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Yellowstone is one of TV’s biggest hits. What’s Yellowstone, anyway?

Yellowstone is a ranch-set Succession, with murder, Kevin Costner, and red-state America’s blind spots.

Yellowstone’s John and Tate wear cowboy hats and stand in tall grass, mountains in the background.
John Dutton (Kevin Costner) and his grandson Tate (Brecken Merrill) hang out in Big Sky Country on Yellowstone. (You can’t see the big sky, because of the mountain.)
Paramount Network

A tyrannical father flaunts his copious wealth for all to see. His four children snipe and backbite about each other. They include an eldest son who offers little, a second son who is the tortured heir apparent, a business-savvy daughter who’s the father’s favorite (though he would never say so), and a youngest son who is kind of a fuckup but also is clearly going to take over the family business when all is said and done.

The daughter’s love interest and a gangly goofball who has little to do with the main family unit form an unlikely comedic duo. The family is beset on all sides by those who would slice up its empire and gobble it whole. Oh, and they spend a lot of time feuding with the government.

Does that sound like an exact description of Succession? Because technically, it’s an exact description of Succession. But it’s also an exact description of a different cable drama that is significantly more popular, viewership-wise: the Paramount Network’s Kevin Costner-starring primetime soap Yellowstone. Where Succession takes place against the backdrop of the New York media world, Yellowstone takes place on a massive ranch in the middle of Montana. Does that make Yellowstone a red-state version of Succession? That’s a really reductive statement, so I’d never say that, but if you want to say it, I won’t stop you.

Succession drew a respectable 564,000 viewers for its season three premiere in October. But Yellowstone drew 4.23 million viewers for its own season three premiere in June 2020. (It returns for season four on November 7.) And while a lot of Succession’s audience comes from streaming — which is impossible to measure as precisely as live TV viewership, and likely makes Succession more popular than its live ratings would suggest — Yellowstone, which also gains some viewership from streaming, is almost certainly still more popular.

Often when I mention all of the above to someone who is a millennial or younger, the response is either, “I’ve never even heard of this show. The Paramount Network? What?” or “Oh, my mom loves that show.” Compared to Succession, a prestige series on HBO and an established critical darling whose second and third seasons have been the subject of endless online discourse, Yellowstone barely registers among people who talk about television on the internet.

But if you poke around online long enough, you’ll find a thriving Yellowstone fandom. There are T-shirts on Etsy! YouTube fan speculation videos with hundreds of thousands of views! A small but mighty collection of fanfics about the show’s main will-they/won’t-they pairing! Which means the secret hit must have tapped into something in the culture, right? Secret hits usually have. Maybe Yellowstone can tell us something about the way we live today.

But Yellowstone, a watchable yet almost relentlessly three-out-of-five-stars TV show, is not particularly interested in saying anything grand or sweeping about the world. Instead, like so many TV hits before it, Yellowstone is comforting and loud, and it doesn’t rock the boat all that much. Ultimately, that might explain both its appeal and what it says accidentally, in the end, about America in 2021.

Yellowstone is a show about how when you own a ranch, you have to kill many people (and/or about how working on a ranch builds character)

John and Beth look at someone just off-camera. They’re both wearing very nice cowboy hats.
John (Kevin Costner) and his only daughter Beth (Kelly Reilly) face off with some unscrupulous big-city folks.
Paramount Network

The natural question, if you haven’t seen Yellowstone, is: Well, what’s it about? The answer is: It’s about 15 or 16 separate things, depending on the episode. (Seriously, there’s always a lot going on.) For purposes of this overview, however, we’re going to boil down the show to the two most common versions of it, which amount to two very different shows, haphazardly stitched together into one.

First things first: Yellowstone, which was created by screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (Hell or High Water, Sicario, Wind River) and John Linson (whose only writing credit ever is the Yellowstone pilot), is not about Yellowstone National Park. It’s set near the park, and sometimes characters go there to have symbolically fraught encounters with wolves. But most of the action revolves around the Yellowstone Dutton Ranch in Montana. Within the fiction of the show, the ranch is the largest contiguous ranch in the United States, and it has made the Dutton family that owns it very rich.

