How the Cowboy Was Colonized

Taylor Sheridan’s Yellowstone is known for being a red-state show. But its political ideology is lifted from the left.

Illustration: Marc Burckhardt/B) 2023 Marc Burckhardt/Burckhardt Studio, Inc.
Illustration: Marc Burckhardt/B) 2023 Marc Burckhardt/Burckhardt Studio, Inc.
Illustration: Marc Burckhardt/B) 2023 Marc Burckhardt/Burckhardt Studio, Inc.

This article was featured in One Great Story, New York’s reading recommendation newsletter. Sign up here to get it nightly.

In the first place, Yellowstone is not a good show. But that’s no pebble in its hoof. Since premiering on the little-known Paramount Network in 2018, the neo-western drama has grown into the most-watched scripted series on cable or broadcast television. The show, which co-creator Taylor Sheridan writes, produces, and often directs, stars Kevin Costner as a fifth-generation Montana cattleman fighting to defend his ranch from threats on every side: land developers, Native activists, biker gangs, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, paid assassins, people from California. The fourth season drew an average of 11.3 million viewers, according to Nielsen data, clocking in below Thursday Night Football but above Monday Night Football — rawhide sandwiched between pigskins — and a staggering 17 million tuned in for the fifth-season premiere in November. But critics have largely ignored it. “It’s every old western and new western and soap opera thrown together in a blender,” Sheridan told the New York Times in 2021. “I think it infuriates and confounds some people who study storytelling.”

So it does. Costner turns in a muted performance as wealthy cattle baron John Dutton III, who is more gravel than gravitas. He and his fellow Duttons — from venomous daughter Beth to wary Native daughter-in-law Monica — speak by trading dour maxims about human nature. Meanwhile, the vast Yellowstone Ranch may be “the size of Rhode Island,” but it is covered in plot holes the size of Providence. In the first episode, John’s eldest son, Lee, is killed in an armed skirmish at the nearby Indian reservation; Lee is almost never mentioned again. Sheridan prefers violent tableaux to traditional diegesis: People are shot, hanged, gored, trampled, burned alive, and, in one memorable case, fatally bitten by an airborne rattlesnake. The Duttons murder in such great volume they have a designated canyon in Wyoming for dumping bodies. None of this saves Yellowstone from having the narrative propulsion of a glacier; on the contrary, the constant but rarely consequential violence heightens the impression that nothing ever happens. After a Dutton scion strangles a nosy girl reporter from “The New York Magazine,” her death is improbably staged to look like a kayaking accident. The magazine never follows up.

In real life, the media tend to wield Yellowstone like a sociological prop, pointing to its heartland appeal and low critical esteem as an indictment of out-of-touch coastal elites. (The New York Times, in what amounts to self-parody, recently assembled a politically diverse group of fans to find out why people love the show so much.) But really, Yellowstone is popular for the normal reasons: It’s a rural crime drama with high production values and A-list talent, like Ozark at higher elevation. Paramount+ has already released two prequel series about earlier Dutton generations, 1883 and 1923, and there are plans for several more spinoffs. (Not a moment too soon: Following rumors of an ego-driven feud between Costner and Sheridan, Paramount has announced Yellowstone itself will end when the current season concludes.)

In This Issue

More From the TV Issue 

Sheridan reportedly agreed to a nine-figure Paramount+ deal in order to finance his purchase of the historic Four Sixes Ranch, a massive cattle ranch in Texas featured in the show’s fourth season. This is a bit like if David Simon had created The Wire in order to sell drugs. On Yellowstone, no effort is made to avoid the appearance of self-dealing: Sheridan cameos as the muscle-bound cowboy Travis, showing off his reining skills while wearing novelty tees that say things like BEEN DOING COWBOY SHIT ALL DAY. Travis’s pickup truck bears the brand of the real-life Bosque Ranch, another Sheridan property, where the showrunner reportedly charges Paramount $50,000 a week to shoot as well as $2,000 a head for the show’s growing stable of horses. A particularly bizarre scene finds the rancorous Beth calling up the Four Sixes Ranch while perusing steaks you may buy on the ranch’s actual website. “Is this the number to order beef?” she asks politely.

