“I am the opposite of progress. I am the wall that it bashes against, and I will not be the one who breaks,” swore Montana ranching titan John Dutton (Kevin Costner) on the campaign trail for state governor in the fourth season of Yellowstone—a statement of purpose and ethos that, unfortunately, has also come to embody the spirit of Taylor Sheridan’s immensely popular Paramount Network drama.
Returning on Nov. 13, the series continues to peddle the same backwards-looking conservative worldview as always, all of it dressed up in modern Western garb. Yet increasingly, its opposition to forward movement isn’t just a cultural and political stance, but a narrative one as well.
Yellowstone has spawned an empire for Sheridan, who has used its success to launch two franchise spin-offs—the prequels 1883 and 1923, the latter of which will star Helen Mirren and Harrison Ford—along with the unrelated but equally rugged Mayor of Kingstown and Tulsa King.
Despite such expansion, however, Sheridan’s biggest hit largely spun its wheels last year, spending 10 episodes on a variety of storylines that could have easily been handled in five, and taking only baby steps in a new direction. That mostly had to do with John, who decided that he couldn’t allow control of Montana to fall into the hands of his sniveling, semi-traitorous adopted son Jamie (Wes Bentley)—even though the wimpy politician murdered his biological father (Will Patton) for trying to exterminate the Duttons, Godfather-style—and chose to run for the state’s highest office himself.
John’s nominal goal is defending Montana from greedy coastal-elite interlopers who want to build, build, build and, in the process, rob the West of its natural beauty and glory. Those villains are still around, now led by Caroline Warner (Jackie Weaver), CEO of Market Equities, whose scheme is to construct a giant airport, casino, and a surrounding tourist-trap town in partnership with John’s local adversary, Native American bigwig Chief Thomas Rainwater (Gil Birmingham).
Nonetheless, Yellowstone isn’t subtle about the fact that John’s primary aim is to preserve the vast fiefdom he inherited from his family and which he rules with an iron fist. For all his altruistic talk, he really only cares about his wealth and power, as he makes clear to both Jamie and his fearsome daughter, Beth (Kelly Reilly), in the fifth season’s opener, when he declares that his entire reason for seeking the governorship is to protect what’s his: “The ranch comes first.”
John wears a cowboy hat but he’s less Gary Cooper than Tony Soprano, and in many respects, the season premiere of Yellowstone keeps casting him in prototypical contemporary-Republican terms, with John promising an insular, America First-esque governance approach that punishes outsiders and upholds the old ways—even through legally questionable means. Sheridan’s series has always hinged on us-vs-them conflict. That rears its head not only in John’s guarantees to the public, but in his livestock-agent son Kayce’s (Luke Grimes) border run-in with his Canadian law-enforcement counterparts—whom he dubs “sheep” for prizing order and rules over roughneck Wild West freedom.
Kayce hasn’t had an original thing to do in at least two seasons, and that remains true here; after dealing with some cattle thieves (a sequence mainly designed to provide shots of majestic steeds galloping across the plains), he’s once more asked to race to rescue wife Monica (Kelsey Asbille), whose pregnancy grants the show a cheap opportunity for melodramatic suspense.
Kayce isn’t the only one going through familiar motions. Jamie covets the spotlight and fumes that he’s not in the center of it, thereby making him an inevitable pawn to be exploited by Warner. The Yellowstone ranch hands are a fun-loving, troublemaking bunch who brawl, joke and sweet-talk the ladies in scenes designed to pad out episodes’ runtimes. And Beth is still a supremely cocky, cutthroat, and sexy businesswoman who deeply loves her intimidating ranch foreman husband, Rip (Cole Hauser).
As with everyone else, the series has no novel ideas about how to further develop Beth—an impression bolstered by the fact that the premiere wastes energy rewinding to Beth and Rip’s first, contentious date as teenagers. That flashback only confirms that the two were no different then than they are now (except dumber: young Rip is so country that he doesn’t know what “finance” or a martini is), and affords Sheridan the chance to have adult Rip announce that Beth’s intellect is only matched by her heart.
At least on the basis of the new season’s maiden installment, Yellowstone seems committed to staying the course rather than upending expectations, and while that fits with its generally soap opera-ish nature, it results in considerable torpor.
Five years in, we’ve seen John, Jamie, Beth, Rip and Kayce behave like this numerous times before, creating a difficult-to-shake sense that Sheridan is resting on his laurels. Never straying from their particular comfort zones, Beth shoots Jamie a few nasty glares and cutting insults, Kayce acts like a bland do-gooder with all the personality of a rock, and John does his best “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown” routine, moping and grumbling about how his new job will take him away from his cherished ranch and cost him what precious little time he has left with his loved ones.
The only real shift in Yellowstone’s premiere is that Jimmy (Jefferson White) actually appears to have left the Duttons behind. Given that White’s goofball-turned-cowboy is the series’ corniest character, that would be no great loss, but it’s hard to believe his departure will last.
Sheridan now prizes stasis over maturation to an enervating degree, and he has John overtly articulate as much during a reunion with Beth and Rip’s surrogate son Carter (Finn Little), who’s become a teenager since John last saw him—a change that’s amusingly addressed by the show when John exclaims, “Jesus Christ it’s been a while!” John’s subsequent demand that Carter stop getting bigger because “it freaks me out” is meant to be another example of the newly elected governor’s fear of death and obsolescence. Too often, though, it doubles as an expression of Yellowstone’s own lack of interest in growth.