S1 E2: "Kill the Messenger"
Episode rating: 3 out of 5
If Yellowstone has a weakness so far, it's a slight, or sometimes more than slight, tendency towards preposterousness. It's lucky for the show that the characters are so interesting, or it might all be too silly to credit as serious entertainment. But then it'll have a great scene or even a handful of them, even in the middle of even the worst episode.
But as for preposterous, this episode's got it in spades.
First, we might be able to forgive the show trying to convince us that the 65-year-old Costner is up for taming a wild stallion. After all, he's the hero, and if we don't buy the conceit that Dutton is an extraordinary cowboy, we may as well not watch the show at all. Still, it's hard not to notice how artfully the show hides the fact that, whoever the cowboy is who's riding that bucking bronco, it sure ain't Kevin Costner. In fact, when it cuts back to Costner's Dutton, he isn't even breathing hard. Oh well, John Wayne didn't break a sweat all that often, either.
Where it gets downright silly is in the idea of duct-taping Jimmy, the "low man" in the ranch-hand hierarchy, to the back of the horse as a way to tame the horse. I'm no horse whisperer myself, but I suspect there may be more nuance to "breaking" a horse than can be achieved with duct tape. First of all, what if the horse goes over, as it does in the first scene. Jimmy's like to have his wrists and ankles shattered, if not worse. But then, I guess However, even in the midst of this absurdity, the show delivers a few nice lines, including this exchange between Dutton and one of the hands:
"Whooee, I don't miss being low man."
"Low man's what turns you into cowboys. It'll make him one too."
Now, if being duct-taped to a horse made you a cowboy, I suspect that rich out-of-staters would pay $1000 an hour for it, and they'd call it a therapeutic treatment.
Next, we have another brand of preposterousness entirely, as Kayce tries to remove an old stump by pulling it out with a tractor and chain. He upends the tractor, which sends him into a huff, so he retrieves the explosives and the rifle, as we Montanans are wont to do. Then he shoots the explosives, causing a massive explosion that atomizes the stump, scares his wife, and reveals a (get ready for the preposterous part) full, intact dinosaur fossil skeleton. I mean, this sucker's a real museum piece. It's the sort of thing that would send any paleontologist worth their salt into paroxysms of animal lust. Thank goodness that giant explosion didn't seem to damage it much! These two decide they're going to dig it up themselves.
Meanwhile in Helena, the governor asks Jamie Dutton to her office to show him a coroner's report that shows it's impossible for the late Lee Dutton to have killed Kayce's brother-in-law because the bullet that killed him would have paralyzed him first, meaning there must have been a third shooter. The governor and her cronies are telling Jamie as much in order to let Team Dutton get in front of the story somehow - our first taste of the institutional corruption that, in the world of "Yellowstone", inundates the state government. Thankfully for the Duttons, it tends (at least at this point) to go their way.
This leaves two problems for the Duttons: one is a religious young man who witnessed Kayce headed to the ill-fated shootout with the Broken Rock tribe, and the other is the coroner's report. It turns out (preposterous alert!) that the young coroner has a penchant for smoking cigarettes dipped in embalming fluid. The second problem includes a corollary subproblem: anyone who sees the photos of Lee's body, or goes further and exhumes it, will eventually discover Kayce's guilt. Gosh, how will the Duttons get out of this one?
John Dutton still takes time out of his busy day to visit with Tate, though, at least while waiting to corner Kayce and try to get him to admit what Dutton already knows. Kayce stops short of direct confirmation, but Dutton says, "at least tell me this. Did he see it coming?"
"He saw it coming," Kayce replies.
Later, Jamie suggests using their knowledge of the coroner's odd taste in narcotics against him. Dutton knows it won't be enough, and decides to send Rip instead. Woe unto whoever is unfortunate enough to have Rip send after him.
Thomas Rainwater and the tribal police are getting closer to realizing that Lee couldn't have been the shooter. They've already concluded it could be Kayce, knowledge that might give Rainwater more leverage over Dutton.
Finally someone thinks to let poor Jimmy off of the horse, and Dutton allows that "there might be some cowboy in him after all."
We also get to see more of how Dutton is less a rancher than some sort of don in the cowboy mafia as he meets with the father of the witness to Kayce's being at the shootout. They go see a rodeo in Billings together, where the man's son is riding a bull in an attempt to earn his father's belt. Dutton says that he's trying to protect his son, as well, and that he's going to lose another unless the boy stops telling everyone he saw Kayce.
"That's not what happened?"
"That's exactly what happened..." Dutton replies.
The man complies quickly, saying "well, you tell me what he should have seen, John and come tomorrow that'll be all he ever saw."
Remember when our Western heroes were good and upstanding and never told a lie? Dutton's not one of those guys. And in the clannish world of Yellowstone, there is no higher ethic than doing what's right for the Duttons, and there are only two possible stances - for the Duttons, or against them. It's a wonder Dutton doesn't run for president.
Beth and Dutton now up the preposterousness factor by going on a date to Yellowstone National Park, where they intend to "get drunk and watch the wolves kill an elk." Now, that would be a big thing to ask even from a weathered Yellowstone wildlife guide, but to simply park in a pickup truck, as they do, about forty feet from the kill? Utterly ridiculous.
But then, after a few precious tender moments, Beth exits the truck and runs screaming at the wolves. If she weren't a Dutton, this would be a great way to get herself killed. But for Beth, the wolves scatter like snow in the headlights. Of course they do!