This could all be pulpy fun — the fistfights, the melodrama, even the brazen self-promotion — if only Sheridan had the good sense to aspire to less. The creator has the same literary ambitions of any TV auteur, along with a desire to philosophize; his views have ironically been obscured by the “debate” over whether Yellowstone represents a triumph of red-state populism. But the show’s focus on white-male resentment hardly distinguishes it from other prestige fare — sure, Yellowstone is about mad men, but so was Mad Men. Sheridan’s particular brand of white crisis is not Trumpism with its bottomless well of victimization. (“Can we just impeach that motherfucker right now?” he said in a 2017 interview.) Nor does Yellowstone quite endorse the “great replacement theory” of white nationalism normalized by the likes of Tucker Carlson. Sheridan is principally a moral thinker; if he does have a political ideology, it comes from the left. “The show’s talking about the displacement of Native Americans,” Sheridan told The Atlantic, referring to Yellowstone’s fictional Broken Rock Indian Reservation, whose members fight ferociously to reclaim their stolen homeland. “That’s a red-state show?”

We should believe him. In fact, the whole moral vision of Yellowstone is founded on a striking equivalence between the genocide of Native peoples and the present-day encroachments on the Duttons’ way of life. Sheridan has effectively allotted a place for white resentment within a larger critique of settler colonialism: If the show’s white characters fear replacement, this is because they are closely identified with the very people they first replaced; they have co-opted the language of settlement to describe their own mistreatment. On Yellowstone, it is the cowboy whose land is now being taken away from him, the cowboy who is now being killed and raped. This forces the cowboy, like the Indian before him, into a posture of existential authenticity; he stands outside the laws of men and sees them for the many guises of empire, land theft, and corporate greed that they are. Cowboys, Sheridan seems to be saying, can be colonized too. In the show’s horse-eat-horse world, where no one has a right to anything, the last Indian is the cowboy himself.

Sheridan is only part cowboy. The son of a cardiologist father, he grew up weekending at his mother’s ranch outside of Waco, Texas; after the divorce, she overleveraged the ranch and lost it. (He didn’t speak to her for years.) At first a frustrated actor — he had a recurring role as a sheriff on FX’s Sons of Anarchy — Sheridan was in his 40s when he sold his first screenplay, Sicario, a critically acclaimed thriller set at the Mexican border. He followed that with Hell or High Water, for which he received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay in 2017: The film follows two Texan brothers who rob banks to save their late mother’s ranch from foreclosure. These were vibe-y action films where the slow accumulation of mood was suddenly interrupted by brutal, inglorious violence; they owed much to the bleak existentialism of No Country for Old Men, the Coen brothers’ 2007 adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel. In his film work, Sheridan’s worst impulses were curbed by collaborators like Sicario director Denis Villeneuve, whose cool minimalism counterbalanced the script’s tendency to pontificate. But on Yellowstone, Sheridan has demanded what a recent profile called a “maniacal” degree of creative control. In particular, he has eschewed writers’ rooms, with the result that every character in the Yellowstone universe speaks in the same blunt, peremptory vernacular.

Nonetheless, Sheridan appears to conceive of himself as a kind of cowboy poet. As a young man, he picked up Gretel Ehrlich’s The Solace of Open Spaces, a 1986 essay collection by a Wyoming ranch hand. The book left such an impression Sheridan has John quote it from memory: “True solace is finding none, which is to say it’s everywhere.” But Sheridan’s own aphorisms come up short. “No, solace must be discovered,” John adds nonsensically. Yellowstone is full of horse-lipped attempts at cowboy lyricism like this, ranging from the folksy — “You’re either born a willow or you’re born an oak” — to the sappy — “Secrets are like a callus on your heart” — to the utterly bovine: “There’s no such thing as good men. All men are bad.” The idea here is that cowboying produces its own moral knowledge; the Duttons speak in truisms because they live within roping distance of the truth. But one often feels Sheridan is trying, by poetical brute force, to reverse-engineer wisdom from prosody. “There’s two roads in life: One is you’re winning or learning, and the other is you’re losing all the way to the fuckin’ grave,” rumbles the ranch manager, though this is clearly three things.

For a better sense of Yellowstone’s moral imagination, viewers may turn to Beth (Kelly Reilly), John’s only daughter, a ruthless corporate raider on whom Yellowstone, in lieu of the frontier, frequently relies for some semblance of life-threatening stakes. “You are the trailer park. I am the tornado,” she hisses at a financier in a coffee shop. She is a fan favorite, her would-be withering one-liners adorning official T-shirts and stemless wineglasses. (“I hope you die of ass cancer,” she snarls at someone else.) The Atlantic recently called Beth “that too-rare figure in the world of prestige TV: an antihero who is also a woman.” Critics often remark that Beth can spit, drink, and fight with the best of them, but it should be obvious by this point in the history of TV criticism that only a woman can be written “like a man.” (Men are simply written.) More interesting is the fact that Beth is written as a dude, as in dude ranch: a city slicker who shops by “calling the sales manager at Gucci and having her fill a box the size of a fucking refrigerator.” Reilly herself is English, and she cannot do an American accent; she compensates by delivering every line in an erotic whisper or a hysterical shriek. It is quite simply one of the worst performances on television.

