By now I should be used to Yellowstone stumbling through half-realized storylines and banal mythopoetic navel-gazing in the middle of its season, only to rally toward the end. But I can’t recall a turnaround as dramatic as the one between last week’s frustrating nothing of an episode and this week’s “I Killed a Man Today,” which exemplifies what this show can be when everything clicks. At its best, Yellowstone is a little like a 21st-century Bonanza, using the over-the-top melodrama of the classic TV western as the backdrop to an honest re-examination of how the great American ranching dynasties of 150 years ago are getting along.
Let me start, then, by eating some of my words. I’ve been complaining a lot this season about the reframing of “John Dutton, Rich and Powerful Super-Rancher” as “John Dutton, Cash-Strapped Working Man.” And even after this week’s chapter, I still think Yellowstone’s creator Taylor Sheridan — perhaps influenced by the proud ranch-folk he may have talked to before pitching this show — has a skewed sense of the American caste system if he thinks that the Duttons aren’t wealthy. Put it this way: With what they own and with the resources at their disposal, they can get things that most of us can’t.
Still, I liked that in “I Killed a Man Today,” the characters stop talking around the situation that John Dutton’s facing, and instead just lay everything out for each other directly. Here’s what we already knew: Market Equities and their real estate partners are offering the Duttons half a billion dollars for 50 acres of land; and if John declines, they’re going to enlist the state government to seize it anyway. But here’s the larger context (hinted at before but now clearly expressed): With ranching revenues down and property taxes rising, the Yellowstone Dutton Ranch can’t survive in its current form for more than a few years.
So those are the stakes. And they’re plenty real, regardless of John Dutton’s perception of his own socioeconomic status. The problem, from a dramatist’s point of view, is that the solution here seems obvious. John has to sell. (As Beth points out, he doesn’t even have to sell the ranch. He can hold onto his home and business, and will have enough liquidity to keep ranching until he dies.) That’s where it helps that Sheridan’s spent so much time over the past two seasons establishing John as a stubborn son-of-a-bitch, with crazy kids.
Okay, maybe they’re not all crazy. A big part of this season’s arc has been about Kayce’s development into a Fine Young Man. He finds dozens of ranchers lining up at his Livestock Commissioner’s office, to thank him for risking his life to bring the rustlers to justice. Jamie tells him that John never earned that kind of genuine admiration. (“Respect and loyalty,” he says, “But not that.”) The two Dutton boys then share a sweet moment when the adopted Jamie asks if he can still call Kayce “brother.” Kayce says, without hesitation, “’Til the day you die, you’d better never call me anything else.”
Beth, though? Beth’s still pretty batty. Finding a fella and asking for his hand in marriage hasn’t dulled her edge. In this episode, she pulls out all the stops in trying to scare Market Equities out of Montana: short-selling their stock; spooking the markets by planting rumors of takeovers; partnering with the reservation’s resident financial hawk Angela Blue Thunder; the works. In return, she gets crushed by Roarke Morris’s boss Willa Hayes. (“After I get this bitch fired, we should hire her,” Willa sighs.)
Yet despite all that — and despite telling her dad just how hopeless his cause is — she still lets him know that she’ll keep advancing his interests if he wants her to. “Everything I do is for you,” Beth reminds John. So what does he order her to do about the land sale? “Not an inch. Not one. … There’s always another way.”
After last week’s dispiriting lack of action, it was satisfying to see such a greater sense of urgency and import in “I Killed a Man Today.” Sheridan and this episode’s director, Guy Ferland, even overcame my early skepticism toward a subplot that — for its first few scenes — looked like it was setting up a gratuitous scene of sexual assault. When a stranded Monica gets picked up on the side of the road by some creep, I prematurely winced at what was to come. But it turned out the whole sequence was a payoff to the missing-persons investigation from two episodes ago. Monica was baiting a serial killer and rapist, who’d previously eluded capture. I’ll admit: I was fooled.
The payoff to the Monica storyline is a letdown, though. She initially avoids telling Kayce about her plans to help Chief Rainwater with the sting, because she doesn’t want him to worry. But he also fails to tell her about his bloody raid on the rustlers (which made the front page of the local paper and wounded two of his men… so I’m not sure either his reticence or her ignorance make a lot of sense). They have a spat about their respective lack of openness, which ends with Kayce making excuses for himself — citing the dangers and complexities of his life — and Monica not getting to say much at all. The valuing of his choices and his interior life over hers is, frankly, exasperating.
And Kayce and Monica’s big argument isn’t the week’s only questionable moment. Rip also goes on an odd journey. He tells Lloyd about his upcoming marriage to Beth, then sinks into a funk after Lloyd congratulates him on having “outlived your past.” The episode ends with Rip crying at a bar. Perhaps he’s upset because the musician playing onstage is Walker, the former Yellowstone ranch hand Rip intended to murder last season (before Kayce interceded). Or perhaps — like the useless bucking horse he can’t bring himself to destroy — Rip feels like a wild animal, who shouldn’t be tamed.
Whatever the reason for Mopey Rip, this new development could well be another step toward the big Rip/Beth split I’ve been dreading all season. But who knows? Perhaps I’ll be as pleasantly surprised by the way that arc goes, just as I was by so much of “I Killed a Man Today.”
How good was this episode? It even found a good use for the creepy Teeter/Colby flirtation. Here, her go-to seduction technique — taking her clothes off and demanding he go skinny-dipping — leads them both into the path of the Duttons’ surly cowboy nemesis Wade, who promptly tramples the couple under his gang’s horse-hooves. Whether Teeter and Colby are dead or alive remains to be seen. For now, it’s just a relief that something is happening on this show, however extreme or bizarre.
To be honest, I had a good feeling about this episode from the opening scene: a short, lyrical sequence of a rodeo pro just doing his thing. It looked beautiful, it was exciting to watch, and it didn’t waste a lot of time. Here’s hoping the remaining two chapters of season three follow that lead.
The Last Round-Up
• While I appreciated the more honest accounting of the Dutton family finances in this episode, I do have to balk at Tate describing his dad as “broke as hell.” Last I checked, Kayce is a Montana Livestock Commissioner (a job that pays in the high double-digits, according to Google), married to a university instructor (not a lucrative gig, but hardly minimum wage), living presumably rent-free in a massive ranch-house which probably has a well-stocked kitchen. I’ll grant that the Duttons may be the kind of rich that has a lot of strings attached. But I think most Americans would love to be that “broke.”
• Kayce remains an honorable dude, though, as evidenced by his reply when Jamie waves off his rustler-busting mission with, “My office won’t question it.” Kayce gives him a stern look and says, “You should probably question it.”
• I sometimes feel that Sheridan leans too hard on the “hard-bitten Beth” schtick; but I have to admit I laughed out loud when John noted that she didn’t look like “a blushing bride” and she responded, “The blush was fucked out of me years ago.” (Almost as funny was John’s halting follow-up: “I love our man-to-man talks but we’ve gotta set some goddamn boundaries.”)