*Warning: Spoilers ahead.*
It’s 3 o’clock on a chilly Wednesday afternoon and I’m chatting with the Bobby Berk from Netflix’s Queer Eye. With just two minutes left of our interview, I make sure to squeeze in one very important question: “What show are you obsessed with right now?”
Without missing a beat, Berk tells me, “I just jumped on the Yellowstone bandwagon two days ago. I’ve refused for years to watch it because I grew up on a ranch…I grew up with cowboys and it’s triggering. But it’s so good!” At this point I’m already intrigued, even though I don’t particularly care for Westerns. But there’s something about his enthusiasm that makes me want to go check out the trailer right away. Berk continues, “All the people that have been trying to get me to watch it for years—they were right.”
And so it was settled. After watching the official teaser for season one, I decided to check out the first episode for myself. But was it compelling enough to turn me into a bona fide Western fan? Well, not quite (sorry, Bobby).
In case you’ve yet to see the Paramount series, the premise is nearly identical to Succession‘s, except with a western backdrop. Kevin Costner is John Dutton, the brooding patriarch and filthy-rich owner of Yellowstone Dutton Ranch (AKA the biggest cattle ranch in Montana). Then there’s John’s eldest son, Lee (Dave Annable), who faithfully follows in his father’s footsteps; Jamie (Wes Bentley), his second eldest, who tackles his dad’s legal matters; Beth (Kelly Reilly), his only daughter, who works as a sharp-tongued banker, and Kayce (Luke Grimes), the estranged son who starts a family of his own. The entire family is plagued by enemies who want a piece of their massive empire. Oh, and John has this weird Mafia-like set-up where loyal minions get branded with the Yellowstone emblem.
Is it well-acted? Definitely. Costner’s jarring first scene speaks volumes about his complex character in a matter of seconds. Reilly’s intense exchange with a flustered businessman makes her stand out as the fiery corporate woman whose mere gaze can be intimidating. And Grimes masterfully portrays the conflicted Kayce. However, this show feels like a watered-down, western version of The Sopranos.
You’ve got Tony’s equivalent, John, the corrupt leader who fiercely defends his property and takes care of the family. In contrast, Tony’s character led a double life as the boss of the DiMeo organized crime family and a Waste Management employee, but there was no question about his far-reaching influence. He worked hard to keep those lives separate and he valued family and loyalty, but he could also be sinister and vengeful, stopping at nothing to settle the score or protect what’s his. (Remember when he killed Salvatore, the FBI informant? And how he strangled Febby after he left the mob to switch sides?)
John strikes me as someone who would go to similar lengths to protect his ranch. He may not have the same Jekyll/Hyde lifestyle as the mob boss, but his personality is just as complex, revealing that he’s bold enough to shoot a horse without flinching, but not too proud to sob while holding his dead son. The latter scene was a clear highlight, because I always find it interesting when steely characters get vulnerable. But what really annoyed me was how John’s desperate need for control ultimately cost his son’s life. No one should’ve had to die over stray cattle. (For context, some of John’s cattle strayed into the neighboring Broken Rock Reservation, and when the chief, Thomas Rainwater [Gil Birmingham], refused to return the animals, John took matters into his own hands…complete with a helicopter.)
Aside from their hunger for control, there’s also an interesting parallel between how these leaders “initiate” new members. While Tony opts for the polished ceremony that involves pricking one’s finger and making an oath, John sends his trusty farm hand, Rip Wheeler (Cole Hauser), to brand criminals who have very little choice. This version feels less humane, since bad guys are brought in as John’s property to use whenever he sees fit (like when Jimmy, their newest branded member, is forced to help blow up the dam). But the underlying message of these groups feel the same, which is basically “You belong to us now.”
I can understand using this kind of approach in a powerful criminal society, where drugs are involved and lives are at stake, but I don’t see why such extremes are necessary when it comes to defending a cattle ranch. Perhaps I’m biased because I didn’t grow up on a ranch, or maybe it’s because I just don’t find cowboy stories as compelling, but it feels like Yellowstone is trying to be a gangster/crime drama when really, it’s more like a melodramatic Western about an anxious white man who really doesn’t want to lose his farm.
I definitely appreciated the stunning scenery, and yes, there is a very (very) small part of me that’s curious to know how the Duttons will fare in this messy situation, but frankly, it’s not enough to get me past this first episode.
If you’re a longtime fan of Western dramas, then this may be the show for you. I, on the other hand, would prefer to spend my time binge-watching The Sopranos or Kelly Ripa’s favorite, Succession.
Yellowstone will definitely appeal to those with a special connection to the south or penchant for over-the-top Western dramas. But if you’ve enjoyed classics like The Godfather and The Sopranos, it might be harder for you to take the show seriously.
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