Two weeks ago — before Yellowstone took a break to celebrate our American Independence — I wrote that I was going to keep relegating the life and times of Beth Dutton to the bottom of every review, until she was allowed to do more in this story than just be a colorfully abrasive femme fatale. Given that Beth looms so large in this week’s “No Good Horses,” though, it’d be pretty much impossible to confine her to “The Last Roundup.” If I did that, this entire recap would run about three paragraphs … all trying to make sense of whatever the heck was going on in Kayce’s story line.
Don’t fret, I’ll get back to Kayce. First we have to deal with the highs and lows of the Beth scenes in “No Good Horses,” which run the gamut from an overly pat flashback to the moment when Beth turned evil to a hyperbolic fight with her brother Jamie that points toward potentially fruitful new directions for both characters.
The flashback serves as this week’s cold open. Once upon a time, Beth was a skittish adolescent, who irritated her mother Evelyn (played by Gretchen Mol) with her lack of confidence. Then one day, a moment’s hesitation during a horseback ride led to Evelyn landing hard on the ground and getting crushed by one of the animals. The accident killed her, and ever since then Beth has channeled her guilt into becoming the ornery pain in the ass her mom always wanted her to be.
As explanations for jerkiness go, this one’s both richly tragic and awfully pat. It feels like “Beth is a hellion” came first when writer-director-producer Taylor Sheridan was developing Yellowstone, and then “Beth is emotionally damaged because she inadvertently killed her mother” got filled in later, hastily. I’m not sure how much Sheridan has invested in that backstory.
Kelly Reilly, though, is definitely giving the character her all — including in a present-day scene, set on the anniversary of Evelyn’s death, where she grabs some booze, doffs her clothes, and takes a bath right in front of the Dutton mansion. If Sheridan wants an unpredictable Tennessee Williams heroine in his show, Reilly’s clearly game.
The problem is that Beth’s scenes continue to seesaw wildly between electrifying and embarrassing. When a naked Beth belittles Jamie and snarls that she’s not in the mood “to explain why we don’t have the same pee-pee,” that’s … not a great line. Similarly, the long, tortured, and overwritten conversation she and Jamie have late in the episode — where he compares her to a cancer that kills its host and then dies itself, and then she goads him into punching her — is at once riveting and icky.
Still, as with the previous episode, the ungainliness of “No Good Horses” makes it fascinating to watch even at its most ill-advised. And as I mentioned up top, the episode leaves Jamie and Beth in a place that could generate good stories going forward. Jamie convinces their dad John that the Dutton family legacy and fortune isn’t automatically translating into power anymore in modern Montana, and that they need some actual political leverage. So Jamie’s planning to run for attorney general, whether or not his father approves. As for John, he’s persuaded Beth to run for a seat in the legislature. She hates Montana, hates the ranch, and has no interest in politics. But she feels obliged to her father, and he to her, because of what happened to Evelyn.
Again, the psychological underpinnings of these relationships and motivations aren’t that compelling. But in these early episodes, some of Yellowstone’s best material has been about all the political maneuvering in Montana. (This week, for example, John calls in pretty much every favor he’s owed in order to get Thomas Rainwater thrown in jail for stealing his cattle.) Putting the far-sighted Jamie, the old-school John, and the wild card Beth into the mix at the same time — each potentially working at cross-purposes — could help elucidate this show’s vision of how things get done in the 21st-century American West.
We saw in Beth’s first-ever scene on this show that her brazen amorality can overwhelm any room filled with businessmen and politicians. The big question is whether she’s ultimately going to use her wiles to promote the Dutton family’s interests, or if she’s just going to be a troll, for kicks.
We’re left to ponder this at the end of the hour, when we see Beth having a drink with John’s nemesis Dan Jenkins — who knows she’s going to be trouble, but can’t help but be drawn to her dangerous sexuality. “There better be beams of light between your legs,” he grumbles. “It’s like touching the sunrise,” she boasts. (“Ewww,” replies all of us watching at home.)
The Last Roundup
• So … what was up with that Kayce subplot? What’s been the deal with any of them, really? In episode one, he defended his home on the Broken Rock reservation from his own family, but ended up killing his brother-in-law. In episode two, he dug up a dinosaur, contemplated reenlisting in the military, and mercy-killed a man whose trailer exploded. This week, he drove past a van out in the desert, found what looked like two meth cooks and a kidnapped girl, then he hunted and killed the perpetrators (all while his son fought off a rattlesnake, for some reason). Kayce’s a likable character, well-played by Luke Grimes, but so far every time he appears in this show he’s stuck with the scraps of story ideas that Sheridan can’t seem to fit anywhere else. His scenes have also become the repository for Yellowstone’s Native American mysticism — represented in “No Good Horses” by the kidnapped girl’s father Danny Trudeau, who helps Kayce bury his victims’ bodies but demands that he burn their corpses to “trap their souls.” Okay.
• Josh Lucas makes his first Yellowstone appearance in this episode, playing the young John Dutton. He’s only in a few short scenes at the beginning, but he’s slated to return periodically, in what looks to be an ongoing series of flashbacks to the Dutton family’s origin stories. (If this TV show were a comic book, these sequences could be the filler pages at the back of the magazine: “Tales of Yellowstone!”) Lucas is a charismatic actor who’s always welcome on any screen, and he does an unexpectedly on-point imitation of the late-’80s Kevin Costner.
• Another guest star this week: Geno Segers as Danny. During his first ten years in the business, the burly, deep-voiced Segers has compiled a solid résumé as a character actor in shows like Banshee and Pair of Kings. But he’s still probably best known as the guy in the Navy Federal Credit Union commercial, who sarcastically deadpans about how much he adores his wife’s yappy little dog.
• During Yellowstone’s week off, Sicario: Day of the Soldado opened in theaters to decent box office but mixed reviews, tarnishing its screenwriter Sheridan’s brand a bit. Sheridan made his reputation with 2015’s Sicario, but amid the wave of negative reactions to the sequel, some critics have noted that they never much liked the original, either. I haven’t seen Soldado, and I still think Sheridan’s a major talent, even given how shaky Yellowstone’s been. But I do think he’s generated enough work by now as a writer and director to spot recurring themes and to assess his ability (or lack thereof) to explore them with assuredness and nuance. In the weeks ahead I’ll be doing just that, taking into account some of the harder critiques that have been leveled at him lately.