Season 1, Episode 1: "Daybreak"
Episode rating: 4 out of 5
Like many Montanans my age, I grew up watching Kevin Costner ride a horse, mostly in Dances With Wolves, which remains one of the best Westerns ever made, but also to a lesser extent Open Range and even The Postman, which saw Costner's horse-riding temporally relocated to the post-apocalyptic future.
But, I have never seen Yellowstone, Paramount Networks prestige drama that sees Costner back in the saddle. And, seeing as how it's a show about Montana, and now one filmed entirely in Montana, I figure I'd better start watching. And maybe I'd better start with season one, episode one and write something about each one. Call it a "Yellowstone" rewatch - if you've a mind to join me, you're welcome to come along.
It's not that I was avoiding it. In fact, I'm a huge fan of some of creator, writer and sometimes director Taylor Sheridan's previous work, especially the singularly grim Sicario, and the modern-day western crime drama Hell or High Water. Yellowstone swims in similar waters, with another hard-bitten tale of life on the borderlands. Sicario and Hell or High Water took place in and out of Texas and Mexico, and his mournful neo-noir Wind River in Wyoming, but Yellowstone concerns a ranch right here in Montana, or more specifically, the Paradise Valley.
Which means lots of reference to Montana locations, and plenty of scenes taking place in Bozeman and Helena, if not always necessarily filmed there. But for anyone who lives in Montana, Yellowstone's version of Montana is slightly distorted, as in a dream.
But let's start at the beginning. And the very first image of Yellowstone is of Kevin Costner's hand entering the frame against a turquoise blue sky, the Big Sky of which we are so justifiably proud. The hand is reaching out to comfort a panicked horse, injured in a nasty collision with a semi-truck carrying construction equipment. The horse has been grievously injured, and Costner's Dutton growls some portentous lines to it before putting the barrel of his revolver under the animal's chin and pulling the trigger.
"You deserved better than this," Dutton says.
It's a scene that sets the tone for the rest of the premiere: weighty, slightly lurid, and as serious as a funeral. In fact, I'm not sure if I've ever seen a more humorless hour and forty-five minutes of television, not that that's necessarily a bad thing - it's not like Sicario was a barrel of laughs, either. There are, of course, Beth's withering insults to brothers and prospective lovers, but they're less funny than shattering.
This isn't a complaint exactly, because Yellowstone isn't a comedy by any means. But boy, is it ever heavy.
The episode continues as we meet each of the Dutton children in turn. There's Jamie (Wes Bentley), the be-suited lawyer and maybe-politician who spends a lot of his time in Helena arguing against the Dutton Ranch being annexed through public domain. And Kayce (Luke Grimes), the ex-Navy Seal now married to a pretty young Native-American teacher who lives on the rez with her and his son. And Beth (Kelly Reilly), the ferocious business-woman who spends her introductory scene totally eviscerating the owner of a drilling company during a mergers and acquisitions negotiation. The only sibling that we don't spend any immediate time with is Lee Dutton (Dave Annable), the 38-year old ranch hand who serves as John Dutton's right-hand man, constantly searching for his approval. That Lee Dutton is not among the montage of introductions might serve as foreshadowing.
The plot really gets started when Dutton sends the afore-mentioned and ill-fated Lee to round up some cattle that have wandered too close to Native-American land. It seems that Thomas Rainwater (Gil Birmingham), the slick new Chairman of the Confederated Tribes of Broken Rock, who runs a large and successful casino in the Paradise Valley, has political designs on the cattle, and once the cattle wanders onto reservation land, they belong to the reservation. Only someone took the barbed wire out of the fence. Rainwater intends to use them as some sort of political leverage against Dutton - or as Dutton remarks to the Governor later, "it's a new Chief showing off... we've all done it." And it's true: Rainwater's ambition puts him in the same league as Dutton - they're both hungry, and both are at once principled and unscrupulous in not-so-different ways.
That theme of being principled, with a big asterisk next to the word, is carried over into the next scene, where Dutton attends a livestock auction and is asked for assistance by a local whose son, Jimmy, has become a criminal and possibly a junky. "I hear you're hiring," the man says.
"Cowboys, not criminals," Dutton replies. But we find out shortly that this isn't strictly true; the Yellowstone has a history of taking on criminal hands, giving them one last chance to straighten out. The criminals are marked with the Yellowstone's Y-shaped brand, right on the chest. And if they don't work out, well, they're "let go." We see Rip, the Yellowstone's headman and dirty-deed doer round Jimmy (Jefferson White) up from his trailer later.
That scene, by the way, of the old man begging Dutton to help out his possible junkie son, plays out so similarly to the opening of "The Godfather" in which various supplicants are allowed to ask the Don for a favor on his daughter's wedding day, that it must be intentional. Already, the point is being made so that we, the viewer, understand. This is "Hud" meets "The Sopranos" meets "King Lear", a generational cowboy epic that also happens to encompass no small amount of crime as well.
Then we meet the Governor Perry (Wendy Moniz-Grillo), who in the early scenes helps to bat away a case of eminent domain that some developer was trying to raise against Dutton's ranch. They briefly discuss Jamie's political prospects, which Dutton dismisses out of hand, preferring the current arrangement, which has Jamie answerable to a "constituency of one," namely, John Dutton. As the governor leaves, she says they should "schedule a lunch" and lets her hand rest intimately on his chest, so we know that Dutton's in bed with the governor - literally, not metaphorically. Although maybe that too.