The first of the two shows fighting for space within Yellowstone is about the Dutton family, and it’s basically occupying the same “dark primetime soap meets family drama” crossover space as Succession. (Before you assume one ripped off the other, note that Yellowstone and Succession debuted just 17 days apart in 2018.)

It centers on Dutton family patriarch John (Costner), who is … well, he’s Logan Roy. He’s gruff and sometimes a little mean. His kids long for his approval and don’t always get it. He’ll do anything he can to hold onto his land, even as a variety of challengers, from nearby tribes of Indigenous people to big-city land developers to assorted random lowlifes, attempt to take it from him.

The Succession parallels continue from there. Yellowstone follows the internecine squabbling of John Dutton’s three youngest children, who include two sons and a daughter. Those two sons are the dutiful Jamie (Wes Bentley), who’s forever trying to impress his dad and forever disappointing him (the Kendall, in other words), and the rowdy screw-up Kayce (Luke Grimes), who is on the outs with his family when the show begins but is slowly worming his way back in (the Roman). The daughter is Beth (Kelly Reilly), probably Yellowstone’s breakout character for her willingness to spout venom and shove her finger into the light sockets of her own dark past (so, yeah, the Shiv). The three have an older sibling named Lee (Dave Annable), but he’s not quite Yellowstone’s Connor because — mild spoiler alert — he dies in the very first episode.

Some Yellowstone fans have pointed out how similar the show’s whole setup is to that of The Godfather in addition to that of Succession, and maybe this specific layout of siblings is just catnip to American audiences. Regardless, the overlap with The Godfather makes a lot of sense because one constant of Yellowstone — and one that doesn’t track so well with Succession — is murder. The characters solve problems by killing people with shocking frequency, to the degree that season one featured a seemingly random death or two in every single episode. (My favorite Yellowstone demise is actually not a murder, however; it transpired when two tourists died after a bear chased them off a cliff.)

Does ranching involve this much murder? I grew up in farm country and want to say no, but maybe I knew the wrong people. The violence that pops up in almost every Yellowstone episode gives the show a lurid, pulpy sheen, and it plays to the primetime soap half of the show’s DNA. Certainly the way that, say, season three ended with literal explosions and hails of bullets was straight out of Dynasty or Dallas or Melrose Place. Meanwhile, all of that pulp tends to crowd out any earnest consideration of the ways the Duttons hurt each other. The storylines never feel thematically connected.

Which brings me to the second show contained within Yellowstone. It, too, is a blend of family drama and primetime soap, but about an entirely different set of characters. In this case, the “family” is the makeshift group of people who live in the bunkhouse on the Dutton ranch. They work as hired hands, except they’re not simply “hired,” per se: When they’re brought onto the team, they are literally branded with a giant Y, which means they’re Dutton ranch workers for life. (Does this sound terrifying? Yellowstone admits that, yes, being branded would hurt, but it also insists that it would make you feel like you truly belonged to something bigger than yourself. Sure Jan dot gif.)

The soapy stuff in this version of the show is a little more prosaic. The wrong people sleep together, or a guy has a crush on a girl who doesn’t know he exists, or something similar. And I cannot stress enough how tonally all over the map it is to have a seemingly earnest tale about young men and women learning how to be their best selves by working on a ranch exist alongside a more lurid story about a family of extremely wealthy ranchers who wantonly commit murder.

There are unifying figures here. In particular, the character of Rip (Cole Hauser), the ranch foreman, moves between the show’s two halves. He works with the ranch hands, but he’s also trapped in a will-they/won’t-they with Beth that goes back to their teenage years, which are filled in with occasional flashbacks. (Reader: I am deeply skeptical of Yellowstone, but I am all in on Beth and Rip. These two are so hot together.)

Sure, the ranch hands occasionally get to talk to John, and John will sometimes send one of his sons down to live in the bunkhouse so he can relearn the value of a hard day’s work or something. But for the most part, if your character is on Yellowstone the pulpy murder show, they are not going to be on Yellowstone the earnest ranch show, and vice versa. That disconnect holds the series back in many ways. Every so often, it will balance its two halves against each other and achieve something brilliant. But more often than not, the two careen into each other, leading to an awkward mishmash.

