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Taylor Sheridan’s popular Paramount “Yellowstone” series, the most popular show on cable television, is at a strange crossroads it may not want to acknowledge yet. Having just earned its first major awards nod in season four in 2021—a Screen Actors Guild (SAG) nomination for ensemble cast—this minor but milestone acknowledgment speaks to where the Western family drama is at. Largely ignored by the mainstream media and awards organizations for three seasons, “Yellowstone” became too big to ignore in its fourth season. Various outlets felt obligated to see what this show—still pulling in enormous numbers on linear TV—was all about.
This newfound interest in “Yellowstone” arguably gave it wings and a new lease on life—it’s not just the middle American heartland watching this show, now critics and the coasts are paying attention to it. The dilemma here is that while “Yellowstone” may have bought itself a new lease on life, perhaps buying itself another three or four seasons of lifespan runaway, the show is struggling to say anything new in its fifth season.
READ MORE: ‘Yellowstone’ Season 5 Teaser Trailer: All Will Be Revealed November 13
While we’ve described “Yellowstone” in the past as “The Godfather” in Montana, a series about a family empire, their legacy, their land, and all the criminal lengths they’ll go to protect it, that’s in some ways misleading. Yes, while “Yellowstone” mixes the amorality of lawbreaking and corruption with the black heart of a dysfunctional and toxic family, like a lot of Taylor Sheridan content—either his films or his various series—it’s about man’s relationship to the land, and how people are the products of their environments. To that end, “Yellowstone” is really about one man and his vow to his father: John Dutton’s (Kevin Costner) oath to his father never to sell his Yellowstone ranch and land, no matter the cost, no matter the wars that need to be waged to defend it. In this regard, “Yellowstone” is about the futile fight against progress.
The Duttons want to preserve their way of life—that’s old school and vintage, with ranches, cattle, and cowboys, and nature for miles as far as the eye can see—but progress is always skulking around, threatening to change that. Progress wants to buy their land or adjoining territory and put in casinos, condos, hotels, airports, and new mini-cities that will disrupt and potentially destroy the environment. For four seasons, the Duttons have fought off all kinds of incursions, various land developers, the Indigenous community’s desire to build mega casinos around them, criminals kidnapping their kin, fortune 500 companies trying to either devastate the value of their land, buy it, or acquire controlling interest in various properties around it that could degrade it. They’ve fought and fought and fought.
In season five, John Dutton takes one of his boldest steps to preserve his way of life and fight off the Market Equities corporation trying to introduce a major airport and mini new adjacent city into Montana. He’s run for and won the governorship of the State, seemingly trying to further exploit the power and influence he’s always manipulated for his gain on a bigger, more legitimate political level. It’s essentially a four-year mission with little endgame beyond that: use his political power to kill Market Equities’ airport plan, and once that’s done, he will likely step down and return to the way things were.
But legit political life—or as permissible as anything Dutton can do, which isn’t very lawful considering he’s always trying to bend the law and rules to his will—doesn’t really suit him. He’s out of his element, doesn’t understand it’s a long game built on favors and strategy, and doesn’t bend to his timetable no matter how much he wants to abuse it. While there is help around him, his loyal volatile daughter Beth Dutton (Kelly Reilly) and his adopted son Jamie Dutton (Wes Bentley), a former attorney and once aspiring politician now manipulated into being his dad’s lapdog helper in this new political realm that he is familiar with, John Dutton seems hellbent on making a mess of things in his impatience.
And from there, in its first two episodes, “Yellowstone” doesn’t seem to offer up too much that we haven’t already seen. Caroline Warner (Jacki Weaver), CEO of Market Equities, is gearing up to put up a new fight, having enlisted a new pitbull in Sarah Atwood (Dawn Olivieri)—essentially another impetuous MILFy counterpart to Beth’s hot-bloodedness, but only playing for the bad guys—but that seems to be the age-old “Yellowstone” pattern. Each season a new adversary, a new challenge to Dutton’s throne, and some new assassins in the game, and by the end, John and the family generally thwart off all their invasions, sometimes just by the skin of their teeth in bloody and brutal battles.
But Market Equities is pretty familiar now, and while they’ll enlist new cutthroats to do their dirty work, this house of cards is still constructed on the same recognizable acreage.
While some internecine drama is brewing in the Broken Rock Indian Reservation— tribal lawyer Angela Blue Thunder (Q’orianka Kilcher) seemingly gunning for Chief Thomas Rainwater’s (Gil Birmingham) leadership position, or at least trying to undermine it—the rest seems pretty familiar. Kayce Dutton (Luke Grimes) and Monica Long Dutton (Kelsey Asbille) are recovering from yet another family tragedy—which arrives like clockwork for them every other season— Rip Wheeler (Cole Hauser), the ranch foreman at the Yellowstone Dutton Ranch is still supervising all the micro dramas his ranch hands cause— Colby Mayfield (Denim Richards) and Ryan (Ian Bohen) are in deep shit because they’ve shot a Yellowstone Park protected wolf (!)—Beth is still being an abusive shit to her brother Jamie. He’s under her thumb (though Market Equities feels like he’s a pawn they could turn). The song remains the same.
The question really remains if “Yellowstone” is still this popular and Sheridan’s attention has become super divided— in the next three months, he’ll have “Yellowstone,” spin-off “1923,” “Tulsa King,” and “Mayor of Kingtown on the air with two upcoming series, “Lioness” and “Land Man” waiting in the wings— what is going to knock it out of its doldrums and breathe new life into it creatively?
Does a show like this have the courage to make radical moves like killing off major characters in order to really shake up the drama and challenge the structure? Because right now, “Yellowstone” is very acquainted with steak and potatoes. But it’s also been that way since the beginning. While always bordering on too melodramatic, the series was always entertaining enough to forgive some of its perhaps too over-the-top and sensational writing conveniences and contrivances. But right now, it’s stagnating. The meal is edible, and perhaps for new audiences, it’ll still taste flavorful. But if you’ve been on the ride for five seasons and know all the way this colt bucks and lurches, you’ll agree that if “Yellowstone” wants to stay narratively fresh, it’s going to have to do more than introduce a new wolf sniffing around the wild stock and the front door every season.
“Yellowstone” like to submit that power always comes at a steep price. The problem is, the cost has barely evolved over five seasons, and how much more are audiences going to invest if no one is willing to pay some creative tax that disrupts and creates real change? [C+]