When the Taylor Sheridan–penned Sicario sequel Day of the Soldado came out last month, a lot of critics took issue with its depiction of terrorists and drug gangs, which seemed drawn straight from the most incendiary rhetoric of anti-immigration demagogues. The movie went over so poorly that some of its detractors looked back at Sheridan’s scripts for Hell or High Water, Wind River, and the original Sicario, wondering if maybe he’s always really been a right-winger, telling stories aimed at other right-wingers.
I don’t really have an answer to that question, though it does seem that, for the most part, Sheridan’s been involved with projects you’d be comfortable recommending to your Republican dad (metaphorically speaking, for those of you who don’t actually have a Republican dad). I’d also add that this is mostly a good thing.
Popular art needs more diversity, not just of backgrounds but of viewpoints. There are plenty of hard-line conservatives who’ve made movies I’ve loved, including Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson, and William Friedkin. I don’t have to agree with what they’re saying or showing to find it worthy of my attention. In nearly every case, what marks these directors as artists is their empathy. Even if they have a pronounced slant, first and foremost they earnestly try to put themselves in their characters’ shoes.
I’d say that’s true of Sheridan, too. What I’ve mainly gathered from his work thus far is that he has sympathy for the downtrodden, respect for cops and soldiers, and grudging admiration for amoral authoritarians of all stripes. He likes folks who get things done, basically — as well as those who keep getting back up even when the world’s conspiring to knock them down. That’s an interesting perspective, even if leads him to over-romanticize certain types of people and scenarios.
Certainly the most gripping sequence in this week’s Yellowstone episode, “The Remembering,” is the most overtly political. Beth and Jamie Dutton pay a visit to the lavishly appointed Montana capitol building, for a meeting with Governor Lynelle Perry — who also happens to be their dad’s secret lover. The governor’s happy to see Jamie, who she’ll be endorsing to take over for a retiring Democratic attorney general. The political machine has procured for Jamie a pretty campaign manager, whom they hope might also entice Jamie romantically; and they’re suggesting that he run as an independent, figuring that the Dutton name will win him red voters, and their endorsements will win over the blues.
Beth, however, isn’t impressed by any of this. When the governor notes that Jamie’s adviser worked for Obama, she scoffs, then brattily asks, “Can my whore be a six-foot fireman who loves Jesus?” An annoyed Governor Perry clears the room, and tells Beth a story about how her own son “stopped maturing” when his dad died, but says that he got over it once he learned to accept that tragedy is a part of life. She adds that Beth can’t bully her because, “Bullies need to be big, and I’m bigger than you.” Beth replies by warning Lynelle that she ruins careers for a living, and that at the very least the governor might want to stop having on-the-sly sex with John Dutton. On her way out the door, Beth snarls, “Your son sounds like a pussy.”
So, okay: Beth being a destructive asshole is nothing new for Yellowstone. As I’ve noted repeatedly, her schtick’s become tiresome. Even taking into account her tragic backstory, Beth’s value as a chaos-agent is questionable, and rooted in what seems to be Sheridan’s two basic female character types: like a dude, but more naive; and like a dude, but nastier.
Still, amid all the subplots that Sheridan has thrown at the wall through these first six episodes, the ones that’ve been the most fruitful have been the ones most tied to this show’s specific setting: a changing Montana, in an era when ideological divisions, economic disparity, racial animus, and environmental concerns have turned even the smallest public policy issues into life-or-death wars. If nothing else, “The Remembering” shades slightly away from the abstract conflicts of recent weeks — those sullen conversations about what it means to be “tough” — and instead considers the real, practical results of appearing strong or weak in the middle of a larger strategic power-play.
It’s clear the Governor’s allies are anxious to rid themselves of the good ol’ boy rogue operators like John Dutton, so they’re laser focused on any mistake he might make, be it failing to disclose a cancer treatment to the livestock association, or recommending someone as obviously unsuited as Beth for public office. The governor’s not the only one working angles against the Duttons, either.
This episode includes an ominous scene of two apparent out-of-towners — lesbian lovers in law enforcement, judging by all the context clues — who are out on the river fishing, and noting how the local news coverage about shoot-outs and poorly buried corpses reminds them of government/mob collusion in New York City. Meanwhile, Dan Jenkins’s “armageddon rate” fixer Melody is brainstorming ways to hit back against John for cutting off the water and power at Dan’s would-be resort, as Thomas Rainwater looks to buy up some of the Jenkins lots abutting the Yellowstone ranch as part of a larger scheme to exact leverage over the Dutton holdings.
“The Remembering” is the best Yellowstone in weeks — probably since the premiere. There’s still a lot about it that clunks though, like when Kayce’s wife Monica asks the long-overdue question about the Duttons’ policy of branding humans, and John mostly dismisses that as “a longer conversation” that he “can’t have now”… thereby pushing a key piece of the family mythology out to a future episode, for no good reason. (John does admit though that he himself branded Kayce, when his son refused to coerce Monica into having an abortion.)
Later, in another example of Sheridan dropping in violence and death perhaps just for the sake of having something happen, Monica wanders into the middle of a fight at her school, and accidentally gets knocked to the pavement, hitting her head. She seems to recover, but then back at her home, she suddenly collapses, and at the end of the episode is unresponsive … possibly dead.
If Monica’s truly gone, that’d be a shame, because her character provided a way into the day-to-day life on the reservation … or would’ve, if Sheridan hadn’t used her more often as “the disapproving wife who makes a man feel bad when he’s just trying to do what’s best for his family.” There doesn’t seem to be much of a point to killing her off, beyond throwing some more contrived tragedy into the mix, and — inevitably — giving Kayce a definitive reason to move back to the ranch, where this show’s been pushing him since episode one.
That potential miscalculation aside though, this episode putters along pretty well, drawing strength from its willingness to be about something. I still see Sheridan as a reporter, not a polemicist, more interested in capturing many sides of a story than in persuading viewers to feel a certain way about any particular hot-button issue. But in doing so, he’s willing to risk having his true feelings misinterpreted, which in a way is admirable. Even if he’s just giving angry viewers something to push back against, that’s better than the formless mush Yellowstone’s been serving lately.
The Last Round-Up
• In another of Yellowstone’s random moments of pulp action, this episode opens with Kayce going through the same predawn ranch rituals we saw a couple of episodes ago (with no one else around this time, for some reason), and then taking a pleasant horseback ride that goes sour when he happens upon a bear. Like the snake that threatened Tate a few weeks back (in the middle of an already cranked-up action sequence, no less), the bear doesn’t really serve any purpose. It feels like a stray idea Sheridan wanted to fit in somewhere; and this is the scene this season where it made the most sense.
• Before Monica collapses, Tate’s anxious about seeing a drone flying over their property, because he’s convinced that someone’s after his dinosaur bones. The dinosaur dig is a subplot that I was once inclined to file under “another weird digression,” like so much else in this show. But now I’m laying odds that Jenkins and Rainwater and Melody are going to use Kayce’s little paleontological dig as the impetus for an environmental protection order against the Dutton ranch.
• Speaking of Tate, once again I found myself simpatico with him, in the scene where his grandpa suggests that he line all the donuts in his dining room up and pick out the biggest one. I repeat: What boy wouldn’t want to live in a huge house where he can select among many donuts?