Does Yellowstone have a political point to make? Kind of.

Monica stands next to a stalled car, looking down the highway.
Monica (Kelsey Asbille) is one of Yellowstone’s most prominent American Indian characters.
Paramount Network

Besides its main themes, there’s also a bunch of other stuff happening on Yellowstone. For instance, it’s the only show on TV to bring up conflicts over land ownership between white ranchers and American Indians, a topic it handles ... okay? Indeed, Yellowstone’s treatment of its handful of series-regular American Indian characters starts to pull back the curtain on the show’s political ethos — the one it’s desperately trying to insist it doesn’t have.

Consider John Dutton’s conflict with Chief Thomas Rainwater (Gil Birmingham), the head of the (fictional) Broken Rock Reservation. Chief Rainwater says, many times per season, that Dutton’s ranch was illegally taken from the people who lived there before European colonizers pushed them out. And Yellowstone acknowledges he’s right! Rainwater is allowed to be right, other characters admit he’s right, and even John has occasionally nodded to the people who owned his land originally. The show has multiple characters say to John, point blank, that “No one should own all that land,” and I think we’re usually supposed to believe them.

Then Yellowstone turns right around and is, like, “Yeah, but he does own all of that land now, so ...” Which is to say: The political ethos of Yellowstone is a shrug and a “What are you gonna do about it, you know?”

Even more frustrating, at least to Yellowstone viewers who might be particularly interested in the show’s handling of its Indigenous characters, is the show’s treatment of Kayce’s wife, Monica (Kelsey Asbille). Monica is both my favorite character on the series and the one it has the least idea of what to do with. Monica is of Indigenous descent, having grown up on the reservation. (Notably, Asbille has faced criticism from Indigenous actors for not being of American Indian descent herself, though she says she has Cherokee heritage.)

When Yellowstone most wants to make a point about America’s abominable treatment of American Indians, it will usually turn to Monica as its mouthpiece. She might, for example, give a lecture about the legacy of violence and racism against American Indians, and the show will linger on shots of white people studiously learning from her. But then Yellowstone will struggle to incorporate the things Monica says into its worldview. Eventually, it tends to give up on her attempts to educate others and instead confine her to the lurid pulpy drama portion of its equation by default.

To actually talk about the complicated space Monica exists within as an American Indian woman married to the white son of a wealthy rancher would kind of break the series. It needs to bring up contradictions inherent to its main characters’ way of life, but it doesn’t have the desire to explore them. And that turns out to be the series’ whole deal.

America, explained by cousin Greg from Succession and Jimmy the ranch hand from Yellowstone

Jimmy and Colby get their horses ready to go out on a ride.
Jimmy the ranch hand (Jefferson White) and his coworker Colby (Denim Richards) saddle up their horses.
Paramount Network

Yellowstone’s semi-confused sociopolitical ethos can also be explained via one final Succession comparison. Both drama series begin with a lanky, good-hearted lummox being brought into the central setting of the series. On Succession, that lummox is Cousin Greg, the show’s comic relief, a comet jetting toward the nucleus of the Roy family from some Oort cloud where James Cromwell lives. (It’s Canada.)

On Yellowstone, the lummox is Jimmy the ranch hand (Jefferson White), who is all but kidnapped, then branded with Dutton’s familiar Y in the series’ first episode. As the show goes on, we watch as Jimmy, a former dingus, slowly but surely learns how to be first an effective ranch hand, then a solid rodeo rider, then a mostly fine boyfriend.

To some degree, Succession is a show about whether Greg will be corrupted by enmeshing himself into the Roy family. The show isn’t forthrightly a battle for his soul, but his soul is of at least passing concern to its moral calculus.

In contrast, Yellowstone treats Jimmy’s recruitment into a ranching organization that, again, commits wanton and endless amounts of murder as an almost unequivocally good thing. He was a shiftless loser, and now he lives and works on a ranch where he can learn the value of a hard day’s work. The show even gets a lot of comedic mileage out of pairing him in scenes with Rip the foreman, which means that Yellowstone has its own Tom and Greg. (MONICA IS GERRI DON’T TEST ME HERE I’VE GONE DEEP ON THIS.)

