Yellowstone Series-Premiere Recap: In a Big Country

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A scene from Yellowstone. Photo: Kevin Lynch/Paramount Network
yellowstone

yellowstone

Daybreak Season 1 Episode 1
Editor's Rating 4 stars

The Paramount Network’s first scripted dramatic series, Yellowstone, arrives with a swagger, intent on taking its place in the long, heady history of American stories about big, big money. Like Dallas crossed with the movie Giant, this expensive-looking TV show mixes soapy domestic melodrama with a sweeping, modernized take on the Western genre, set in and around a Montana ranch described as “the size of Rhode Island” — filled with huge houses, herds of animals, and dozens of employees. Yellowstone even features a bona fide movie star as its lead: Kevin Costner, one of the few remaining Hollywood actors with extensive experience anchoring popular Westerns.

Yet despite the pricey production design and top-shelf cast, Yellowstone’s success or failure will ultimately come down to one person: the show’s writer-director-producer-creator Taylor Sheridan.

If you keep up with the movie business at all, you should already know Sheridan’s name — or, at the very least, his work. After starting his career as a character actor, playing the obstinate opposition in the likes of Sons of Anarchy and Veronica Mars, Sheridan made his screenwriting debut with Sicario, a vividly realistic thriller about the moral ambiguities involved in fighting drug trafficking on the U.S.–Mexico border. He followed that up with the screenplay for Hell or High Water, which used a bank-robbery spree as the driver for a study of economic disparity in the modern American West; and then he wrote and directed Wind River, another sophisticated and culturally specific neo-Western that (like all of Sheridan’s feature films so far) became a surprise hit.

Now here’s Yellowstone, a prestige drama that Sheridan’s writing and directing for Paramount, as part of the cable outlet’s swing at becoming a Peak TV player. With ten episodes to work with in season one — the first of which, tonight’s “Daybreak,” is double length — Yellowstone should in the weeks ahead make great use of Sheridan’s knack for creating complicated characters and exploring where they live, while keeping their circumstances relevant to the modern world. But as the rare indie-oriented filmmaker who pays attention to plot, can Sheridan work within the open-ended nature of today’s serialized television?

“Daybreak” doesn’t really answer that question affirmatively. Most of Yellowstone’s two hours is spent calmly introducing what looks to be an ambitious and sprawling narrative. Then, down the stretch, something terrible occurs. The Big Moment doesn’t come out of the blue exactly, but it does seem sudden … almost like someone at the network politely reminded Sheridan that if he wants audiences to tune in next week, he should probably have something happen in episode one.

I’ll get back to the Big Moment in a second, because rushed storytelling aside, Yellowstone’s series premiere offers plenty of reasons to be hopeful about how the rest of this season’s going to go. The show’s biggest assets are its cast and its premise.

Roughly the first third of “Daybreak” introduces the major players, one by one, showing them going about their daily business. Costner plays John Dutton, the ranch’s sixth-generation owner, and the father of four children: Lee (Dave Annable), his faithful if dull right-hand man; Beth (Kelly Reilly), his acid-tongued representative in hardball business deals; Jamie (Wes Bentley), the lawyer who’s torn between making daddy proud and pursuing his own political career; and Kayce (Luke Grimes), the decorated Navy SEAL who defied the family by marrying and having a son with Monica, a teacher from a nearby Indian reservation.

The Duttons are unfathomably wealthy and powerful — as in “personal helicopters and armed guards” rich. At the start of the story, they’re facing pressure on multiple fronts. A well-connected developer, Dan Jenkins (played by Danny Huston), is using his will and his wiles to coerce John Dutton into giving up land in order to expand his own holdings, which Jenkins hopes will become as attractive to tourists and businessmen as rapidly gentrifying Bozeman. At the same time, wealthy casino owner Thomas Rainwater (Gil Birmingham) is drawing on his political supporters and fighting to assure them that the needs of the original Native American residents of Montana get due consideration in the increasingly bitter squabbles between the state’s old money and new.

“Daybreak” doesn’t introduce all the conflicts slated to come into play this season. Mostly, Sheridan emphasizes John Dutton’s defiance of Jenkins, and his attempt to forge some kind of compromise with Rainwater and the people of the reservation — including Kayce. The latter standoff becomes a genuine crisis when the tribe takes down the barbed wire between their land and the Dutton ranch, then brandishes guns to prevent the Duttons from reclaiming the cattle that roam
across the border.