Yellowstone posits Beth as an admirable moral outlaw. “What it must feel like to be that free,” her father marvels. As a teenager, Beth received an involuntary hysterectomy; now she rides wild and violent through morality’s untamed frontier, liberated by her suffering. (For Sheridan, lady trauma almost always concerns ruined motherhood.) “I subscribe to Nietzsche’s thoughts on right and wrong,” Beth tells her boyfriend. “I believe in loving with your whole soul and destroying anything that wants to kill what you love.” Aside from being terrible dialogue, this is a basic misunderstanding of Nietzsche. For him, good and evil were labels created by people who, too weak to form their own values, define themselves by condemning the values of others. “While every noble morality develops from a triumphant affirmation of itself, slave morality from the outset says No to what is ‘outside,’ what is ‘different,’ what is ‘not itself,’” he wrote in On the Genealogy of Morals. By this reckoning, Beth is a perfect Nietzschean slave, a woman whose identity consists entirely of the “submerged, darkly glowering emotions of vengefulness and hatred.” She has no values, just grudges. She assaults a woman with a beer bottle for hitting on her boyfriend; she sends another woman to prison for sleeping with her father, whom she still calls “Daddy.”

This is not freedom; it is compulsive aggrievement. Beth is the perennial id of Yellowstone, acting out her family’s darkest patterns of grievance; the narcissism that she openly flaunts they dress up in the language of land and legacy. “As we speak, they’re raping the land our family has bled into for more than a century,” John growls, even though after five seasons his enemies have barely touched the ranch. The Duttons are a dynasty of losers, in spirit if rarely in practice; their family history is a vast tapestry of hallucinatory persecutions. “Violence has always haunted this family,” croons John’s ancestor Elsa, a pioneer girl who migrates with her fellow Duttons from Texas to Montana in 1883. She’s not all wrong: The first Duttons face off with bandits, hostile Lakota, and an actual tornado. But if they were innocent in that series — and they weren’t, since James Dutton was a Confederate officer, a detail Sheridan drops in but never reckons with — the family’s modern descendants hoard their losses as greedily as they do the land. This, not cattle farming, is the land’s true purpose: to give the Duttons something to bleed into.

This applies especially to Elsa herself, a kind of Ur-Beth whose burial literally establishes the Yellowstone Ranch in 1883. For that series, Sheridan drew heavily on Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel Lonesome Dove, about two retired lawmen who drive cattle from Texas to Montana. Both tales end with a protagonist dying of an infected arrow wound following a brutal Indian ambush. In Lonesome Dove, the dead man’s partner abandons his newly founded Montana ranch to bury his friend in Texas; in 1883, James Dutton desperately rides into Montana with a fading Elsa, having resolved to stake out his allotment wherever she dies. The divergence is telling: The lawman arguably dies for nothing — his loyal partner ends up right where he started with no plans of returning north — whereas Elsa’s grave serves to consecrate the land, justifying the act of settlement and providing future Duttons with a monument to their family’s abiding martyrdom. This shift may have been inevitable. A troubled McMurtry once observed, regarding his novel’s romantic reception, that “instead of a poor-man’s Inferno, filled with violence, faithlessness, and betrayal, I had actually delivered a kind of Gone With the Wind of the West.” Sheridan, less worried, shunts the ambivalence of Lonesome Dove, at the last moment, into frank colonial sentimentality.

Colonization would come for the Duttons, too. Sheridan has said that Yellowstone is about “the gentrification of the West,” a reference to the threat posed by corporate developers and wealthy vacationers to the rancher’s bucolic existence — which, aside from the hoofed bits, goes oddly undefined. But the Duttons themselves are landed gentry: They are defined by their crude, feudal relationship to power, and they even command their own militia, lightly disguised as a livestock commission. Their enemies are the grubbing mercantile class, presented as soulless parasites. (“Did seven generations of ranchers infuse $6 billion into the economy?” asks the cold-blooded representative for a developer of ski resorts.) But John Dutton III refuses to be called rich, and he barely regards his land as a financial asset. Ownership is a legal fiction: He wants to possess. This is why the Yellowstone Ranch must be protected with guns, fences, and military-grade explosives; it is why John brandishes a loaded rifle at a busload of Chinese tourists trying to take photos of the view. “This is America,” he bellows. “We don’t share land here.”