Now, Cousin Greg can be a hilarious TV character, and he can be slowly corrupted by the Roy family. Succession is really good at exploring that tension. Likewise, Jimmy can gain a lot of value out of learning how to be the best ranch hand possible, and the ranch he works for can be filled with murderous thugs. But I’m not sure Yellowstone is aware of that tension for more than a couple of minutes at a time.

The “villains” of Yellowstone tend to be either big-city developers or small-time crooks floating around the edges of the Dutton ranch, longing for a piece of its enormous pie. The show uses these villains mostly to say, “Sure, John Dutton’s not great, but at least he’s not these guys!” The princess is always in another castle, and every time Yellowstone seems as if it might zero in on a cogent point, it jets off in some other direction, terrified of itself.

I reductively referred to Yellowstone as “red-state Succession” up above, and that implies a kind of cultural conservatism it doesn’t really express. There is one episode where a woman has an abortion, and while it fucks up her life forevermore, her choice to have an abortion is mostly framed as the right one for her to make. (What’s more, the plotline somehow incorporates a mostly coherent rebuke of forced sterilization on reservations, which I really wasn’t expecting to see.)

The series will gladly allow that its Indigenous characters have a point about their land being stolen. And even as it turns nasty to all of its women characters, subjecting them to all manner of terrors so they might be saved by a man, there is something lovely in its depiction of these women also expressing solidarity with a knowing glance at one another’s bruises, the ones they’ve suffered at the hands of terrible men.

The effect is such that Yellowstone is at least vaguely sympathetic to the powerless at every turn, but only in the sense that it’s willing to acknowledge they exist. It points to the power structure, nods to the fact that the few control far more wealth and power than the many, then suggests there’s not really anything to be done about it. Yellowstone has done the reading, it has highlighted key passages, and it has concluded that the world just is how it is. To interrogate that idea further might displace John Dutton from atop the pyramid, and John Dutton’s the protagonist.

Every so often, Yellowstone even feints at suggesting the Duttons themselves are among the powerless, at least in the face of the sweeping change coming to their state. A portion of season three was taken up by consideration of whether the family is actually all that rich, given the fact that their ranch is losing money hand over fist. (It’s kind of funny that Yellowstone’s best argument for John holding onto his ranch is “Ah, it’ll be over soon enough! Let’s just let him have this one!”)

And yet developers offer John half a billion dollars for the place. Yellowstone knows that “I am losing everything to preserve this dying way of life” and “I could cash out for a cool $500 mil” don’t really make sense together, but it also wants you to give it credit for noticing the contradiction, even as it does no further work to delve into it. (Also, like, the Duttons have a private chef. They’re not poor!)

These inconsistencies ground Yellowstone (and Sheridan’s work more generally) within a recent tradition of art either made about folks living in red states or art made by artists with culturally conservative leanings. (See also: Clint Eastwood, most country music made by men since 2000.) These works are often quite good, and they are almost always aware of the contradictions inherent to the stories they are telling. But when it comes time to actually interrogate those contradictions, they fall back on a sort of vague, “Ah, well, nevertheless ...” The world is the way it is, and to suggest otherwise is to go too far. The Dutton ranch is worth killing for because it preserves a social order where Jimmy can go from loser to would-be rodeo hero. But how many people get left out of that social order or crushed beneath it? Yellowstone prefers to politely ignore that question.

TV loves a status quo, and most successful TV shows, Yellowstone included, present a status quo that is seductive or compelling to lose yourself in on some level. Great TV shows then interrogate that status quo, even if it never shifts. Succession, for instance, is about a world where nothing ever changes and the social order seems locked in place, but it’s enraged by that notion. Yellowstone takes a kind of comfort in the leisurely pleasures of a world where everything is as it should be. “This is fine,” it says, as the evening sun spreads red fire in the west.

Yellowstone returns with a two-hour premiere at 9 pm Eastern on Sunday, November 7, on the Paramount Network. Season four episodes will be available for cable subscribers to stream on the Paramount Network’s website. Yellowstone’s first three seasons are streaming on Peacock. Season four will join them sometime in 2022.

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