“Phantom Pain” peaks with the cold open: a light, amusing scene in which John literally gets back in the saddle and Kayce finds him soaking in a hot spring. It makes for some delightful father-son bonding. Just take this exchange:
Kayce: “You’re not supposed to be riding, neither.”
John: “He said no driving. Never mentioned nothing about horses.”
Kayce: “I promise you, horses are on the list of things you shouldn’t drive.”
John: “You got shot; you’re on a horse.”
Kayce: “I only got shot twice.”
John: “Well, then, you win the getting-shot-least award, Kayce. I don’t know what to tell you.”
Okay, maybe writing it out doesn’t convey it, but with Kevin Costner’s deadpan delivery, that final line made me laugh harder than any other John line in this show. Later in the episode, when he tells Mia that Jimmy was lucky he found her and she replies, “I’m the lucky one,” he says, “No, honey, you aren’t.” Between these lines and his visit to the bunkhouse last episode, is John becoming … funny? If this means the writers are taking advantage of the comedic possibilities in Costner’s gravelly tone and flat affect, I’ll be very pleased.
Otherwise, the drop in quality from the first episode to the second is stark. If “Half the Money” combined character drama and action to impressive effect, “Phantom Pain” has little of either. It pauses progress on pretty much every story from the premiere, instead checking in everywhere else to deal with some less immediately gripping stories.
The biggest threat to Dutton land is still Market Equities, but the construction project is halted when the team uncovers several old relics. This seems like a temporary stall, though; only a scene later, Market Equities CEO Caroline Warner (Jacki Weaver) has promised Chief Rainwater funding for his casino if he’ll agree to let them move forward with construction. She wants a casino that will cater to rich people and fit in alongside luxury ski resorts and Michelin-rated restaurants. This may be just what Rainwater needs to bring money into the reservation — but Warner’s true priorities are made abundantly clear when she walks away and mutters, “I cannot wait to pave this place over.”
We didn’t hear much from Jimmy last episode, but “Phantom Pain” starts laying the ground for his departure for the spinoff 6666. After months of physical therapy, he’s finally discharged this episode, but he still hurts everywhere, even the areas where he has no sensation. John calls him out on breaking his word about rodeoing. His punishment? Going with Travis to “where cowboying was invented” in the hopes he’ll finally grow up and learn responsibility.
But the development that takes up the most screen time is also the one I’m most mixed on: Beth and Rip take in Carter, the 14-year-old whom Beth met at the hospital and who gets caught trying to rob a convenience store with nowhere else to go. I was a big fan of the Beth-Carter vignette last episode, but making him a full-fledged cast member immediately makes me a bit wary.
Most of the episode is spent not on Carter bringing out anything new in Beth but on Rip’s reluctant mentorship of him. He resists at first and almost abandons him multiple times for his insolence and ingratitude. But ultimately he can’t help himself from keeping the kid around and giving him a job as a stall cleaner.
The parallels here would be obvious even if every character didn’t hammer them into the ground: Carter is like a young Rip, finding purpose and community on the ranch so he doesn’t end up like his father. (Even Rip himself readily admits this, immediately explaining to John that Carter is “like” him.) He’s like almost every branded ranch hand hoping to avoid a dark path and turn their lives around through good old-fashioned hard work (and eventually murder, probably).
There’s some value in showing us the ways Rip connects to Carter. You can see him consciously aping his mentor’s methods, negging his new protégé with this brutal nugget of wisdom: “Don’t think that you deserve it. You don’t deserve it, and you never will.” My main problem is that so far, because the comparison is so explicit, the dynamic is predictable with little new to say about either of them. More broadly, focusing on a kid we barely know can only provide so much entertainment value. It’s really easy to become that annoying new late-season kid character, the Cousin Oliver who distracts from the cast we know and love, and Carter has already veered close.
At least Carter ends “Phantom Pain” on mostly good terms with everyone: He shares a cozy Hamburger Helper dinner with Rip and Beth (an unusual display of domestic bliss) and later exchanges pleasantries with John. It’s jarring to see Beth in housewife mode, but it’s nice to see this new side of her, especially because this episode’s Bob scene assured me the Beth we know isn’t going away anytime soon. And I appreciate that Yellowstone has let her and Rip actually be happy together instead of forcing a relationship-threatening conflict.
Bringing in a new major character can be helpful in revitalizing other characters’ stories if they don’t distract too much. There’s a lot of potential to Carter’s presence in the story even if I enjoyed his initial appearance more than this one. Let’s hope future episodes better balance his story with the larger narrative.
The Last Roundup
• In his one scene in this episode, Jamie gets help from his biological father, Garrett, in purchasing property. Does he really feel the need to constantly mention to everyone, “I’m doing this for me”?
• No Monica or Tate this episode, which is a little strange considering Tate killed a guy last time we saw him, at least two months ago in story time.
• Does the skull holding up construction belong to the father being buried during the 1893 flashback?
• Great delivery from Weaver: “I am never early, and I am never late. I am the constant your time adjusts to.”
• There are more good quotes to be found in the scene in which Beth meets with her former employers to discuss her severance package. They’re right to be concerned about Beth’s “history of malicious intent,” but Bob still comes across a bit naïve in referring to himself as “the bigger bear” with whom Beth shouldn’t pick a fight.
• John hires a respected horse trainer named Travis to come work for the Yellowstone and secure their legacy by building him a team. Travis is played by series co-creator Taylor Sheridan!
• This is the last time I’ll complain about Roarke’s premature death, but in every scene with Ellis Steele, I can’t help but wish I was watching Josh Holloway instead. Then again, that might partly be because I distrust John Emmet Tracy after his terrible role as a villainous French inspector in iZombie. (It’s so much less fun than it sounds.)
• Beth basically just told Rip, “We have a kid now!” But it’s hard not to feel pity for Carter when the sheriff tells Beth, “The best thing for this world is if he goes to sleep tonight and doesn’t wake up tomorrow morning.”