After this week’s “A Monster Is Among Us” there are three episodes remaining in Yellowstone’s first season — but not in the series as a whole, because this has been one of the most-watched scripted dramas on cable this summer, and has already been renewed for another year. The Paramount Network executives are undoubtedly happy with Yellowstone’s numbers. But are they happy with the product? The show has solid bones, no doubt. Next year, might Paramount urge creator Taylor Sheridan to rip everything else out and rebuild?
If they did, would that be wise? I spent most of “A Monster Is Among Us” being either bored or baffled, I confess. But I also kept thinking that the most crazily entertaining pieces in this episode are the ones that would be jettisoned immediately if show were more … well, let’s say “normal.”
So let’s talk about the Asian tourists, shall we?
This hour opens with John Dutton getting annoyed at a busload of sightseers trespassing on his property, gawking at a bear. At first they refuse to leave, because they don’t believe that one man could actually own so much wide-open land. But then John fires his shotgun in the air, growls, “This is America… we don’t share land here,” and they scatter.
Later, while hunting for that rogue bear, Rip finds two of those same tourists, balanced precariously on either end of a thick tree branch, pivoted on a cliffside outcropping, high off the ground. Rip tells them his rope can only hold one of them, and warns that when he yanks one up, the balance will be upset, and the other will fall. One panics, slips, and drops; and then the other lets himself plummet.
Then the bear suddenly shows up and lunges at Rip, and he shoots it dead.
This is all just so very odd. For one thing, once again, Sheridan leans on random violence and bloodshed to goose up a Yellowstone episode. But also — once again — we’re given no indication that anyone’s ever going to mention this terrible, freakish tragedy for the rest of the season. People just keep dying on this ranch, in increasingly bizarre ways, and yet I think thus far maybe two of these incidents have been investigated? Perhaps three?
Still, I have to admit: It’s been a while since I’ve seen anything on TV quite as perversely nutty as that cliffhanger scene. (Maybe not since the most recent season of Twin Peaks.) There’s a real “What the hell?” kind of kick to that sequence. At the least, I’m damn sure going to remember it more than anything else in “A Monster Is Among Us.”
Yellowstone’s ladies take center stage for much of this episode — which isn’t really a good thing, given the troubles Sheridan has writing women. Even the relatively minor character of Jamie Dutton’s campaign manager is a total disaster: all breathless and googly-eyed in the presence of a strong man (or whatever Jamie is). When he admits to her that he has no real goals beyond accumulating power and protecting his family’s holdings, she improbably coos, “That’s the most idealistic thing I’ve ever heard a politician say.” He then makes a joke about how there must be something inherently sexy about the break room they’re in and she says, “It’s not the break room … It’s you.” Yeeeesh.
Meanwhile, Monica — who did not die — spends much of this week in a coma, until the last third of the episode, when she wakes up but exhibits some short-term memory loss. It’s makes no sense how Sheridan’s been telling Monica’s story. She was dashed to the pavement out of nowhere last week, and looked like she’d suffered a fatal head wound. Then she recovered, just in time to collapse on her property, looking completely deceased, for real this time. But nope, not dead … just hospitalized. And getting better? Maybe not. It’s like the show can’t commit to this plot twist.
Then there’s Beth, who has a flashback to Christmas when she got her first period, and recalls how her mom was very kind to her that day, but warned her that now she was a woman, “I have to turn you into the man most men will never be … You’re gonna hate it, sweetheart.”
There are aspects of the Beth character that are genuinely electrifying to watch ever week, such as her colorfully foul mouth. (When she goes riding and falls off her horse, the new ranch hand Walker says, “You got buckarooed right onto your peanut,” and she hisses back, “Repeat that in English, I don’t speak dipshit.”) But it’s disappointing that Sheridan (a) keeps writing Beth as one-dimensionally ornery, and (b) feels obliged to explain that both Beth and her mom have reasons for being so mean. Note that Yellowstone never really provides detailed backstories or psychological explanations for how its men behave.
To be honest though, this is one of the things I genuinely appreciate about what Sheridan’s trying to do. Yellowstone’s guilty-pleasure wackiness is a useful distraction from its frustratingly formless, repetitive storytelling, sure. But the show that looked so promising when it premiered was a beautifully composed neo-Western with flavorful dialogue and a keen understanding of how power and property — and the desire for more of both — warp people’s perceptions of who they are.
That Yellowstone is still nestled within the one that’s been airing for the past two months. It’s there in the scene where a doctor tells Kayce that just because Tate’s upset about his mom — and is the grandchild of one the state’s richest men — doesn’t give him the right to go “code white” and start attacking the nursing staff. And it’s there in John’s faux-humble address at a cattlemen’s association dinner, where he — again, one of the state’s richest men — talks about how ranching is all about breaking even, and counting on God to “give us rain and a little luck.”
This, remember, is the same John Dutton who blew up a mountain to divert water away from a rival’s holdings, which then caused the local bear population to move onto his own land. That’s the kind of smart writing that Sheridan’s capable of at his best: making the subtle connection between one man’s entitled arrogance and a mortal threat.
• Between all the medical drama, flashbacks, and tourist slaughter, there was very little development in the Rainwater/Jenkins real-estate coup, aside from the coalition’s decision to sic EPA lawyers on John Dutton over his water-diverting tactics. (When a process server shows up at the ranch, Jamie pulls a shotgun on him, and Yellowstone finally gets around to an image that’s been central to Paramount’s advertising campaign since before the season began.) Rainwater’s few scenes in this episode, though, do reestablish his primary motivation for this play. “I want everything John Dutton has,” he says. Power and property, like I said.
• Remember back in episode two, when Rip made the mistake of asking Beth on a proper date to a “music festival,” and she mocked him so mercilessly that they ended up going out to get drunk and watch wolves? Apparently Sheridan thought that moment was a hoot, because he won’t let Beth let it go. In episode four, when she met Rip at a redneck bar featuring a hot alt-country band, she sneered that it was like they were at a “music festival.” This week, when Rip walks into the bunkhouse and finds her hanging out with the boys, listening to Walker play his guitar, she says to him, “Looks like you brought the music festival to me.” Does Beth … not know any other jokes?
• I confess I may have bumped this episode’s grade up a star because Jimmy loses another goddamn horse.