After a Yellowstone episode that took the characters and the circumstances of this show seriously for a change, this week’s chapter, “Meaner Than Evil” — the penultimate one of season three — reverted to shallow, trashy pulp. It was violent. It was lurid. It was, at times, phenomenally stupid.
It was also, I have to admit, pretty damned entertaining.
Give some of the credit to good ol’ fashioned dramatic unities. Aside from a few minor subplots mostly dispatched in mere minutes, the bulk of this episode tells one big story, weaving multiple threads together as writer Taylor Sheridan and director Stephen Kay push toward a climactic explosion of revenge-killings. This was old-school Yellowstone: downright wanton in its characters’ use of murder as a problem-solver.
The most extensive non-murder stretch of this episode involves Jamie, who’s still reckoning with two recent pieces of news: that he was adopted; and that his real dad killed his real mom. (Okay, so there’s a little bit of murder.) He pays a visit to his biological old man, who’s out of jail and apparently spending his days welding in a garage, attached to a crumbling old house. Jamie being Jamie, he introduces himself by first mentioning his credentials and then by getting indignant when his father says, “Your mother sold her body for drugs and I killed her for it. That’s who you are.” But even though the cranky ex-con warns him that, “I killed everything I ever loved and everyone who ever loved me,” Jamie still says, “I need to know you or I will never know myself.”
So that’s happening. More to come next week, no doubt.
Meanwhile, in an even dumber conversation, Kayce mentions to Monica that they should pull Tate out of school and instead just let him hang around the ranch all day, since that’s going to be his future. Monica balks briefly, reminding her husband that his own father scalded his flesh with a branding iron when he was a younger man, and that he needs to see that “for what it was.” But eventually, with very little fight, she agrees. To reiterate: Monica, an academic who teaches classes at a local university, decides that her only son would learn a lot more from drunken, indigent, rapscallion ranch hands than he would from teachers. Uh huh.
What makes Monica’s too-quick capitulation to Kayce’s half-baked suggestion all the more ridiculous is that much of “Meaner Than Evil” is dedicated to reminding regular Yellowstone viewers that this ranch is — to coin a phrase — a wretched hive of scum and villainy. Even as Kayce, Monica, and Tate settle down for a “normal” family dinner later that night, Beth starts cussing up a storm about losing her job, while John and Kayce mutter under their breaths about the distasteful chore Rip and the ranch hands are up to elsewhere on their property.
Beth’s setback is, arguably, the third subplot in this episode, though it’s ultimately part of the larger whole. After her failed attempt to take down Market Equities with short-selling and press leaks, ME’s head honcho Willa Hays lets her know that she’s bought out Beth’s bosses — and, by extension, all the Yellowstone Dutton Ranch-adjacent property they’d been snapping up. She adds that while Beth’s fired right now, “After the sting of this fades, you should give me a call.” (Beth’s all-too-predictable reply: “The sting never fades with me.”)
The big revelation in this chapter — albeit not that surprising — is that Market Equities hasn’t just been moving money around in Montana. Roarke Morris himself is responsible for hiring that irascible old coot Wade and his team of cranky cowboys, who’ve been simultaneously executing Wade’s decades-old grudge against John Dutton and trying to goad the Yellowstoners into breaking the law, in order to make it easier for the state of Montana to condemn and seize the Duttons’ land. (“Can’t sue for damages of there are no damages,” Roarke reminds Wade, while casually mentioning that before all this is over, “Someone better get dragged through the sagebrush.”)
As it turns out, John has been wise to this scheme from the start. He’s been trying to play it cool, not giving Wade or Roarke what they want. But after Wade and his rogues trample Colby and Teeter (non-fatally), John’s forced to let Rip lead the staff on a full-on mission of menace. Ignoring any potential consequences — pretty idiotically, really — the Yellowstone mob baits Wade and his sidekick into chasing down the Duttons’ prodigal wrangler Walker. The Yellowstone posse then spooks Wade’s sidekick into falling off his horse onto a conveniently skull-splitting rock, before lynching Wade on a low branch. As they strangle Wade, they get him to confess that he’s been working for Roarke. Then they drive their two murdered men across county lines to a community with no law to speak of, where even if corpses get found they tend to go un-investigated.
Like I said, this is all like the Yellowstone of old, where Rip (and others) would just casually terminate any interloper who happened to be too much of a pain in the ass. It didn’t make a whole lot of sense back then that the Duttons could kill whomever they wanted with minimal repercussions; and it especially doesn’t make sense now, given the bloodbath at the end of season two, and given that mega-millionaire money-manager Roarke Morris knew exactly what Wade was up to. If there’s not hell to pay for the Duttons in next week’s season finale — or in season four, at the very least — then I call bullshit.
On the other hand, I’d been getting a little weary of this season’s dogged ennobling of John Dutton, The Last Rancher; so it was nice to be reminded that his ginormous spread is still a place where lost souls and incorrigible crooks are encouraged to “take the brand,” pledging service to John until death. (Case-in-point: Wade, who had a Yellowstone brand carved off of his chest just before he got himself hung.) The return of Walker at the end of last week’s episode — and Rip and Kayce’s threatening him into rejoining the organization this week — frames the ranch life in a much different way. John may think this is the only honest way to live. But according to Walker, “This fuckin’ place is a magnet for everything that’s wrong in this fuckin’ world.” Preach, brother.
The Last Round-Up
• After Beth’s scheme to sandbag Market Equities falls flat, she makes a promise to Willa: “When all this is over, I’m going to hang your diploma above my toilet in my guest house.” This made me laugh — not because it’s a funny line, but because it drove home how vague this show often is about exactly what makes Beth’s business acumen so in-demand. She’s ruthless, that’s clear. She’s intimidating, sure. But when it comes down to the nuts and bolts, I have no idea what she could possibly do to flip her dynamic with Willa. I guess she could do what she did with Roarke: sit in front of her computer and speakerphone, typing rapidly and barking business-y things.
• I don’t want to grumble too much about how under-drawn the women are on this show, because I can’t really argue the men are more complex. Still, it’s hard to ignore how Yellowstone’s idea of “a strong female character” is often someone like Teeter, whose dominant traits are “foul-mouthed,” “lusty,” and “maybe a little shady.” Even the barrel-racers — presented earlier this season as the ideals of fun-loving womanhood — looked disappointingly sketchy this week, with Mia grumbling that the ranch house has become less fun lately while her buddy took one look at Walker and saw a new reason to stick around. (To which I can only say: Really? Walker?)
• John’s personal chef whips up a tray of fresh biscuits and a heap of crispy bacon for breakfast; but instead the old man joins his grandson for a bowl of Choco Chimps. This upset me more than any of the murders in this episode.
• “Meaner Than Evil” was dedicated to the late Wilford Brimley, who honestly would’ve been great on this show.