of-water kind of stories, and he has become the audience representative on the show. Welcome aboard, Finn.
Each episode is presented in its original broadcast aspect ratio of 2.00:1. 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 three hours. There’s a play-all option, but 70% of this stuff was already in the smaller features. The best feature is the Stories From The Bunkhouse, where three of the ranch hand actors talk about each episode over a poker game.
We’re about to get a prequel series that takes place in the 1800’s and takes us back to the Dutton family’s origins with the ranch. It’s going to feature my second favorite Western actor of all time. The first is Clint Eastwood, but you gotta love Sam Elliott. You will get a taste of the past in a couple of flashbacks to that era that feature country and western music couple Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, who are married in real life and play an earlier generation of Duttons. There’s not much here, but I look at it as a taste of what we can expect from the new series. I don’t know what that series will really be like, but when you examine the wonderful writing, directing, acting, and cinematography of this series, I’d say “We have a frame of reference.”