This sets up the Big Moment. In a show of strength aimed at letting everyone know the Duttons won’t be chumps, John sends his own paramilitary force of livestock agents onto the reservation. A shootout ensues, which turns deadly when Lee gets killed. Kayce initially rides into the fray in support of his in-laws, but when he sees what happens to Lee, Kayce falls back on blood-family loyalty, and shoots Monica’s brother dead.

Again, all of this happens abruptly, even in the context of a two-hour TV episode. It almost feels like the shootout was originally intended to arrive at the end of episode three or four, after a lot more time spent establishing the characters and the stakes. The eruption of violence comes across as a forced attempt to give a story about political gamesmanship some life-or-death urgency.

The implication at the end of “Daybreak” is that the deaths on the reservation are going to be the catalyst to bring even more obstacles onto the field, as the federal government considers intervening. That might amp up Yellowstone’s sociopolitical intrigue, which is something that Sheridan should handle quite well — without having to resort to sensationalist bloodshed every week, I hope. After all, the show’s central tension — between different resourceful entities tht all feel they have a legitimate claim on Montana’s past and future — ought to provide plenty of drama, without a steady stream of gunfights.

In episode one at least, Yellowstone both benefits and suffers from some of Sheridan’s writing quirks: primarily his fondness for characters who pontificate poetically. It’s enjoyable to hear Costner wrap his relaxed California growl around lines like, “When you say no it must be the death of the question,” and, “Leverage is knowing that if someone had all the money in the world, this is what they’d buy.” But sometimes it seems like his John Dutton only speaks in truisms — a trait mirrored by Dan Jenkins when he bafflingly tells a party guest, “Cities are the sunsets of civilization,” and Kayce when he precedes his fatal shooting of his brother-in-law with, “In case you don’t already know, there’s no such place as heaven.”

But for all its sometimes overwritten dialogue, Yellowstone is blessedly assured regarding what it means to be about. Sheridan understands how even the most ruggedly individualistic human beings struggle with unhelpful social institutions, and with the unpredictability of their environment. In “Daybreak” he steers away from the rah-rah kind of heroes and the boo-hiss kind of villains, and instead presents an assortment of men and women who are entrenched in positions that are impossible for them to abandon, given all they’ve committed.

When Jenkins hoards community resources on his property, or Rainwater takes cattle that he’s enticed onto his lands, or the Duttons create landslides on their mountains to inconvenience their opponents, they’re all playing out a larger, long-running debate about ownership and stewardship. The compelling questions Yellowstone promises to ask every week are these: What do we really own? And once we buy something, do we have a right to it forever?

The Last Roundup

• One nifty bit of production design, unremarked upon by any of the characters: The logo for Dan Jenkins’s real-estate concern, Paradise Valley, looks similar to the Duttons’ Yellowstone Ranch brand … almost as though Jenkins were trying to intentionally mislead potential investors about his Montana roots.

• Kelly Reilly is an excellent British actress, who — when speaking with an American accent, anyway — gives off sort of a Rosanna Arquette vibe, at once aggressive and alluring. But her character Beth Dutton is the one I’m most concerned about going forward, given that Sheridan hasn’t shown much facility for writing good female roles. Emily Blunt in Sicario and Elizabeth Olsen in Wind River give strong performances, and at least their characters aren’t passive; but in both cases they’re more or less playing one-note “tough gals,” who take on unfamiliar assignments wherein colorful men explain things to them. So far in Yellowstone, Reilly’s Beth is the knowing one, not the neophyte; but she doesn’t get a lot to do in this extra-long premiere besides show off how cutting she can be. Fingers crossed that the part improves in the weeks ahead.

• Some of you may be wondering what the heck the Paramount Network is, and whether you already subscribe to it. Formerly Spike (which itself was formerly the Nashville Network), the channel launched earlier this year, and currently airs mostly a mix of reality shows and syndicated sitcom repeats. But Paramount’s stated mission is to host original programming that’ll compete with the likes of FX and AMC for audience share, critical attention, and awards. I bring this up only to mention that the network’s first splashy production — the mini-series Waco — was excellent but under-watched and under-discussed. So part of the ongoing story of Yellowstone will have to do with whether it gets respectable ratings and media coverage.

Yellowstone Series-Premiere Recap: In a Big Country