A typical episode of Yellowstone is made up of five or more different stories, rarely with one clear narrative through-line. That isn’t automatically a bad thing, but it typically results in some inconsistency: Big events sometimes happen suddenly, often with little buildup or follow-up, and characters have conversations that could be plucked from one episode and reinserted anywhere else. This season’s premiere felt uncommonly focused, devoted as it was to the Dutton hits and their aftermath — but that was never going to be Yellowstone’s primary mode. Structure has never been its strong suit.
But after one shaky episode and one okay episode, “Winning or Learning” strikes me as one of the few uneventful episodes of Yellowstone that still feels really consistent all around. The scattered nature of the stories isn’t an impediment this time; if anything, it’s a feature. It’s important for a show like Yellowstone — one with lots of violence but only occasional fireworks — to find a groove, and to an extent, that just means having a high hit-to-miss ratio when it comes to story lines.
That means a lot of low-key subplots about ranching, like this episode’s snafu when the herd gets pink eye. Still wounded by Laramie ditching him for Walker, Lloyd’s being stubborn, grumpy, and bossy. As soon as Walker provokes him, he attacks — and gets his ass beat, not just by Walker but by Rip, whose rules about fighting on the ranch have always been clear. But in a nice, subtle ending scene, Lloyd gets up the next morning, looks around, mutters, “Oh, fuck,” and puts on his hat. Even when nothing goes right, at least there’s this place. It’s another day.
Some of the most purely pleasant scenes outside of the bunkhouse recently have been John and Kayce’s talks, and that continues here at the site of John’s father’s death, the same spot John proposed to his wife and later buried her. They discuss business, of course, but John also broaches the subject of Kayce’s wife and son, who are holed up inside. It’s John’s urging — and his remark that if it feels right, it probably is — that convinces Kayce to spend some time with his family away from the ranch, at Monica’s grandpa’s place on the reservation. I’ve had my issues with the inconsistency of Monica’s position toward the ranch, but it’s still a relief to see her relief and Kayce’s relief that she still loves him enough to stay wherever he is.
It’s ironic, of course, that in giving Kayce some simple advice, John ends up suggesting he and his son see less of each other. Kayce won’t be gone long, but John’s gotten used to him being around — compared to how he usually acts, he’s downright clingy. But like I said, this is one relationship I’ve grown to enjoy on the show, and seeing John disguise his hurt with clipped “yep”s is surprisingly touching.
“Why do all my children have to leave to find happiness?” John asks morosely, just after Beth stands up to go inside. Because from his point of view, she’s pulling away, too, just by considering a position at Market Equities, his direct enemy. But Caroline Warner’s job offer comes with some serious advantages: Instead of working against the Duttons, Beth would be able to deflect attention from the ranch and turn other spots in Montana into potential new Aspens. Of course, to some extent, Beth is thinking of herself: If Warner hands over her share of Schwartz and Meyer, she’ll be able to exact revenge on her former employer. But it might still be beneficial, in the long run, for John.
But John rarely thinks about the long run, because he prioritizes his principles. His convictions might be wavering slightly, but even when Beth gives him a simple answer — peace is impossible to find on Dutton land, which understandably turns some people off — he can’t conceive of a place more idyllic than this. Why would anyone leave?
In reality, Kayce and Beth are more loyal to their dad than ever. Beth even says so. But in John’s perception, they could be on the same path to betrayal that his son Jamie took. Jamie is almost thriving this episode: He’s excelling at his job, he’s getting warmth and validation from his biological father, and the dad who raised him wants his help. (Never mind that John is still suspicious he tried to wipe out the family.) Jamie even exchanges wholehearted “I love you”s with his brother after agreeing to meet with the incarcerated man who ordered the hits. Of course, the episode ends with a new low, as he finds out Garrett Randall was once cellmates with that man.
“Winning or Learning” has less space for plot because much of it doubles as a backdoor pilot for 6666, the upcoming spinoff set at the Four Sixes Ranch in Texas. Jimmy’s road trip with Travis is melancholy but peaceful, and it’s enlightening to hear him honestly express why he loves rodeo after a few weeks of moping around. Travis gives him some critical advice: Stop imagining glory for himself, and learn to love and prioritize the horse instead of fearing it. As Jimmy heads for the back, in awe at the hugeness of it all, a new, better future seems possible. Maybe intense fear doesn’t need to be a day-to-day reality. Maybe all he needs is this: corrals stretching in every direction, then land, then sky.
The Last Round-Up
• Rip and Beth’s anger with Carter continues to make no sense to me. Why blow up over a kid wanting a nice shirt? You don’t have to spoil him, but it’s ridiculous to think he’d lose their trust just from that. At least this is a small part of the episode.
• In the premiere, Jamie tells Beth he did call people about John’s health, just not her. But with Kayce, he changes his story, saying he’d be accused of collusion if he’d called. Is this intentional evidence of Jamie being a fake or just messy writing? I honestly lean toward the latter because I really do believe Jamie would keep protecting John (and especially Kayce).
• At a certain point, it starts to feel like Taylor Sheridan is shooting these scenes as Travis for his own horse-trainer reel. Or just to show off how cool and hot he is. I like him, but I kind of wish I didn’t know Sheridan was the actor.
• Speaking of Travis, he references Road House and Sam Elliott, the latter of whom is starring alongside Tim McGraw and Faith Hill in 1883. Like, Sam Elliott exists in this universe, but there’s also some cowboy in the 1800s who looks just like him? Does Sheridan not understand how much damage he’s doing to my brain by flagrantly disregarding the laws of TV physics in this way?
• I enjoyed the bunkhouse scene when Teeter makes a surprisingly good dinner, which ends up being “literally everything from the cow that nobody else wants.”
• Mia tells Laramie she’s leaving the ranch for rodeo season, which makes sense. I don’t mind her, but there’s not much reason to keep her without Jimmy around.
• Beth says, “There’s no peace in this place,” a direct echo of the Native American man in the 1893 flashback.
• I also laughed out loud at Beth’s suggestion that John “needs some pussy,” a shocking line to hear with the emotional score still playing in the background. And I continue to enjoy John’s discomfort with the overfamiliarity in “this whole man-to-man shit thing [they] got going.”
• In a random but sweet scene, Beth declares they’ll celebrate Rip’s birthday on September 28 after finding out he’s never had one due to having no proof of his existence. (You’d think she’d know this by now since they’ve known each other since they were teens, but whatever.) “Being brought into this world wasn’t something that my family celebrated,” he explains, one of the most comically bleak sentences ever spoken.
• Hi, I’m your new recapper! This is my first recap of the show, but I’ll be filling in recaps for the first three episodes of the season throughout this week, so look out for those if you’re interested.