One of my biggest complaints about the modern prestige TV drama is that too often, creators think the best way to connote “seriousness” is to have everyone speak slowly and quietly, in darkened rooms, with lots of pauses between lines. Ever since streaming services and certain cable channels (I’m looking at you, FX) loosened the running-time restrictions for everyday, non-“very special” television episodes, suddenly writers, directors, and actors have all the time in the world to get through scenes. And they apparently assume that we viewers do, too.
So I’ll give Yellowstone credit for this: It’s not especially ponderous. The episodes themselves are generally longer than they need to be, sure. But the sets and locations are well-lit, and easy on the eyes. The actors attack their lines with verve. The dialogue itself is punchy. Heck, sometimes entire scenes come and go so fast that it’s hard to recall what exactly happened — if anything.
But therein lies the real issue with this show: Writer-director Taylor Sheridan still, with five episodes now complete, appears to be totally at a loss when it comes to assembling the basic building blocks of a television script into a story. He has characters. He has ideas. He can direct actors, and can put together some memorable sentences for them to say. But his plotting is all over the place. Sometimes he seems to forget it altogether.
I know I’ve complained in past reviews that Yellowstone lazily compensates for a lack of narrative drive with abrupt eruptions of extreme violence. But about halfway through this week’s dismal “Coming Home,” I was begging for another out-of-nowhere Kayce subplot, where something random would explode, or where circumstances would compel him to straight-up execute a dude or two.
Instead, broken down to its essence, here’s all that occurs in this episode: Rip recruits a new ex-con to become a branded rancher; Beth gets drunk in an upscale bar and then has a meltdown on the ride back with Jamie; and John tries to coerce Kayce and his family into moving to the ranch by cozying up to Tate, finding Monica a plum job at a nearby university, and shaming Kayce into training the wild stallion the Duttons need as a breeder.
Granted, no TV show or movie is strictly “what it’s about,” but rather (to quote Roger Ebert) “how it is about it.” So in fairness, I should say that the scene where Rip hangs around outside a prison, scouting for a thuggish cowboy who looks sort of like himself, holds a certain weird fascination. It helps also that the man Rip finds — a guy named Walker, who served time for accidentally killing someone in a bar fight — is played by singer-songwriter Ryan Bingham, who does by the end of the episode break out his guitar and favor his new co-workers with a tune.
But that’s about it for the Walker subplot. His arrival at the Dutton ranch isn’t used as a way to teach us anything about the family or the business that we didn’t already know from watching the greenhorn Jimmy learn the ropes the past few weeks. Nor does Walker generate any new conflict of note.
There’s a little bit of useful dramatic tension in the scenes with Kayce and his wife, as they stubbornly repel John’s overtures. Personally, I identify strongly with Tate, who feels it’s unfair that his mom and dad are keeping him from living in a huge, lavishly decorated home filled with hubcap-sized cookies and big-screen TVs. But because Sheridan still hasn’t revealed much about the nature of the rift between Kayce and his father, the arguments between them feel a little pro forma. It’s hard to get that invested in what either side wants here, given that we don’t fully know how they got to this point.
As for Beth … Well, what else is there to say about Beth? The scenes of her getting hammered and causing trouble for Dan Jenkins in front of his wife (who apparently takes an instant liking to Beth because she’s not “boring”) are more of the “untamed, emotionally damaged woman makes an awkward spectacle of herself” that we’ve seen over and over again on Yellowstone. We gather nothing original from it, and there’s very little inherent entertainment value to these moments any more — if there ever was.
That’s not to say that the Beth subplot this week is a complete waste of time. After a dramatic moment on the ride home where she fires off a handgun inside Jamie’s vehicle, he actually has a sweet moment where he says, “If hating me keeps you from hating yourself, I’ll be there for you … That’s what family’s for.” And when she arrives at the big house and sees how nice John’s being to Tate — showing a kindness that neither John nor Beth’s late mother showed her — she closes the door and screams so loud that everyone can hear her. Her primal howl of frustration and injustice is undeniably moving, no matter how underdeveloped Beth has been as a character.
But now that we’ve seen this more sympathetic side of her, what next? As John explains to Jamie, the whole reason he brought her back to the ranch in the first place is because “she can be evil, and evil’s what I need right now.” This suggests we can expect more of the unhinged, trolling Beth in the episodes to come.
Then again, maybe that won’t be so bad, provided that she stops brooding around cocktail lounges and actually does something. The same could be said of this show as a whole. Sheridan’s spent most of the first six hours of Yellowstone introducing these characters, and then reintroducing them, and then coming back one more time to say, “Have you met Kayce yet?”
I can’t believe I’m saying this about a cable drama, but: Maybe it’s time for a Yellowstone episode to drop the brief, elliptical conversations, stay in one place for a while, and give scenes a chance to breathe. Maybe then the show can regroup for a few minutes, figure out where exactly it’s going, and make a plan for how best to get there.
• To be fair, there actually were two potentially significant pieces of plot development in this episode, each treated almost as an afterthought. Early in the hour, Kayce spills the truth to Chief Thomas Rainwater about the kidnappers he shot, burned, and buried; but nothing really comes of this, because there were no witnesses, and because the barrel on his gun was officially registered to a tribal policeman. Later, in an unrelated scene, we see Dan Jenkins placing a mysterious call to a woman named Melody, offering “the armageddon rate” if she can come meet him right away. So to sum up: “Coming Home” ties off a dangling subplot from earlier episodes with one brief, not-all-that-compelling conversation; and then it introduces a new subplot without any follow-through this week to clarify why we should find it intriguing. Not great.
• Hey, what was your favorite bit of rancher wisdom this week? Here are some options: “It’s the shame that hurts the most. But shame is in the mind. You can turn that faucet off whenever you want.” Or: “It’s hard work being a man, but beats the alternative.” Or: “Livin’ day to day isn’t livin’, it’s survivin’.” Montana’s natural resources may be limited, but in Yellowstone, there’s never any shortage of folksy bullshit.