Earlier this season, I wrote about how Yellowstone creator Taylor Sheridan’s plotting style seems to have two modes: nothing much happening, and then suddenly lurching forward. (Watching this show is a little like sitting in the passenger seat during a driver’s ed class.) His mode for the season-three finale? It’s a whole lot of lurch. Several storylines from this season jump straight ahead to their next phase, with minimal setup. It’s not like Sheridan pulls one of those Battlestar Galactica or Parks and Recreation switcheroos where suddenly the story jumps way ahead it’s three years later. By my calculations, the time between last episode’s climactic murder-spree and this episode’s explosive cliffhangers is about 36 hours at most. Everything just goes sour for the Duttons in a hurry.
Let’s start with the ending. How you feel about this episode, this season, and perhaps even Yellowstone in general may be tied to how you feel about those final scenes. This chapter — titled “The World is Purple” — ends with nearly every member of the Dutton family at death’s door. Beth? A bomb goes off while she’s cleaning out her office at Schwartz & Meyer. Kayce? Masked thugs charge into his office with machine guns blazing. John? Also felled by machine guns, while helping a stranded Californian change a flat tire.
The only Dutton spared is Jamie — but maybe Jamie shouldn’t be classified as “a Dutton.” A few days ago he found out he was adopted. A few days before that, Beth spilled the beans to John about how Jamie’s carelessness led to her getting sterilized during an abortion. Always a semi-outsider in the family, Jamie has been given plenty of narratively contrived reasons over the past few episodes to abandon his adoptive family. He gets one more this week, after one conversation with his ex-con biological father convinces him to go rogue.
All too predictably, Jamie acts according to his nature in the finale, telling Montana’s governor that it’s he (not Beth) who has the state-sanctioned power of attorney to approve the sale of Dutton tracts to the hostile interlopers from Market Equities. After a big showdown meeting between the Duttons, Chief Rainwater, Market Equities, and state officials, Governor Perry commiserates with Jamie, saying. “That must’ve been hard for you,” to which he replies — honestly — “Not really.”
So forget about Jamie. The real question is: Are you worried about the fate of Kayce? Beth? John?
Because honestly? Yellowstone has gone to the “Oh no, this super-important character may be dead or at least permanently injured” well way too much this season. Remember when Jimmy was hauled off on a stretcher at the rodeo, only to spend roughly one episode in a hospital and one in a back brace before he was back in the ranch house? Remember when Kayce’s livestock agents were shot by cattle rustlers? Remember when Colby and Teeter were trampled by horses? In each case, the episode ended on a dark and ambiguous note. In each case, ultimately, everything turned out fine.
Because of all that, I doubt any of the Duttons will be down for more than an episode (if that) when season four eventually premieres … unless the pandemic pushes the start of production back so far that one or more actors can’t show up. If I’m right — and if there are no enduring consequences for anything that has happened to any of the major characters on this show in season three — that’ll mean there’s no reason to take Yellowstone seriously as a complex television drama about the politics and economy of the modern American west. Instead, it’ll have cemented its place as just another tawdry, disposable action melodrama.
And that’s fine. As I’ve also written throughout this season, Yellowstone is on the more entertaining end of the disposable action melodrama spectrum. It’s pretty to look at, the cast is (mostly) very strong, and every now and then it interrupts the earnest pontificating about “land” and “legacy” and “character” for some genuinely exciting cheap thrills.
But ye gods, that earnest pontificating. What keeps Yellowstone stuck in neutral is that it rarely seems to revel in its own trashiness. Sheridan’s honestly trying to say something with this show. At times, what he has to say is engaging. Even in “The World Is Purple,” there are some fascinating observations made here and there, like when Jamie’s biological father urges him to claim his piece of the Dutton ranch because it’s an empire not a business and “empires you take;” or like when Angela Blue Thunder tries to get Chief Thomas Rainwater to understand that it’s useless to deal with the white man using his rules because the white man will break those rules when it’s convenient.
Heck, there’s even a rare moment in this episode where somebody acknowledges how bonkers it is that the Duttons’ daily existence is sustained by killing folks. Rip tells Beth not to ask him about that part of his job, before shrugging it all off with the excuse, “It’s a big ranch, Beth, and our enemies don’t fight fair.” (Beth, of course, doesn’t really care, so long as she’s on the side of the killers.)
But there’s rarely much dot-connecting in Yellowstone between its big speeches and its big moves. The process of how things actually get done gets glossed over, even though — as some of the best prestige dramas have shown — stories often become more surprising and involving when the writers think through all the details. What are the lingering repercussions when a person gets killed? How do you move lots of money around? How do you commit crimes and not get caught? How do you accomplish even mundane tasks, like running a multimillion dollar business?
Yellowstone doesn’t do process. One of the biggest twists in this episode is when Beth sidelines Market Equities’ Willa Hays by planting a story in the business press about her “workplace misconduct.” But we never really find out much about how she does it, or why such a blatantly suspicious bit of sabotage would work. Similarly, after Thomas and Angela’s frank conversations about getting their land back by fighting dirty, they end up staging their defense against Market Equities by filing legal complaints regarding the airport project’s environmental impact, which is hardly an original or unexpected attack.
In the end, this was just an okay Yellowstone season, split roughly equally between engaging moments and infuriating idiocy. If I’m less that stirred up about how it finished, it’s because I’m not sure even Sheridan cares enough to make any of it stick. Presumably, Roarke Morris at Market Equities had something to do with the multiple Dutton ambushes, after Willa urged him to treat this situation “like an oil deal in Yemen.” But how was the assault planned? And how will it affect the people involved? It doesn’t matter. Most likely, in another episode or two, Yellowstone will lurch ahead to something else.
The Last Round-Up
• Okay, I’ll admit it: I laughed out loud at the end of the episode when John realizes that his life may have been saved by the bullet-blocking cell phone in his chest pocket. Given his season-long beefing about cellular telephony, that’s a legitimately good joke.
• Remember how Jamie was a ranch hand for like a single episode this season, and then livestock commissioner for two or three, and then attorney general? Well, after spending about three episodes as livestock commissioner, Kayce is now being courted to run for governor. This development (unlikely to be scuttled by the assassination attempt that ends this episode) illustrates two things: (1) Once again, Taylor Sheridan lacks the patience to explore the finer points of any of his big plot moves; and (2) There are only four or five jobs in Montana.
• I did enjoy the ranchers explaining to Kayce that they continue to hold more political power than any of the local environmentalists and hippies because it’s too cold in November for the lefties. (“If they ever start holding elections in May, we’re fucked.”)
• Josh Holloway was underused this season. His Roarke had some great, crackling conversations with Beth in the early episodes; but he hardly ever left his house, so his interactions with other characters were too rare and too short. We get a good sense of what we’ve been missing in this finale, when Roarke flashes his smug smile at John, saying, “Once you put a name with this face you never forget it,” and, “I can say it as much as you can: ‘That land is mine.’” I could’ve used many, many more scenes of John growling disdainfully at this cocky, charismatic know-it-all.
• This was a great season though for Cole Hauser as Rip, who got to show a lot of different facets of himself, from romantic to tragic to … well, just kinda weird. Rip had two of the most memorable scenes in this finale: one where he has his mother’s corpse exhumed so that he can tell her he’s in love; and another where he shoots an injured horse and then swears at the scavenger birds trying to eat it before it’s dead. There are too many characters on this show who act like they’re in a soap opera. We need more like Rip, who’s apparently in a Sam Shepard play.
• One last bit of Yellowstone reading for you for this season: Don’t miss my colleague Kathryn VanArendonk’s deep dive into the show’s overt and covert messages about privilege and values.