One of the more remarkable and unexpected shifts in the core Yellowstone premise over the course of season two and now season three has been John Dutton’s repeated insistence that he’s actually not rich. Early on, the impression we seemed to be encouraged to get was that this man — who holds most of the privately owned land in Montana, owns his own helicopter, and has enough political power to reroute waterways and to have people killed with minimal repercussions — is pretty loaded. Yes, when the series begins John’s son Kayce is living a simple life on the reservation with his wife and kid. But that’s partly about him rejecting the corrupting influence of his father’s means and machinations. His other living children, Beth and Jamie? They were living like one-percenters.
By the end of season, though, perhaps creator Taylor Sheridan realized it was going to hard to keep generating sympathy for his main characters if they were depicted as wealthy, entitled lords, squaring off against other millionaires and billionaires eager to claim their own parcel of Big Sky Country. So lately we’ve been getting a lot of scenes like the one that opens this week’s episode, “An Acceptable Surrender,” wherein John grumbles to his grandson Tate about how ranching is a terrible business because the people who do it can’t control the weather, the prices, or the nitpicky government regulations. As far as John’s concerned, he and his neighbors are just salt-of-the-earth country folk eking out a living, on land they’ve taken care of for centuries — and that clueless meanies in tailored suits are now trying to steal.
The title of “An Acceptable Surrender” refers to something Governor Lynelle Perry says to John, late in the episode. This week, all the stealthy maneuvering surrounding the fate of Dan Jenkins’s defunct Paradise Valley Sporting Club project moves out of the shadows, as the real estate speculators working with Roarke Morris to build a ski resort and airport in the middle of Yellowstone make it clear to the governor that they need her to invoke Eminent Domain so they can take some of the Duttons’ land.
Perry’s skeptical of Providence Hospitality Management’s pitch that they’re going to turn the area into another Jackson Hole, because she sees that ridiculously ritzy corner of Wyoming as a case study in irresponsible development. But then the PHM spokesman starts talking about 40,000 new home-owners pumping six billion dollars of property taxes into the coffers, and suddenly the concerns of ranchers who’ve been on the land for seven generations don’t seem so vital.
Governor Perry takes a last-minute trip to a rodeo in Livingston, because John refuses to go to her when she calls an urgent meeting. (“If it’s important she shouldn’t mind coming to see me,” John growls. “I’m sure her voters will enjoy watching her partake in something they actually care about.”) Without telling him exactly what’s going on, the governor proposes to John that he let her appoint Jamie to a newly opened attorney general position, with Kayce taking over Jamie’s Livestock Commissioner post. The aim? To give the Duttons leverage to squeeze everything they can out of Providence, with the understanding that ultimately, for the good of Montana, they’re going to have to give the interlopers what they want.
“An Acceptable Surrender” suffers some from the issues that have plagued Yellowstone since season one: namely an odd blend of aimless conversations and lurching narrative. I generally enjoy the conversations (as I did last week). And there’s a lot to enjoy in the major plot-mover of this episode, which sees Jamie responding to one of his agents getting arrested for killing horse thieves by indulging in some dirty politics. He lies to the cops, he threatens colleagues, and he positions himself as a populist hero to all the people who wanted those thieves punished hard.
Still … Jamie just became livestock commissioner. And now a couple of episodes later he may be attorney general? What’s the hurry?
As with the first two episodes of this season, this latest Yellowstone resonates most when it gets back to the question of how John Dutton sees his place in the world — and whether he’s right. In that same opening sequence where he grumbles about ranching, John tells Tate that he sticks with this job, “Because it’s one hell of a life.” (Then he shows his grandson how to steer a predator away from a baby elk by marking the territory near the animals with human urine.)
Rip, on the other hand, provides a little perspective to Beth’s cynical, John-inspired “modern life is killing ranching” spiel by noting that a hundred or so years ago, their ancestors were adamant that barbed wire would destroy the frontier. Rip then gestures out at this land he feels so connected to and Beth — naked under a comforter, tapping away at her laptop on his porch — offers a counter-perspective, saying, “This isn’t the frontier.”
Then there’s Jimmy, who for most of this episode seems to be very much enjoying his comparatively meager lot in life. He’s competing in the rodeo, and just before his turn he makes a date with a bright and lovely young rider named Mia. Then right before the closing credits, he has an accident during the competition, and is carted away in an ambulance.
Who knows? Given how choppy Yellowstone’s plotting can be, maybe Jimmy will be all healed by next week. But even if so, his big tumble serves a thematic purpose in this episode. Rich or poor, fenced-in or free-range … this isn’t the best time to be a cowboy.
The Last Round-Up
• I’m not sure what to make of “The Teeter and Colby Show.” This episode saddles one of the Yellowstone Ranch’s most level-headed hands with Rip’s latest hire: a shit-talkin’ wild child who tries to drag him into her pants the first time the two of them are left alone. Their scenes together are meant to be a bit of comic relief in an otherwise dark and somewhat melancholy episode. But they aren’t integrated into the main action well.
• For the third week in a row, we only get to spend a few minutes with Josh Holloway’s Roarke Morris — and once again he’s just kind of hanging out around the water, seemingly waiting for Beth to storm up and berate him. This time, he pushes back when she complains about his business partners pushing her dad off his land, saying that his team is just doing to the Duttons what the Duttons (and Beth in particular) have done to many. She does get the only real laugh-out-loud line of the episode, though, after she boasts that she ran out of things to do for the first time before she was 20. Roarke replies, “Paints quite a picture.” She snaps back, “Feel free to beat off to it later.”
• As a lifelong southerner, I’ve heard “Have a blessed day!” from customer service workers nearly every day of my life. I have never, however, heard any of them pronounce it “bless-ed,” the way that John Holloway does. A regional variation?
• I can accept that there are multiple ways to say “blessed day.” I can not accept the radio sportscaster heard in the background of one scene. If I heard him right (or if the audio wasn’t corrected in the broadcast version of the screener I watched), he says that in Major League Baseball news, the pennant races are tightening “in three of the four divisions.” Unless Yellowstone takes place in an alternate universe, there have been six divisions in American professional baseball since the mid-’90s.