Say this for Taylor Sheridan: At the very least, he knows how a Western should look. Through its first two episodes. Yellowstone has frequently featured some classically “Western” shots — in particular the ones where two men share the screen in profile, with the outlines of their hat brims overlapping, against the backdrop of an endless sky. If this genre has one defining visual element, it’s those vast and mostly empty landscapes, where any sign of human existence tends to catch the eye.
Yet when it comes to Yellowstone’s storytelling — at least in the early going — the writer-director appears to be less certain about what belongs in the frame and what doesn’t. As with last week’s series premiere, this week’s “Kill the Messenger” practically lurches from scene to scene. At times it feels like there are huge chunks of the episode missing, perhaps dropped to allow more time for the show to muse about What It Means to Be a Man.
And that’s a shame too, because the fundamentals of this episode are strong. In the wake of the climactic shoot-out in “Daybreak,” the Dutton family are finding that their official story — that any casualties were just shot in the crossfire, while acting out of self-defense — is undercut by the crime-scene photos, which implicate the military-trained Kayce Dutton in a professional-style execution of his own brother-in-law. Much of this week involves John Dutton calling in favors to stop this inquiry from becoming a problem.
The ways John wields power is fascinating. Some of it’s just “old boy network” stuff, like when he sits next to one of the investigators — a longtime friend — at a rodeo, and very easily gets his word that the record will reflect whatever the Duttons need it to. Some of his moves are more subtle, as when he persuades a preacher at another investigator’s church to give a sermon redefining the biblical commandment against “bearing false witness against thy neighbor” to mean “don’t say anything that would make life tougher for our community’s best friend John Dutton.”
Brute force fixes what remains of the problem. Last week we met Rip Wheeler (played by Cole Hauser), the Duttons’ thuggish “fixer.” This week Rip corners a stubbornly honest medical examiner, in a jarring scene that sees the goon needling the doc about his depression and his drug addiction (the man smokes hand-rolled cigarettes spiked with embalming fluid!) before eventually persuading him that the best thing would be for Rip to set fire to the coroner’s office with him inside, at once ending the ME’s miserable life and destroying any damning evidence.
While all this is going on, Kayce is considering fleeing the scene of the crime — and his own guilt over killing his wife’s brother — by reenlisting in the military. (He even calls up his former CO, who lets him know that he’d probably be deployed in Yemen, which is the Middle East’s key “domino.”)
But while Kayce and Monica are driving down one of Montana’s dusty roads, arguing about his plan to ship out, they’re interrupted by a trailer in the middle of nowhere that explodes, severely burning its occupant. Putting the charred man out of his misery turns out to be a bonding experience for the couple, leading Monica to make one last, persuasive plea for her husband to stay, saying, “There’s nothing you could do I won’t forgive you for.” Kayce, of course, knows better … because he knows what he’s already done.
The explosion and its curiously healing aftermath come abruptly, with minimal setup. The scene between Rip and the medical examiner doesn’t pop up out of nowhere exactly; John and his son Jamie have already talked about how the man’s not going to be easy to sweet-talk, and how he has a problematic history they can exploit. But it’s still a waste to kill off such a memorable character the first time he appears. There’s just not much of an easy, organic flow to “Kill the Messenger.” It’s an anthology of moments, sloppily threaded.
That said, quite a lot of those moments are striking. As noted last week, Sheridan has a bad habit of letting his dialogue drip with what his characters consider to be Great Truths; but if nothing else, that makes his dialogue memorable. When John Dutton chats with his helpful pal at the rodeo, for example, they swap folksy laments about how boys are self-sabotaging dopes by nature; and they share these thoughts in the context of their exasperation with bull-riders. “Only reason to ride a bull is to meet a nurse,” John says; and, “First man to ride a bull might be worth meetin’… It’s the second man I wonder about.”
Sheridan’s preoccupation with the damaged souls of dusty dudes might very well get tiresome down the road. But two episodes into Yellowstone, that’s what’s primarily giving this particular prestige drama its personality. It’s not unusual for a series like this to dwell on maleness as a central theme. (If anything, that’s been the norm for the past 20 years.) But there’s some appealing funkiness to the way that Sheridan does it. He shoehorns thoughts about men and manhood just about anywhere he can, including into a largely incongruous interlude in which Thomas Rainwater invites Kayce to a sweat-lodge ceremony and kicks it off by pontificating about why all babies look like their fathers when they’re born.
As with “Daybreak,” what makes “Kill the Messenger” worth watching are these strange ideas that seem like they must mean a lot to Sheridan, if no one else. When Kayce is driving in the middle of the night and sees a wolf get run over, or when he blows up a tree stump in his backyard and finds dinosaur bones, these images come across like personal experiences or half-remembered dreams. If Sheridan and his Yellowstone team can figure out how to turn them into a TV show, they might really have something.
The Last Roundup
• I’ve written a lot these past two weeks about Sheridan, because he’s writing the teleplays and directing the episodes. But he actually has a co-creator/co-producer: John Linson, son of Hollywood journeyman Art Linson (also a Yellowstone executive producer), and one of the people who helped Kurt Sutter bring Sons of Anarchy to the small screen. John Linson’s credited as working with Sheridan on the story for the first two episodes. With collaborations, it’s hard to know exactly who’s responsible for what, but there are echoes of Sons in Yellowstone’s fascination with macho codes and social strata … and, frankly, in the flabby story construction.
• Speaking of Yellowstone’s manly manliness, it’s time for our weekly check-in with Beth Dutton, down in the notes section, where she shall probably remain until she becomes a more valuable part of the main narrative. This week, Beth was featured in a brief scene in which she casually emasculated her brother Jamie (who retorted that he prefers to stay celibate because he’s “terrified to pass on the gene that made you”); then later she carried a longer subplot, wherein Rip took her on a date to “get drunk and watch wolves.” Thus far, the lone living Dutton sister hasn’t served much of a purpose, beyond being alternately ornery and sexy — in outsized, artificial ways. The character might eventually serve as a fascinating case study in what happens when aggressive masculinity becomes the norm in a powerful family. Until then, keep looking for her here among the afterthoughts.
• Finally, let’s talk about Jimmy (played by Jefferson White), the no-goodnik that Rip recruited and branded in last week’s “Daybreak,” and who this week got duct-taped to a bucking bronco to learn how to ride. The scene in “Kill the Messenger” where a bruised, smelly Jimmy gets razzed by his fellow ranch hands is full of earthy flavor, giving Yellowstone a chance to present a different perspective on the Duttons’ affairs. Here’s hoping Sheridan and company spend more time in the weeks ahead with Jimmy and his new co-workers, which could open up the world of this show beyond the power players.