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The ego-driven clash bringing Yellowstone to an end

The series will now end with season five, but a spin-off is slated for the end of 2023.

Actor Kevin Costner.
Kevin Costner at the pre-Grammy gala on February 4, 2023, in Beverly Hills, California. Rumors swirl that the Hollywood titan may not be returning to Yellowstone.
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

What do you get when you cross two ego-driven, larger-than-life personalities, each with his own famed machismo, with a hit show about ego-driven, larger-than-life cowboys fighting it out in the Wild West?

An epic drama that may have ultimately torpedoed the whole series!

The Paramount network finally ended months of speculation Friday when it announced that its hit Yellowstone, which was originally intended for six seasons, will officially end after season five. In its place, the network will air a follow-up spinoff sequel with Matthew McConaughey likely to star.

Anonymous sources recently told the New York Post and the Daily Mail that the show was in jeopardy due to an ongoing feud between creator Taylor Sheridan and star Kevin Costner. That report came just weeks after previous reports that the production hadn’t even begun filming the second half of the current season, leaving fans to wonder if there would even be an end to season five, which concluded its first half in January. Although no production date has been confirmed for the back half of the season, Deadline reports the show will likely film in August for a November release — though it isn’t clear whether Costner will actually return for the wrap-up. Sources recently told ET Online that Costner wouldn’t be returning “after” season five, though his status for the end of the season was uncertain.

To add insult to injury, Costner’s wife of 18 years, Christine Baumgartner, abruptly announced their divorce on May 2, news that apparently stunned Costner as much as everyone else. With his publicist blaming “circumstances beyond his control” for the split, speculation has run rampant that Costner’s Yellowstone problems bled over into his personal life, though there’s no suggestion of truth behind the rumors.

Sheridan will also helm the new likely-McConaughey-led spinoff, even though, according to a new report from the Wall Street Journal, Paramount executives haven’t been too thrilled with his arguably bloated production budgets. According to the WSJ, filming costs for 2022’s Yellowstone prequel 1923 averaged $500,000 per minute. The costs are apparently largely due to Sheridan’s insistence on using Texas craftspeople for everything, even though Yellowstone films in Montana, and because Paramount also pays Sheridan top dollar to use land, ranches, and livestock he owns in filming Yellowstone and its spinoffs, including his enormous 6666 Ranch.

Sheridan’s insistence on full creative and financial control over the show was allegedly the original sticking point that led to friction between him and Costner to begin with. According to the Mail, Costner bristled over what a source deemed Sheridan’s “god complex,” while Sheridan in turn told Costner he should “stick to acting.” Costner is an executive producer on Yellowstone and a veteran director himself.

The tensions between Sheridan and Costner have fueled highly public rumors for months — but increasingly the fallout rippled outward. In April, the entire main cast and crew of Yellowstone skipped out on the popular TV fan convention PaleyFest, to the chagrin of hundreds of festival-goers. The snafu was reportedly due to scheduling conflicts — the same vague excuse, incidentally, that masked much of the on-set turmoil.

Yellowstone’s offscreen conflict seems written in the (movie) stars

Tongues first began to wag over the Sheridan-Costner conflict after Deadline reported in February that Costner could be leaving the show thanks to conflicts over his shortened film schedule. The report, which alleged Costner wanted to limit his entire work on the season to a single week of shooting over the summer, came complete with a rather frigid statement from a Paramount spokesperson that firmly supported Sheridan and hinted that Matthew McConaughey could be waiting in the wings to replace Costner with a new Yellowstone spinoff series at any time.

As reported by industry journalist Matthew Belloni later in February, Costner has allegedly been embroiled in a “standoff” with Sheridan and Paramount executives, demanding increased pay and perks despite already making the highest salary on TV, earning $1.2 to $1.5 million per episode, all the while making himself less and less available for filming. And while Costner’s lawyer vehemently denied the accusation, the production delays are real: initial expectations of a summer air date were ultimately pushed back to November 2023.

Part of the problem seems to be a clash of titans with titanic personalities. Despite a long career roster of playing relatable everymen, Costner comes off in industry anecdotes as a classic Hollywood diva, perennially pushing for more personal control over projects and often helming his own, with his pique famously creating delays and frustrated directors.