John Dutton is the classic withholding father of the prestige television pedigree. The only one of his children he can show any real affection is his attack-dog daughter, and has only somewhat cruel things to say to the rest. Although, as we find from his estranged dealings with Kayce, he wants to get to know his grandson, who lives with Kayce and his mother on the reservation. Kayce eventually gives in, deciding to let John take care of the boy now and then, giving them a chance to bond.
Decidedly not bonding are Jamie and Beth. Beth likes to needle him, suggesting that he's not a man, or that he's gay, or that he's celibate. At this point in the show it's not at all clear what their problem with each other is, but we can assume that it's deep and dark and never spoken about directly. We've got to set up those themes early.
At this point, nearly half-way through the episode, you can't help but notice that the show is lavishing a lot less attention on Lee. He's the Dutton sibling the show is least interested about in it's premiere, and the reason why becomes apparent about a half-hour later.
Plenty of attention, however, is spent on establishing Dan Jenkins (Danny Huston) as this season's big villain, a citified real estate developer attempting to secure a parcel of Dutton's land on which to build subdivisions, maybe even build another town. In the real "real" Montana, this would be settled in a courthouse, but in the Montana of TV's "Yellowstone", it means Dutton damming a river before it can get onto Jenkin's newly purchased land. As Jenkins and Dutton's tense exchange (next to a golf course, of all things) comes to a close, Dutton says "you owe me a horse, you son of a bitch." Ah, so that was Jenkins's land-moving equipment that caused the (otherwise never mentioned again) wreck that opens the program.
Later, Dutton consults with a land-use expert who tells him that Jenkins's subdivision will have drastic effects on his land, with the whole subdivision "sucking on" the river and increasing the risk of erosion. Dutton does something that would probably make national news, but in the world of Yellowstone is just another chess move, damming the river with explosives even as a party of rich real-estate types at Jenkins's place watch. If Jenkins is willing to play as dirty as Dutton, there will surely be a real-estate developer versus cowboy shoot-out later on the season to look forward to.
Next the show establishes what will become another of it's major character arcs, the "love story" of Beth and Rip. We don't know much about Rip yet, other than he's a badass cowboy and somebody who gets sent to do dirty deeds (it's him who brands Jimmy, the aforementioned junky getting his first chance). And we don't know much about Beth yet, either. But apparently they have some sort of history. She tempts him with a conspicuously open bathrobe, and he gives in.
Later, he offers up a post-coital nugget of tenderness, suggesting they go to a music festival together. Beth, apparently incensed at such a domestic suggestion, tells him he always ruins it before impugning the size of his manhood. We are safe to conclude that Beth's not one for tenderness.
All of this leaves the last half hour to resolve, or maybe exacerbate, the problem between the Broken Rock reservation and the Dutton ranch. Though Kayce seems resolutely on the side of the Natives, he is still a Dutton - a point that tribal elder Felix makes to him, saying that "until they find a cure for human nature, a man must stand with his people. And we are not your people."
Which leads us into the episode's final set piece, the night-time standoff between Dutton's livestock agents and armed members of the Broken Rock tribe. Kayce's brother-in-law gets a few shots off, one of them going through Lee's sternum and killing him quickly. Kayce, who has heretofore demonstrated a slight mutual animosity with his brother-in-law, now puts five in his chest and one in his head.
Now, I have to point this out, but the episode's weakest moment by far is when Kayce is standing over his wife's brother's body, having already shot him five times, and says "in case you don't already know, there's no such thing as heaven," and puts one in his forehead.
What the hell is Kayce talking about? Why does he suddenly offer a theological opinion to the man who shot his brother? Is he angry that his brother was killed, or was he trying to think of a cool thing to say before he shoots someone? For my money, it takes away from the power of the scene - to just have Kayce, furious at the death of his brother, shoot the man to death is fine. It's a TV drama, after all, with a melo- before the drama. But to have a badass line at the ready, apropos of nothing, seems more like Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name than it does the sensitive, stoic Kayce.
But it's a minor complaint.
We do, however, see why the episode didn't spend much of it's extended running time wasted on Lee, who the show was just going to kill anyway. We do, however, see a rare moment of emotion from the otherwise stone-faced Dutton, who rides with his son's body into the woods and cradles it like a child.
Finally, Kayce rides up to the Dutton's ranch and gifts him with a difficult stallion that Kayce, whose job is to train horses, rounded up earlier in the episode. In keeping with the show's themes of wild versus domesticated, the untamed stallion seems to be a fitting gift. Or is that apology?
As premieres go, it's pretty strong. A few pretty illogical moments aside, the episode does a great job of establishing the themes that the show will be addressing over it's next seasons. And those themes just happen to significantly overlap with the themes of the classic Western story - frontier versus city, rugged individualism versus the mob, and family versus outsiders.
I'll tell you one thing, for better or for worse: you get to the end of the first episode, and the temptation to watch the second right after is strong.
Join me next week as we revisit Yellowstone season 1, episode 2, entitled "Kill the Messenger."