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Yellowstone Recap: Happy Trails

Yellowstone

The Unravelling, Pt. 2
Season 1 Episode 9
Editor’s Rating *****

Yellowstone

The Unravelling, Pt. 2
Season 1 Episode 9
Editor’s Rating *****
Photo: Paramount Network

Kevin Costner’s probably the 21st century’s greatest Western star — with all due respect to Tommy Lee Jones, Sam Elliott, and Robert Duvall. But while he may be the biggest reason for Yellowstone becoming a surprise summer hit, his performance on this show hasn’t really been among his best. That’s not entirely Costner’s fault. For some reason, writer-director-co-creator Taylor Sheridan has chosen throughout Yellowstone’s first season to keep John Dutton somewhat in the shadows. We know he’s one of the most powerful landowners in Montana, that he inherited his position from his family, and that he has his own personal army which — until recently — has bullied and murdered opponents with no consequences. But for most of this season, John himself has mostly lurked in the background, while his messed-up kids have taken center stage.

Because of that, I haven’t really written about how weirdly stilted Costner has been. He’s an understated actor by nature, sure — but usually to better effect, in movies like The Untouchables, Tin Cup, and Open Range. In Yellowstone though, it’s like he’s channeling his inner Christopher Walken or Jeff Goldblum, with all the halting line readings. Two weeks ago, John couldn’t even cite the year the Dutton family started ranching without inserting a random pause. (“Since 18… 86 every Dutton…”) And in this week’s “The Unravelling, Pt. 2,” after Rip finds the cancer-ridden John mucking out stalls, the big boss explains, “It’s a task I can complete and God knows I have … precious few of those.”

Watching the season finale, I started thinking that maybe John Dutton’s weird speech gaps are an accidental metaphor for this series as a whole. After all, Sheridan does like his ellipses. Throughout these nine episodes — totaling roughly ten hours — what’s been left out has been as glaring as what Sheridan’s put in. The main plot has sort of lurched forward, while the show’s squandered precious airtime each week on digressive eruptions of violence.

And yet, call it Stockholm syndrome or immersion therapy or whatever you like, but I thought this Yellowstone finale was actually … good? I liked the double-length premiere, which was refreshingly fleet in the way it introduced so many characters and story lines. “The Unravelling, Pt. 2” bookends that episode quite nicely, packing in a lot of relevant incidents for a change, while setting up what could be a much improved season two.

By the time the credits rolled, what struck me most is that the ideal model for Yellowstone isn’t The Sopranos or Sons of Anarchy or any of the other blood-soaked prestige dramas that have been mentioned in conversations about this show. What this series really means to be is The Godfather.

Think about it: John Dutton is Don Vito Corleone, an aged idealist toward the end of his life. He built up an empire partly through thuggish illegality, though he thinks of himself as someone who thrived due to a rigid system of discipline and loyalty. Now he has to decide whether he can entrust his estate to his children, who each have different skills, and different weakness … and different reasons to hate him.

“The Unravelling, Pt. 2” establishes the extent of what John’s facing, and how much he’s boxed himself into a corner. Real-estate magnate Dan Jenkins isn’t that formidable of an opponent, even with Chief Thomas Rainwater doing all his strategizing. But John’s been undercutting himself all season with his stubborn belief that the local politicians and law enforcement should be beholden to him, given how much he’s done for them. Unfortunately, his recent decisions — from invading the reservation with his paramilitary squad to rerouting Jenkins’s water supply — have been impossible for the power elite to shrug off.

Meanwhile, the retribution John’s taking against Jamie over the latter’s run for attorney general — which this week involves cutting his son off the family payroll and firing him as his chief counsel — is depriving him of the legal mind he needs, just when the more modern-thinking businessmen and legislators are sensing his weakness, and moving in for the kill. Beth may be the shameless bully John prefers; but as smug as she is when she strolls into Jamie’s campaign office to cut up his credit cards, take his car keys, and smash his coffee mugs, she doesn’t really know how to fight for the Duttons’ interest on the bureaucratic battlefields like her brother does. (Plus, given the way Beth sobs at John’s mostly empty dinner table later, it’s clear that she’s not necessarily sold on her dad’s scorched-earth strategy.)

Making matters worse for John, Jamie finds out that his campaign’s been harboring a crusading undercover journalist, Sarah Nguyen (seen in a few disjointed, underwritten scenes in the past two weeks). For some reason, she thinks Jamie’s “a good man” — based on what, who knows? — and she offers him the choice of being “a source” for her exposé, instead of “a subject.” By the end of the episode, Jamie’s convinced himself if he spills all the bad things he knows about his father, he can preserve all the good.

That leaves Kayce, who at long last moves back to the ranch, after Monica dumps him, and immediately volunteers his services to be one of his dad’s enforcers again. One of the things I liked best about this finale is that we get a fuller picture of the Dutton intimidation machine in action — for the first time really since episode one — as Kayce joins Rip and the boys on a mission to threaten Jenkins, and to get to the bottom of Rainwater’s plan to pry the Duttons off Yellowstone, permanently.

As always with Yellowstone, there’s a lot about this hour that comes across as abrupt, silly, unmotivated … the usual. But for once, nearly all the major players — John included, thank God — seem strong enough and well-defined enough to stand up not just against each other, but against that stunning Montana landscape that Sheridan shoots so well.

I can’t say that I expect Yellowstone’s half-cooked characters and convoluted narrative problems to be fixed next year. But after this finale, I’m at least looking forward to seeing what’s next. Just when I thought I was out … Yellowstone pulled me back in.

The Last Roundup

• Did you think we were going to make it through an entire season of an adult-oriented prestige cable drama and not have a scene set in a strip club? Here in the final episode of season one, Rip drops by an exotic dancing emporium to lure a young woman named Avery away from a life of being ogled by men to … live in a ranch’s bunkhouse with a bunch of other dudes. I’ve written enough about Sheridan’s two kinds of female characters — skeptical naifs and hell-raising ballbusters — so I won’t bother to unpack the scene where Yellowstone’s rookie groomer shows up at her new job and immediately takes her clothes off in front of the fellas, saying, “Might as well get this over with.” Instead I’ll just be hopeful that adding another woman to the mix will help Sheridan find some gradations between his two lady types.

• I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I think Sheridan’s more at home with his rough-and-tumble ranch hands than he is with the manipulative, vindictive power brokers. True, he never did come up with much of a story for Jimmy, or for Walker — either of whom, deployed properly in a story like this, could’ve been our eyes and ears as we learned about the history and rituals of this funky little ranch. But at least all the scenes with the hands felt more natural, with a lot of low-key humor. So it’s probably a good sign for season two that Kayce’s relocated to the bunkhouse — and that when everyone howls at him this week for throwing his hat on the bed, he growls, “I don’t believe in that shit.” (“I didn’t know that was an option,” Jimmy mutters.) Perhaps having someone hanging out with this crew who doesn’t pretend to care about their codes will help keep this side of the Yellowstone story just as loose next year.

Yellowstone Recap: Happy Trails