Back at the ranch hand's bunkhouse, a big bully named Fred is trying to get Jimmy to take a shower. But after however many interminable hours duct-taped to a bucking horse, Jimmy's a little sore. And that's not to mention the third degree burns he must be enjoying from being branded a day or two before. When Fred attempts to get Jimmy off his bunk and force him to shower, the still-tender brand is revealed, causing Fred to do a double-take. Thankfully, an older ranch hand named Lloyd (Forrie J. Smith) comes to his rescue, pulling off his shirt and revealing that he too has been branded - and, by extension, must have been a reformed criminal himself.
Hanging over the episode is the specter of Dutton's wife, who died years before. Beth mentions that "Kayce was her favorite, and we promised to protect him," while we get a glimpse of her twice, first in framed photograph on the wall of Beth's bedroom, and secondly in Dutton's hands as he sits by the fire and broods. We don't know what happened to her, but we can assume it isn't pretty. And it's clear that Beth, in her darker moments, feels poorly about it.
As for the witness front, getting the boy's father to silence him might not be enough if the boy is sufficiently religious to think that God might have a say in it. To that end Dutton enlists Father Bob to give a special sermon that might move the boy to keep quiet about Kayce. "I'm calling old debts, Bob. And you owe me a big one." I don't know if we'll find out how Bob ended up indebted to Dutton, but I think that, knowing what we do about the kinds of trouble that Catholic Priests sometimes get themselves into, the suggestion is almost profoundly unsavory. And again, it makes you wonder if we're supposed to like Dutton, admire him, or regret the monster he's become.
The Priest's favor comes in the form of a sermon that offers a decidedly alternative take on what "Thou shalt not bear false witness" really means. Father Bob even insinuates that Satan himself is bearing himself up against Dutton. Well, tell Old Scratch to get in line behind everyone else, I guess.
Kayce, ignorant of all the machinations in the works on his behalf, calls up his old squad leader and tells him he's thinking of signing up with the Navy Seals again, to the sadness of his wife Monica (Kelsey Asbille). Don't forget; her brother was shot six times several days before. She begs him to tell her the truth, and he almost does when (preposterousness rising) a trailer they just happen, at that exact second, to be driving by, explodes.
Kayce says it must have been a meth lab, and he's right. He finds among the carnage a man covered in burns. He asks weakly about his family, and Kayce, with typically Spartan Dutton frankness, says "you ain't got one anymore." The injured man asks Kayce to kill him (it'll take the ambulance 45 minutes), so Kayce pulls out his 9mm and shoots him. That's the same 9mm he used to kill his brother-in-law, remember? Remember?
Which is why it is utterly preposterous when the tribal police chief arrives and suggests that Kayce and the man switch slides on their guns (they happen to use the same model). This means that Team Broken Rock have in their possession the slide that killed Robert Long - I don't know how that'll come into play, but it seems like it could be a great boon for them. Or else it's a plot contrivance of the highest degree of silliness. Can you imagine a police officer suggesting that you switch pistol parts with him? I think that wouldn't exactly work out for either party. But we'll have to wait and see. In the meantime, we can think about how ridiculous it is that Kayce and Monica happened to be driving by at just the right time.
Thomas and Kayce, now apparently good friends, then go and visit a sweat lodge together, allowing us to see that Kayce also has the Yellowstone brand (there oughta be a good story behind that) and that Rainwater's chest is heavily scarred as well, presumably by the "Vow to the Sun" ceremony that Richard Harris's Man Called Horse endured. Rainwater bloviates for a while about fathers and sons, a running theme in the show, and they all have a nice schvitz.
Dutton's rampage of corruption continues with the exhumation and cremation of Lee's body - in a cremation chamber built for a horse, no less. The cremator, not used to human bodies in his machine, estimates it'll take ten minutes to reduce Lee to ash, during which Dutton and Jamie share a meaningful look as if to say, "wow, this is pretty messed up, huh?" But neither, it must be admitted, looks too sad about Lee. Poor Lee.
Meanwhile Kayce sees a wolf get run over. I suppose that's a metaphor, but I'll leave it to some grad student somewhere to parse out what for.
Which leaves only one major string to resolve in this episode - Rip's visit to the formaldehyde-loving coroner. Could be he could bring him around to his way of thinking, but no, Rip's got a more elegant solution: he'll just kill the poor SOB.
"Why you so scared," Rip asks.
"Because I don't want to die," the man responds, reasonably, I should think.
"You don't look like you want to live, either. Which is it?" Rip asks, sage as ever.
And he apparently talks the man into it, because he offers no further resistance, only requesting that he get to enjoy one more of those nice little cigarettes. Rip doesn't even let him have that, shivving or maybe kidney-punching the man (hard to tell which) into unconsciousness before beginning to microwave some metal lab equipment and pulling out the oxygen hose. Evidently, this is supposed to look like a suicide, but I think the show is trafficking in more absurdity here: first in that Rip is capable of talking a man into being suicidal (even a formaldehyde addict), and second that any educated lawman would look at an exploded coroner's office as a way of committing suicide.
Finally, in the episode's last moments, Kayce and Tate look through a picture book about dinosaurs and discuss their find. Evidently, they are hiding their find, even from Monica, and intend to excavate it themselves. Part of me wonders if some future subplot will have the Duttons in a heated gunfight with representatives of the Museum of the Rockies over the fate of this dinosaur skeleton. I hope so.
I'm beginning to think that the show's outlandishness is an odd sort of strength, a straight-faced joke for those of us who live in Montana and recognize the show as a fantasy, no less imaginative than, say Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones, and no less ridiculous. But it comes in a flavor I enjoy: the horse opera. We've gone too long without them, and, preposterous or not, it's a lot of fun.
However, I don't think that Dances With Wolves's John Dunbar, who was a pretty moral kind of guy and not given to murder and lying if he could help it, would make much of Yellowstone's John Dutton. In fact, he might be just the sort of thing he detested.
But me, I kind of like him. At least a little.