Sheridan is every bit as much of a Hollywood insider, but he’s successfully cultivated a brand as anti-Hollywood. His posture of rugged individualism and heart for the heartland has made him a kind of “red state whisperer” for the industry. Even his pitch to Paramount for Yellowstone was Trumpian. It came with brash, controlling demands that Sheridan would be the sole authoritarian in charge; the role of the executives would begin and end at footing the bill for Yellowstone’s sky-high $100 million budget. That number has since ballooned over the franchise’s numerous spinoffs, including a $200 million budget for the first season of 1923 alone.

Through one lens, the gamble clearly paid off for the network — Yellowstone was the top-grossing show of 2021 and season five’s premiere netted over 16 million viewers — but it also led to an overall profit loss as its exorbitant streaming spending outstripped revenue. Plus, Sheridan’s attitude may have grated with Costner. Per Belloni, the two have allegedly clashed for years, warring egos wrestling for control over the show.

“I think the negativity right now has gotten to the point where it’s going to be very difficult for [Costner] to come back to the show,” Belloni told ET Canada, in what may well prove to be an accurate prediction.

The beef with Costner might not be the only reason for the delayed production. Sheridan has so many Yellowstone spinoff shows in development — known as “the Sheridanverse,” all steered by Sheridan himself — that he’s drawn criticism for being “overworked” and letting the main show fall by the wayside. Insider sources told Belloni that the schedule was borked because Sheridan kept delaying scripts and rejuggling things based on his writing schedule.

However, while Sheridan almost certainly is overworked and juggling things, it’s possible that he also simply can’t write the end of season five until he knows whether or not his main character is going to be in it.

This uncertainty wrought plenty of confusion among the cast and crew, many of whom have seemed to be in the dark at various points this year about the show’s status. At PaleyFest, Paramount execs attempted to put up a sunny outlook despite fans reportedly booing the downsized panel. Keith Cox, Paramount’s president of development and production, told fans he was “very confident” that Costner — “the face of our show” — would be continuing to film.

Costner himself might beg to differ, however. The Daily Mail’s source claimed Costner felt the show was moving in a direction away from the one he and Sheridan had originally agreed upon, which had apparently soured their collaboration. That broaches the larger question hanging over all of this drama: If Costner does return to Yellowstone, would audiences return with him? And even if they did, what sort of show would they be coming back to?

Yellowstone’s chief appeal has always been a kind of brazen commitment to rugged individualism at all costs, even if it requires destroying members of your own family (when you’re not allying with them in uneasy truces that last until you need to destroy each other again). The show offers a heady glorification of an iconoclastic Wild West, in contrast to the carefully politically sensitive shows of “liberal Hollywood.”

That illusion only lasts, however, as long as viewers believe in the conceit the show is selling. Now, the ongoing and highly public Costner-Sheridan showdown has reminded audiences that you might be able to take the Hollywood stars to Montana, but even in Montana, you can’t take the Hollywood out of the stars.

Would John Dutton, tireless, unfussy rancher king, still resonate with viewers when audiences have heard so many rumors that the actor playing him allegedly wanted to work only one week out of the summer?

For that matter, what of the Yellowstone mythos itself? Yellowstone seemed to be, and arguably was, a show born of Sheridan’s fierce Texan independence, unbeholden to the messy games of America’s elite coasts. But this infighting has all the trappings of classic Hollywood idols fighting over petty Hollywood status symbols. Would the mighty house that Sheridan built be able to stand on prima donna legs?

In response to rumors of the show’s cancellation, some angry Yellowstone fans did, in fact, express outrage at Costner for being too entitled and too “woke,” a narrative that arose last year after Costner endorsed controversial Republican Liz Cheney in her failed reelection bid. Cheney, who served on the House January 6 committee, has become a symbol of liberalism to many on the right despite her conservative politics, and some were eager to paint Costner with the same brush.

It’s difficult to see how exactly Costner failed to live up to the “ideals” of his fictional counterpart: Jack Dutton is less a patriot than a murderous, ruthless individualist.

Still, the Yellowstone story might wind up being a fascinating morality play. An outlandish, outsized show eaten by its creatives’ own egos? That might be a more fitting end to the show than even Sheridan could imagine.

Update, May 5, 12:20 pm: This story, originally published April 3, has been updated with details from a recent company announcement, and news stories on Costner and Sheridan.