Sheridan wants us to hear the irony in that line, which is as much a colonial battle cry as the lowing of a dying breed. As a broke actor, Sheridan ended up driving to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, where he says he was invited to participate in ceremony. He based his third film, Wind River, on the death of a young Oglala woman, and he provided written testimony to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs regarding missing and murdered Indigenous women. Yellowstone is regularly praised, even by those dern coastal elites, for the depth of its Native American representation. The members of the Confederated Tribes of Broken Rock are as ethically compromised as the white settlers. Tribal chairman Thomas Rainwater (Gil Birmingham, as usual too good for the role) plots to annex the Yellowstone from John by means of a dirty casino deal. “They share a real love for the land, and an intent to keep the land the way it is,” Birmingham told the Times. John’s Native daughter-in-law, Monica (played by Kelsey Asbille), puts it more directly. “When this land belonged to my people 150 years ago, children were stolen, men were killed, families herded away like cattle,” she tells John after a neo-Nazi militia attack on the ranch. “And nothing’s changed except you’re the Indian now.”

This is Yellowstone’s gambit: It grounds its defense of the cowboy way of life in an identification with the very Native peoples those cowboys dispossessed. Sheridan did not invent this idea; it is probably as old as the frontier itself, where the cowboy discovered in the Indian not just an enemy but a powerful metaphor for his own impending decline. “We’ll be the Indians, if we last another twenty years,” sighs the ill-fated lawman of Lonesome Dove. “I think we spent our best years fighting on the wrong side.” This sympathy often defines the revisionist western, supposedly a more morally ambiguous approach to the genre. The obvious example is Costner’s Oscar-winning 1990 directorial debut, Dances With Wolves, about a white Union lieutenant who assimilates into a Lakota tribe, marrying a white woman raised within it. But the western has always borne the knowledge of its own illegitimacy: In John Ford’s 1948 film Fort Apache, one of Sheridan’s favorites, an arrogant cavalry officer dies in a suicidal charge against the impoverished Apache after refusing to treat them with diplomacy. What has changed, like the slow unfurling of a flag, is simply how explicitly this knowledge is conveyed. “I’d never really known who John Dunbar was,” Costner’s character reflects in Dances With Wolves, sloughing off the settler’s guilt. “As I heard my Sioux name being called over and over, I knew for the first time who I really was.”

Revised or not, the western has always been a drama of self-discovery, the Indian refracting the cowboy back to himself in the mode of historical tragedy. Sheridan basically writes his own version of Dances With Wolves into 1883, where the free-spirited Elsa falls in love with a passing Comanche warrior who gives her the name Lightning With the Yellow Hair on account of her horsemanship and conspicuous blondeness. When she later is ambushed by Lakota, she shouts her Comanche name at her attackers, who lower their weapons in recognition — although too late to save her life. Call this the romance of Native defeat: Sheridan is eager throughout his work to capitalize on the pathos of white identification with the doomed Indian. After all, if Elsa had only been wearing her beaded Comanche vest and fringed leggings, the Lakota would have known her as a fellow Indian. The scene recalls Hell or High Water, which Sheridan originally titled Comancheria after the Spanish name for the Comanche sphere of influence. “We’re like the Comanches, little brother! Lords of the plains!” whoops a bank robber fleeing the law. (He’s shot in the head a few days later.)

Actual Native characters do not fare well in a moral universe where white people own the mineral rights to Indigenous pain. In particular, Sheridan tends to treat Native women as sponges for historical trauma, before wringing them out on the white man’s brow. Monica has endured brain damage, home invasion, attempted rape, police strip search, and a ludicrous car accident during labor that kills her newborn son. She is also terrifically dull, a one-dimensional scold whom the show trots out like a museum docent to remind viewers who was here first. (Worst, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has disputed Asbille’s claim to Cherokee ancestry.) A more nuanced — and more graphic — version of Native suffering is found in the prequel series 1923, where Thomas Rainwater’s ancestor Teonna is forced to attend a boarding school run by nuns who beat and rape her; Teonna eventually murders two of them, smashing in the head nun’s face with a sack of Bibles. “Know I am the land,” the girl whispers in Crow as she smothers her captor. “Know it is the land that is killing you.” The atrocity of the Indian boarding schools was real, and somewhere in the torture porn is a welcome dose of anti-colonial violence. (It is enormously gratifying to watch that nun die.) But Sheridan is less interested in the politics of genocide than in the moral idea he can derive from it: When this is your reality — massacre, removal, destruction of culture — you do whatever it takes to survive.

