I don’t generally take the politics of the Taylor Sheridan Universe too seriously. The series are soaps, and its characters are broad as Jungian archetypes: Spencer’s the explorer, Jack’s the innocent, Jacob’s the ruler. Among 1923’s blondes, Cora is the caretaker, Lizzy the lover, and Alexandra a little trickier to pin down. She can be a jester and a magician and sometimes plain annoying. But it’s never occurred to me to engage with their anti-progress, anti-city, woe-is-me griping. Until this week, the Duttons’ moth-eaten values seemed mostly to exist in service of the plot.
But in the middle of “The Rule of Five Hundred,” Jacob treats his family to a tedious dinner-table sermon on the corrupt state of American politics. In societies with fewer than 500 people, he says, everyone can get along, but above that threshold, the bonds of kinship are diluted and the strong take advantage of the weak. Ideally, the government is a tool for overcoming “man’s essential nature,” by which he means the innate desire to grab what he wants. So far, so Hobbesian.
In 1923, however, the U.S. government can’t effectively hold powerful men to account because it’s been hijacked by the powerful men themselves. A cattleman is in charge of the Montana livestock commission, or now a mining baron — Donald Whitfield — has just been named to some congressionally appointed mining regulatory board.
Nephew Jack, a simpleton and maybe even a snowflake, asks his uncle about right and wrong — concepts that Jake dismisses entirely. There’s only what’s right for the ranch, what’s wrong for the ranch, and figuring out how to do what needs doing within the confines of the law. Their conversation is a little ugly but overall familiar. Parents are uptight; kids are idealistic. It reminded me of that (perhaps apocryphal) Churchill quote: If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 40, you have no brain.”
It’s Cara’s two cents, delivered alongside the adage that no one should be talking politics at the dinner table in the first place, thank you very much, that stayed with me. Jack reads every article on the front page, but Cara wants to know what the newspaper isn’t telling them. She seems to represent a distrust in the media and in American institutions that’s in the ascendancy right now. She’s hardly gone full-blown Pizzagate, but she’s putting a humanizing face on what we might regard as a lunatic fringe. Cara’s got no evidence that the papers are deceiving her, just an intuition she believes in regardless. “This isn’t the news, Jack. This is camouflage.” Sheridan’s laughed off the notion that Yellowstone is a red-state show, but in moments like this one, when a beloved character who often represents the voice of reason vilifies the media, it’s harder to dismiss.
If the most powerful men in America are the ones who are most effective at bringing the law to their advantage, the murder charges against Banner Creighton represent a showdown. On one side, we have Jacob Dutton, who rides on horseback with his livestock-commission agents and fellow cowboys beside the sheriff’s proto-cruiser to see Banner arrested. On the other, we have the exquisitely evil Donald Whitfield, whose expensive lawyer promises to have a disbelieving Banner out on bail (for murder charges!) before the end of tomorrow. I think the smart money has to be on Whitfield here. Better to have a judge in your pocket than a sheriff.
Ultimately, though, Banner will need to be punished — not just for getting in bed with a capitalist urbanite but for liking it so much. When Jacob and his posse show up to make the arrest, Banner’s just getting ready to enjoy his morning cigar and Champagne with the two hookers in his bed. (I guess Mrs. Creighton and son are still living in the log-and-sod cabin in the hills?) This is what happens to men when they’re exposed to life inside city limits. He’s dragged off to the clink looking every part the debauchee in his silk robe and slippered feet.
The show has been taking its time peeling back the onion of Whitfield’s depravity, but this week he reveals himself to be an abuser of women and not just Mother Earth. When the lawyer tells him about the sex workers lingering in Banner’s house, he offers to deal with them himself, which of course means he’ll go over there for some early-morning sadism. He blindfolds one with his necktie, then asks her colleague to whip her with his belt so hard that it hurts. The vignette he’s authored doesn’t even seem to make him horny. He leans back into the kitchen cabinets, looking self-satisfied. He’s rich enough and powerful enough to orchestrate this particular torture. Incidentally, the scene marks the end of our one-week reprieve from watching women get beaten.
In fact, beatings are back with a vengeance by the time we catch up with Teonna’s story line again. Last week, I wondered what news would reach her father, Runs His Horse, first: his mother’s death or his daughter’s crimes? The answer is that bad news travels simultaneously. Around the same time he discovers his mother murdered by the Feds (he can tell from the horseshoe prints on the property), Hank’s son arrives to tell him that Teonna’s on the lam from God.
If only they had stayed together! Runs His Horse, whom we haven’t seen since the sheep hand-off in episode two, stays to bury Grandma Rainwater while Hank’s son, Pete, returns to the herd. (I think his name is Pete after rummaging around in the end credits.) Runs His Horse tells him to avoid town, but in the end, Pete runs into trouble far from it. The three priests tracking down Teonna find him, beat him, and tie him up to take him back to the barbaric reservation schools. Though based on the menacing conversation he has with the priest who offers to ride off with him, I’m doubtful that Pete will make it. This is the series’ other range war, I suppose, between the people who come from this land and those who want to “save” it. For this particular priest, America is only the latest stop on his salvation world tour. Why can’t the Indians be more like the Argentine Aboriginals he converted last week?
Luckily, before his pseudo-Catholic speechifying results in another dead teenager, Runs His Horse tracks them down. He scalps the priest and eats his soul, which I’m guessing is in his heart. I don’t know if this kind of thing really happened in Montana specifically, but there is evidence to suggest cannibalism sometimes happened with some Indian tribes, especially in the Southwest. Anyway, that guy didn’t really seem to possess much of a soul to begin with. Jesuits, amirite?
Meanwhile, the other two priests quickly find Teonna, whose bosom is regrettably noticeable despite the fact she’s wearing Pete’s clothes and answering to the name “Joe” now. The priests also think she looks school-age, which seems insane to me because she both looks 26 and is 26 in real life. Teonna makes a run for it, blinding one of the clergy with her thumb, as is her specialty. Hank, who’s been lurking near camp all along, saves her life by shooting the priests but loses his own life in the skirmish. Teonna bashes the last breathing Jesuit in the skull with a rock, but there are no winners here. Just dead Catholics and dead and traumatized Natives.
All of this conflict in the Wild West couldn’t feel farther away from the sunny progress that Spencer and Alex are making through Europe. For reasons unexplained, the astonishingly named Captain Shipley — there’s gold in a close read of the end credits — drops his stowaways in Sicily rather than his originally stated destination, Marseilles. When Spencer pledges himself indebted to the captain, Shipley shakes it off. He theorizes the sea is the place on earth where men do what’s right, though he also offloads the Duttons by skiff to avoid customs agents. I guess “what’s right” isn’t always synonymous with what’s by the book, which makes him a Dutton at heart.
The newlyweds seem basically unfazed by their latest near-death scrape, and while unplanned, Italy is hard to beat as far as honeymoons go. Alexandra continues to be her vivacious self, but it’s not so bothersome when they’re on vacation. Her shtick works when the situation is frivolous. Plus Spencer really does need her in his own way. I mean he can’t even recognize an arancini.
They’re causally macking at the lunch table, as you do, when a familiar voice calls Alexandra’s name from across the terrace. It’s her pipsqueak old fiancé, but rather than look amused by the coincidence, she looks stricken. (I can tell you from my poring over the credits that someone in the party is the Countess of Sussex — is this relevant?) Maybe it’s just that this is her last chance to ditch and run. Her old life, easy and reliable, has crisscrossed with this hardscrabble new one. An unexpected juncture. Is this where she gets off the Oregon Trail and back on the grand tour?