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Yellowstone Recap: All Hat, No Cattle

Yellowstone

The Unravelling, Pt. 1
Season 1 Episode 8
Editor’s Rating *****

Yellowstone

The Unravelling, Pt. 1
Season 1 Episode 8
Editor’s Rating *****

In last week’s Yellowstone review, I somewhat grumpily complained that the episode’s most inexplicably batty scene — in which a pair of tourists drop to their deaths off a cliff while hiding from a bear — probably wouldn’t ever come up on the show again, given the way these kinds of gruesome accidents and strange deaths have been handled throughout this season. Well, guess what? Now I have to eat those words. The splattered travelers actually do reappear this week, right after the opening credits. And not only that, but Rip’s subsequent bear-killing becomes the impetus for an even battier scene.

When John Dutton contacts the authorities, he quickly finds out that the local law’s less concerned about the human corpses than the ursine one. The Fish & Wildlife Commission wants to have a word with Rip, and sends an Officer Skiles out to seize his rifle and to ride with him to the spot of his shooting. But then Skiles refuses to heed Rip’s warning about a huge, nasty horsefly on her mount’s rump. The animal gets nipped, and takes off running at top speed, stopping only when it gets tangled up in barbed wire, in the process sending a sharp metal fencepost through the ranger’s torso. (She lives, we later find out, because she’s “tough as a mule.”)

By the end of this week’s “The Unravelling, Pt. 1” — as wolves are creeping in under the cover of darkness to devour the dead bear — John’s already complaining that Fish & Wildlife will be sending another ranger out the next day. What’ll happen to this one? Trampled in a stampede? Pecked to death by eagles? Really bad sunburn?

As is too often the case with Yellowstone, this darkly comic, excessively violent, barely relevant sub-sub-subplot stands out more than any of the more serious scenes. But that’s mainly because much of the rest of “The Unravelling” is about moving pieces into place for the season’s endgame.

On the family-drama side, the recovering (for now) Monica finally gets Kayce to admit that he killed her brother, and tells him that she’s no longer going to stand in his way if he wants to leave the reservation and reenlist. (“I’m telling you to go,” she says.) On the political side — with some family drama mixed in — a perturbed John demands that Jamie suspend his campaign for attorney general, saying that if Jamie doesn’t follow orders, John will coerce the previous AG to jump back into the race. And on the business side, Chief Thomas Rainwater explains to Dan Jenkins his plan to use tribal exemptions from federal law to sidestep permits and zoning issues, and to get his new casino project moving so quickly that’ll jack up the Dutton ranch’s property taxes. Meanwhile, Beth notices that Jenkins’s company is trading so low on the stock market that she could buy her way into a dominant position on his board of directors for pennies.

Also, Jimmy gets a new hat.

What’s noteworthy about the huge chunks of plot that get dumped into this episode is that most of it is handled in just a few lines of dialogue. Yellowstone’s writer-director-creator Taylor Sheridan needs these conflicts to be introduced into the story right away, given that the season’s almost over. But he hasn’t tried very hard to make the introductions themselves into gripping dramatic television.

Instead, for the most part, the splashiest scenes, lines, and images in “The Unravelling, Pt. 1” are incidental. With the Beth/Dan story line, everything that has to do with her discovery of his precarious financial position — and her mockingly letting him know what she knows — is handled in seconds, almost as a throwaway. Sheridan seems far more invested in the other component of Beth’s cruel degradation of Dan, wherein she gets his wife liquored up and lets her grind up against her half-dressed assistant, while Mr. Jenkins looks on.

The big blowup between John and Jamie is admittedly a more dynamic scene, with some actual insights into both what a jerk the Dutton patriarch can be, and how he frames his legacy. “I can’t wait to see which disappointment this is,” John grumbles when Jamie pulls up in the driveway; and a few minutes later, when his son’s insisting that he’s earned the right to further his political career, John says, “What have you done for me besides help me build the empire that you stand to inherit? Sorry, son, I just don’t see the sacrifice in that. ”

And yet, the Duttons’ little family squabble — culminating in Jamie having to make a choice between dropping out of the race or running against his father’s preferred candidate — almost feels like a setup for a scene Sheridan seems more excited about, where Jamie’s campaign manager tells him that it’s okay to want things for himself, then sits on his lap and coos, “Be selfish with me.”

Not all of the superfluous sex and violence in “The Unravelling, Pt. 1” induces eye-rolls. Kayce endures a crummy day, in which his wife kicks him out, thieves ransack his property (and steal his son’s dinosaur bone!), and a grifter makes the mistake of trying to coax a little cash out of him at a gas station. When Kayce snaps, “Today’s not the day,” and starts walloping this dude? Pretty cathartic, I have to admit.

As for Jimmy’s new hat, the scene where his fellow ranch-hands reveal that they’ve all ponied up (no pun intended) to get him a new lid is actually kind of sweet. It gains some poignancy from a conversation that precedes it, where Walker grumbles to Rip that no one warned him taking the Yellowstone brand meant he’d have to break the law — and Rip replies that unless Walker’s willing to do whatever he’s told, he’ll never leave the ranch alive.

Consider this the flip side of John telling Jamie that helping the Duttons get rich is no sacrifice. According to Rip, not helping them isn’t an option either. The only way to win this game? Be John Dutton.

The Last Roundup

• I was wrong about something else from last week’s review, too. I mentioned that the show keeps filling in Beth’s backstory to explain why she’s … well, the way she is. I added that Sheridan doesn’t seem as concerned about explaining why the dudes do what they do. But then in this week’s cold open, we flash back to 1997, when Rip killed his deadbeat pig-farming father, and took refuge at the ranch. So I was retroactively wrong.

• When John takes Rip in, he insists, “If you work for me, everything stays here.” I need to write more about this weird job requirement next week, because from everything we’ve seen, Yellowstone appears to be just a regular megaranch, aside from folks getting murdered occasionally. So why all the murder? Is that an integral part of modern ranching that the East Coast lamestram media is too elite to cover? Or are we going to find out before the finale that something more nefarious has been going on at Yellowstone for decades?

• I can’t even begin to address the “Seattle lesbian undercover reporter” story line, because so far it’s been such a minor part of the overall narrative — though it’s clearly going to matter more soon. But I did want wanted to note that when one of the Seattleites complains that while she was out on the river, “The mosquitoes ate me alive,” and the other Seattleite leeringly says, “Now there’s a thought,” that’s … not as seductive a line as Sheridan must think.

Yellowstone Recap: All Hat, No Cattle