In theory, this means Yellowstone’s vision of Native resistance is at least on equal footing with that of white grievance. In practice, though, Rainwater’s machinations fade into the background as the show wears on, the chief demoted to a sort of spiritual adviser to Monica’s white husband. What matters is the idea of Native oppression: In a bizarre travesty of the history of forced sterilization of Native women, we learn Beth’s hysterectomy was performed at an Indian Health Services clinic. “We’re all the descendants of the subjugated — every one of us,” Monica declares in a lecture, the notion apparently being that her white students descend from the oppressed peasantry of medieval Europe. Violence levels all social strata; the moral landscape of Montana has not a single mountain. That the white settler was the agent of this violence, historically speaking, does not invalidate his own claim. “No one has a right,” John tells a developer. “You have to take the right.” Sheridan’s language here recalls, in a typical dilution of his influences, the monstrous Indian-hunter of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, who declares that conflicting parties must “petition directly the chambers of the historical absolute” — that is, try to murder each other.

That this violence cannot be justified on moral grounds is precisely the point. In asserting their own version of Indigenous sovereignty, the Duttons surrender any recourse to the law for protection or remedy. They have just themselves. Their precious freedom turns out to be a predatory loan that can be paid only in blood; the best they can hope for is to pass on this crushing existential debt to their children. For the settler, this is the true tragedy of the West: not Native genocide but the sundered promise of the colonial idea. As Ehrlich writes in The Solace of Open Spaces, “Disfigurement is synonymous with the whole idea of the frontier. As soon as we lay our hands on it, the freedom we thought it represented is quickly gone.” But Sheridan mistakes that irony for poignancy. “In this place where innocence is a mineral in the soil, the filth of our touch is an apocalypse,” says Elsa in 1883, as if she were already mourning the arrival of banks, oil wells, pour-over coffee. That didn’t keep the Duttons from putting their grubby paws all over Montana territory — better their hands spoil it than anyone else’s. But the cowboy, having instigated settlement, now blames everyone else. This makes him something of a masochist of history, forever reminded of how the West was really lost: by being won.

Oddly, Yellowstone may be proof of the exhaustion of settler colonialism as a concept. Scholars of Native studies have mixed feelings about the term, which can leave little space for Native power outside of saintly resilience or righteous vengeance. Historians have recently debated, for instance, whether the Comanche represented an 18th-century imperial power in their own right. At least we should dispel the fatuous media narrative that Yellowstone is a win for Native American representation purely because it has given Native actors work — especially compared with excellent Native-helmed shows like AMC’s Dark Winds, a pulpy detective story set in the Navajo Nation, and FX’s teen comedy Reservation Dogs. The latter’s sweet delinquents experience history not as God’s paperweight but as a fractured, desultory mess that yields as much humor as grief: a spirit warrior who eats Tater Tots, a blessing that sounds like “Free Fallin’.” These kids have no interest in the historical absolute; life has taught them there is no such thing.

As for the Duttons, there is always something unsettled about the settler — this is an internal fact of the colony, not a peripheral threat to it. One asks why the cowboy needed the Indian to make sense of himself in the first place; the simplest answer is that he coveted the exaltation of someone else’s suffering. The truly maddening thing about Yellowstone is the endless pantomime of inherited necessity, as if generations of attempted land theft have purified the ranchers into avatars of history. Of course, the Duttons can make choices; they just choose not to. But the kind of freedom that John Dutton III truly admires, the kind that Beth Dutton embodies, is not the freedom to make decisions — that is, ethical freedom — but rather the freedom to act as if one’s decisions have all been made in advance. There are no nobler savages than the Duttons, whom their gods have not saddled with the encumbrance of a psychology. They are ideas with guns, titanic nothings; windmills tilt at them.

This is the horseshoe-shaped irony of Yellowstone: The Duttons, who on paper should be champions of the right, in fact resemble the sentimental, naturally tragic, historically burdened figures who sometimes populate the left’s theories of oppressed peoples. There is a real danger to overstating the existential stakes of political violence, not because lives are not at stake — we are speaking, after all, of genocide — but because the very concept of existence is an abstraction of life as the oppressed live it. It is only in the desert of existence that Sheridan can metabolize specific historical wrongs into a general theorem. The white people on Yellowstone are under threat not because they are white but simply because they are people. It is a bitter irony: The colonizer, having finally extended humanity to the colonized, now uses his own humanity to claim common experience. So if Yellowstone has something to teach the left, it is not that some heartland majority is rejecting the woke consensus, or that political polarization is ruining our democracy, or that we must better grasp the roots of white resentment. It is this: Our ideas should be harder to steal. Right now, any cattle thief can do it.

In Taylor Sheridan’s America, the Cowboy Is Colonized Too