In former recapper Noel Murray’s excellent New York Times interview with Taylor Sheridan this week leading up to 1883, Sheridan discussed why Yellowstone might not get the critical attention you’d expect for an audience of its size. “I’m breaking a lot of story rules,” he said. “I’ll jump the plot ahead for no reason whatsoever except that I wanted to and it’s entertaining. The people who get it eat it up, and the people that try to look at it with a critical eye see a mess. But that’s what I love about Yellowstone, the way that it flows from being campy to melodramatic to intensely dramatic to violent. It’s every old western and new western and soap opera thrown together in a blender. And yes, I think it infuriates and confounds some people who study storytelling. They don’t understand why this thing’s such a hit.”
I think Sheridan’s comments are fair all around, and I think there is a lot that critics miss about Yellowstone’s broad appeal by focusing on the demographics of the show’s audience (or viewing it simplistically as a “red state” show). I also think he’s self-aware about his own shortcomings when it comes to plotting, even if he wouldn’t describe it in those terms.
Take “No Kindness for the Coward,” which doesn’t feature John Dutton until the halfway point, even though the last episode seemed to up the dramatic stakes considerably by setting up a run for governor. Instead, the episode begins with another flashback to sometime around 1893, the first one since the season premiere. This time, we get our first glimpse of Faith Hill as Margaret Dutton, who is praying that no harm comes to her husband while he’s out hunting horse thieves. James Dillard Dutton does find and kill most of the thieves, even stringing up one of them as a warning to any future horse thieves. By the time he makes it back home, though, he has lost too much blood. He collapses inside, and we hear Margaret wailing. This must be the day John’s great-grandfather died.
It’s not a bad flashback, but I’m also not sure what it tells us besides the evergreen theme that this land has always been built on violence. It doesn’t feel like a coincidence that the longest look yet at John’s great-grandparents aired on the same night as the premiere of 1883, the spinoff starring Tim McGraw and Hill.
In fact, it’s starting to feel like an awful lot of Yellowstone season four has been about establishing those various spinoffs, hasn’t it? We’ve lingered on the Four Sixes Ranch far longer than I would’ve expected. Was anybody dying to see Jimmy’s date with Emily this episode? It feels like wish fulfillment, just like his romance with Mia was, and it’s full of cheesiness, like the scene when she walks in on him naked (and stays in the room just to laugh and blush, as she does in every other scene). The most interesting thread here is Jimmy’s questioning of his identity as a cowboy. Does he really deserve that title? According to Emily, he does, especially with the boss of Waggoner Ranch knowing his name. Maybe if you spend enough time pretending to be a cowboy, you become one for real.
Almost all of the actual plot movement in this episode happens with Beth. Summer’s group, Free Earth, is protesting the new airport Market Equities is building. Beth gets to scheming, asking a journalist to call off her reporters in return for giving her a real story to report soon. That story happens later in the episode, when state and federal agents come to arrest the protesters. Summer, Beth’s unexpected woman on the inside, lets herself get brutally clubbed and arrested for the press, a story that might ruin Market Equities if it goes national. And if Beth’s tip to the Times means anything, that should be coming soon.
At the end of the day, it’s a good week for Beth, who moves with Rip and Carter into the lodge at John’s request. She freaks out early on and efficiently: At their first real “family dinner,” she delivers a weird, pointlessly provocative monologue about Tantric healing that turns into a temper tantrum. (The comedic highlight is Rip asking follow-up questions and John saying, “You’re just pouring gas on the fire, Rip. Just dumping it right on the damn fire.”) John describes this as “revenge” for something, though he can’t say what. Does Beth resent him for making them move in? It seems more likely, based on the conversation with Rip that follows, that she is just sickened by the fantasy of it all. She can’t tolerate the happy-family role-play at the dinner table in the lodge, the same table she used to share with a mother and three other siblings, all of whom are gone for different (and dark) reasons. In the end, Rip’s fix is quick: All they needed to do was switch rooms. In a different room, at a different dinner table, maybe they can make new memories together instead of dwelling on who isn’t around anymore.
There’s certainly more going on with Beth and Market Equities than the race for governor. Eight minutes into the episode, Garrett and Christina convince Jamie not to back down, meaning we officially have a father-son race. But there’s really no other progress with this besides John and Jamie agreeing to meet later on.
Instead, “No Kindness for the Coward” ends with an exciting but stupid shoot-out at the diner where John and Rip are meeting Sheriff Haskell. If the two of them had waited until the robbers came back out, they could’ve doled out some vigilante justice, and the sheriff likely wouldn’t have died. More broadly, though, the surface-level thrills of this scene belie any actual plot movement as we near the end of the season. It’s especially distracting when John mentions working with the sheriff on eliminating Riggins, the man who planned the hits from prison. Sheridan seems to have totally forgotten that Kayce asked Jamie to meet with Riggins several episodes ago. Do Kayce and John still think all this was orchestrated by someone they don’t even recognize?
I’ve been used to Sheridan’s stop-start storytelling on this show for a while now, but it’s all the more glaring with only two episodes left and so much unnecessary groundwork being laid for the new spinoffs. I respect Sheridan’s awareness of how unconventional his story rhythms are, but he’s right: Looking at all this with a critical eye, I still see a mess.
The Last Roundup
• Carter Corner: He eats steak with cake. And he got a haircut.
• I assume John’s “heroism” at the end will get him some support for the race because that’s how this show works, but it really shouldn’t.
• No bunkhouse scenes this week! That’s fine.
• Christina says nobody will vote for John because he’s “everything in this world they have been taught to despise: a white 60-year-old landowner.” I’m not sure that logic tracks, but Christina does have a point about John doing this just to fight Jamie. I wouldn’t be surprised if he eventually backs out and picks a different candidate to replace Jamie.
• I have to say, Beth’s meltdowns are a lot more tolerable when Rip is there to laugh at her and tell it to her straight.
• This episode’s one Kayce scene uses his son’s encroaching puberty as a Trojan horse to deliver more pressing news: Monica is pregnant! I’m happy for them, but it’s about time to reintroduce Kayce to the main narrative, right? Does he even know his dad is running for governor (and against Kayce’s brother, at that)?
• So the John Sr. we see as a teenager in the flashbacks must be our John’s grandfather, not his father, right? Is our John the third in a line of Johns?