The film critic Pauline Kael once said that her father Isaac watched westerns nearly every night, because of the comforting familiarity in the rhythm of their stories and the repetition of their settings. I thought about Kael’s dad as I watched “The Long Black Train,” which is the first real Yellowstone dud thus far. I could really only think of two things this episode had going for it: It was shorter than usual, and it’s always nice to see rugged dudes on horseback.
“The Long Black Train” is easily the ranch-iest Yellowstone episode yet. If you tune into this show each week because you’re interested in the complexities of Montana politics, too bad. There’s no sign of the politically climbing Jamie Dutton, or the activist Senator Huntington. The closest this hour comes to a commentary on power-brokering in the modern American West pops up in just one short scene, wherein John Dutton rebuffs an old colleague who asks him to consider stepping away from his commissioner post in the wake of his recent personal problems.
Perhaps you’re interested in the crime spree that’s been spreading across the Yellowstone Ranch and the Broken Rock Reservation? Sorry, there’s not much of that in this episode either. Thomas Rainwater’s people do examine the bones found in one of Kayce Dutton’s many, many graves, but while Rainwater lets Kayce’s wife Monica know that he thinks all of these corpses are connected “like a spiderweb,” his independent investigation hasn’t really developed anything like the force of law yet.
As for the usual Dutton dysfunction? The only lengthy interaction any two family members have comes when John spends the day taking care of his grandson Tate, left in his care by Kayce so that the boy won’t have to witness the emotional aftermath of his aunt’s suicide. Unfortunately, while John is stubbornly encouraging Tate to be more manly (rather than asking for help with everything), the boy falls into a creek. Grandpa dives into the swift current to save him, in a rescue scene that — as is too often the case with Yellowstone — feels like it was tacked on to make sure that something exciting happens this episode.
Instead, most of this hour (or, more accurately, 42 minutes without commercials) follows the novice cowhand Jimmy Hurdstrom. We see him struggling to stay on his horse, and getting bullied by his older colleagues. And after Jimmy stumbles on a stray calf and gets duly praised by his bosses, a meathead named Fred decides the kid needs to be taken down a peg, so he beats Jimmy up — and promptly gets fired by John’s right-hand man, Rip Wheeler.
That’s when the episode takes a strange turn. First, Rip reassures (?) Jimmy that because he’s been branded with the “Y,” he’ll always be more important to Yellowstone than the unscarred Freds of the world, who “come and go.” (“Not us,” Rip says. “We die here.”) Then John tells Rip to replace Fred with another two-bit crook like Jimmy, whom Rip should also brand, because it’s always been John’s belief that the Y is “not something you earn, it’s something you live up to.”
Then another of the Yellowstone ranchers takes Fred out into the middle of nowhere and shoots him dead. The bullet to Fred’s head is the “Long Black Train” of the title.
Look, no one can accuse Yellowstone writer-director Taylor Sheridan of lacking ambition. Four episodes in, this show’s already following about a half-dozen intertwined storylines, related to another half-dozen major themes: family legacies, the changing West, the infinite varieties of American corruption, et cetera. But so far, a lot of what Sheridan seems to want to say must be still in his notebook, because it’s sure not on the screen.
Week after week, each Yellowstone chapter interrupts its chin-stroking musings on what it means to be strong with sudden, often barely motivated eruptions of violence. Fred’s murder is sort of explained, at least. He’s worked long enough at the ranch to have seen things that could get the Duttons in trouble with the law, so as far as John and Rip are concerned he’s too much of a liability to set loose into the wider world. But this conception of the Yellowstone Ranch as a semi-criminal organization staffed by ex-cons with Y’s burned into their chests is something that’s been more implied than explained.
There’s nothing wrong with racing ahead with a story and assuming the audience can keep up and fill in the necessary blanks. In fact, Sheridan’s done this very well in the movies he’s written. But that doesn’t really describe what Yellowstone’s been up to, at least to this point. Instead, Sheridan’s letting his sometimes-confounding little hints to the larger Dutton mythology go undeveloped to make more room for … pontificating? Characters yelling at each other? Not story. Not really.
What’s especially disappointing about this week’s Yellowstone is that it really would be great to see an episode mostly about ranching — by which I mean the actual true-to-life details of herding cattle and maintaining discipline in a crew, as opposed to the more generic “young thug has trouble with older thugs” scenario that plays out here. Because as Isaac Kael recognized, there’s something enjoyable about watching men, women, horses, and steers, co-existing in the same open spaces, trying to tame stunning, mountain-flanked landscapes.
At the start of “The Long Black Train” we do get a little bit of that, seeing the Yellowstoners rise before dawn to make breakfast and prep horses. As he’s watching the sun rise over the corral, John says of both his morning routine and what lies ahead, “I know this is the best it’ll be.” Sadly, as far as this episode goes, he’s all too right.
The Last Round-Up
• After breaking into the main body of the review last week; alas, this week Beth Dutton has dropped back down here to the ol’ Round-Up. Even though she probably appears in about a quarter of this episode, Beth is pretty much just up to her usual tedious tricks. In one scene she irritates the management of an upscale bar by refusing to put out her cigarette. Later, she gets the better of her dad’s business rival Dan Jenkins by inviting him for beers at a cowboy bar, and then baiting drunken yahoos into fighting him. And that’s about it for Beth’s storyline. I’ll reiterate what I’ve said in previous Yellowstone recaps: Kelly Reilly is giving her all to this part (and Danny Huston’s doing his best to keep up as Jenkins). But clearly Sheridan is wrongly convinced that “a damaged woman” is such an inherently fascinating character that she doesn’t need any further dimension … beyond last episode’s pat origin story, that is.
• After this brisk little episode, next week we’ll be back up to 50 minutes (minus ads). Perhaps Sheridan will take advantage of that extra length to include an actual plot.