Early in this week’s Yellowstone episode, “Cowboys and Dreamers,” Chief Thomas Rainwater drops by the Dutton Ranch to talk to John about the city-building plans of Providence Hospitality Group. Thomas suggests they both put aside their differences (for now, at least) and work together, because ultimately they’re fighting to preserve as much of the unspoiled natural beauty of Yellowstone as possible. John tacitly agrees, saying of their mutual PHG problem, “It doesn’t seem to be going away on its own, does it?”
To which I thought: Well, no. But why would it? Through the first four episodes of this season, John has done exactly nothing to stop any interlopers. He’s mostly heard other people’s suggestions, and then just kind of shrugged and let them do whatever. What was he expecting would happen?
By the end of their conversation, John and the Chief have decided to unleash their two in-house chaos agents — who I assume are Beth Dutton and Angela Blue Thunder. Big business needs to move fast to satisfy stockholders. Slow them down with shamelessly petty annoyances, and maybe they’ll take their money elsewhere.
Still… We’re halfway through this third Yellowstone season, and the series’ primary protagonists are just now getting around to formulating a coherent plan to take on their latest antagonists. And they don’t actually do anything specific in this episode, beyond pontificating and musing, while occasionally nodding sagely.
Beth, on the other hand, does do something this week. She’s been continuing her largely freelance efforts to annoy the piss out of Roarke Morris; and as this episode begins she’s persistently working to tank Roarke’s company’s stock via a laborious process of short-selling.
Frustrated that he now has to spend his days executing quick trades on his laptop rather than fishing and smirking, Roarke confronts Beth in a bar — where she’s already pretty soused, apparently getting back in touch with her hell-beast side. The two of them spar a bit about his fishing habit. (He claims fish don’t feel pain; she gets him to admit that at the end of the day he doesn’t care whether he hurts them or not.) They spar over her day-trading habits. (He accuses her of hurting him just for sport, not for a real purpose; then finally he gets her to promise to do the short-selling after hours so he can get back to fishing.)
Finally, Roarke tries to reason with Beth, striking his most serious tone. He warns her that her dad will never know peace for as long as he stubbornly holds onto land so valuable. If John Dutton would just convert his property into money, he’d leave a real legacy for his family. Beth agrees with Roarke… but she says it doesn’t matter, because her old man won’t budge. Besides, she kind of enjoys making life miserable for cocky S.O.B.s like Roarke Morris. “You are the trailer park,” she growls. “I am the tornado.”
The Roarke/Beth scenes are — as always — the best parts of “Cowboys and Dreamers.” But there’s an unexpectedly close second in this episode: the scenes involving Kayce’s first days as Livestock Commissioner.
The first big call Kayce gets on the job involves a rancher whose spread has been foreclosed on, and who has responded by shooting himself, right in front of his horses. Worried that the dead man’s kids will be left with nothing, Kayce asks both the cop on the scene and his own father if he should rustle those horses and sell them at auction, before the bank can take them. Both men make it clear that they can’t officially sanction this gambit… but that they’d be awfully proud of him if he can pull it off.
And so — at long last — we get an actual cattle drive on this big-time ranching drama. Kayce rallies the family and the Dutton hands to serve as his drovers, as he executes a plan he describes aptly to his father as, “Fuck it.” The posse chases the horses down to the Dutton’s property. The herd ends up netting $13,000, which Kayce gives to the widow for the funeral. She thanks him, but hisses, “That coward can rot where he lays.” (The widow, by the way, is played by the excellent veteran character actor Kathleen Wilhoite, whom it’s always a treat to see.)
That’s all the stuff of a fun, old-fashioned western romp, made all the more poignant by the concluding reality check of a modest payout and an angry wife. (The title of this episode comes from the wife’s lament. She’s spent her whole life attracted to “cowboys and dreamers.”) But there’s a lot about this Yellowstone that falls flat too, aside from John’s increasingly annoying lack of urgency.
For example, I don’t quite know what to make of the opening, which flashes back to the origin of Beth and Jamie’s ongoing animosity. It seems that as a teenager, Beth got pregnant (by, unless my eyes deceived me, young Rip… something which has been long presumed by Yellowstone fans). She asked Jamie for help; and to avoid embarrassing the family, he took her to a clinic at a nearby reservation, at a time when abortion services sometimes came with compulsory sterilization. He didn’t let his sister know this; he just sent her in.
This is, obviously, a terrible violation of trust. But it’s more than a little reductive to keep tying Beth’s behavior to past personal tragedies — like her role in her mother’s death, or her unwitting choice to be sterilized. The implication here seems to be that Beth has suffered due to severed ties to her womanhood: She lost her mother, and she’ll never be a mother. That’s… certainly a take.
To be fair, these kind of broad strokes are common in the work of Yellowstone creator and writer Taylor Sheridan. As Lloyd says to Monica this week, while talking about Tate’s inner strength, everyone he’s ever known was “either born a willow or born an oak.” This the way it goes in Sheridan-land. People are who they are — who they’re born to be. Even the complicated ones ain’t that complicated.
Which is fine… to a point. Yellowstone is part western and part melodrama, and both those genres tend to rely on a certain straightforwardness in their characterizations. But this can be a drag whenever characters like John keep predictably plodding ahead along the same paths, unchanging and — from the perspective of the show’s creator — unchallenged. As charismatic as Kevin Costner is, there’s frequently a John Dutton-sized hole at the center of Yellowstone.
The Last Round-Up
• One Yellowstone element I never find tiresome is whenever some passing rando mouths off to Rip and then inevitably gets his ass handed to him. This week it happens when Rip and the boys notice some buffalo have roamed onto their land. They holler at the grizzled, pissy cowboys watching that herd, and when one of those cowboys tries to step to Rip, he gets straight-up socked. On a primal level, that punch is just so, so satisfying. We clearly haven’t seen the last of this storyline; but for this week at least it comes to a good end.
• Not so good of an end? This episode’s actual end, which sees the ranch hands getting drunk and rowdy. Throughout, Teeter keeps openly sexually harassing Colby, who finally admits he might be kind of into it. I know this whole Colby/Teeter subplot is supposed to be funny — she’s inappropriate! he’s shy! — but so far, it’s playing way more creepy than cute.