Generally speaking, it’s never good when TV characters take a look at their birth certificates. Because this isn’t something many of us do on a regular basis, it’s also not something that comes up much in a drama, unless there’s some narrative reason. So in this week’s Yellowstone episode “The Beating,” when Jamie Dutton has to go downstairs to the Montana statehouse records room to retrieve his proof of identity … Well, I’m sure most of us anticipated what he was about to learn.
In fact, the big reveal of Jamie’s secret adoption seemed so obvious to me that I wondered why writer Taylor Sheridan and director Guy Ferland (and, presumably, the episode’s editing team) spent so much time building it up. First we get a scene where Jamie’s secretary tells him his official hiring paperwork requires a birth certificate. Then we see Jamie getting into an elevator. (Because if we didn’t see that we might wonder, “Wait, how did he get downstairs?”) Then we see him at a desk requesting the birth certificate. Then we see a clerk walk down a corridor of file cabinets.
Then we cut away to a different scene with other characters. A few minutes later in the episode, the clerk finally returns, and delivers the not-so-surprising news. Yet even then, Jamie doesn’t reckon with the revelation that his whole life has been a lie until the final scene.
The whole birth certificate sequence — loaded with white-knuckle document-requesting action! — is grating in part because before then this episode sports a pleasantly easygoing hangout vibe. A lot of the credit for that is due to Rip (and to Cole Hauser’s performance as Rip… and, to be fair, to Sheridan’s writing for Rip). Rip is heavily involved in two storylines in “The Beating.” One’s about his relationship with Beth, naturally. But the more prominent storyline sees him trucking a seemingly unbreakable horse to the nearest rodeo, to see if the busters down there want to use the animal in their show. Jimmy and his motor-mouthed, free-spirited girlfriend Mia come along to help out. But as it turns out — in what’s perhaps a metaphor for this episode as a whole — the horse isn’t quite wild enough for the bronco riders to pony up.
This particular subplot is intended to serve two purposes, neither of which — in my estimation — is especially vital. First off, it’s meant to give Rip some quality time with Mia … and by extension to alert Rip to just how out of control Yellowstone’s barrel-racer invasion has become. (“When the fuck did the bunkhouse become Paradise Island?” he gripes to Lloyd, before warning him of a future where all the ranch hands are fetch-and-carrying for the barrel-racers and feeding their yappy little dogs “like fuckin’ assholes.”)
The Rip scenes are also a rehash of all the moments from earlier this season when John made rude comments about Jimmy’s rodeo dreams. Now, Jimmy’s a sweet kid; and Mia has a fun energy. But the graveness with which first John and now Rip have addressed Jimmy’s aspirations seems way out of proportion to the character’s overall importance to the larger Yellowstone narrative. In fact, while “The Beating” is spending about a fifth of its running time on a few sequences aimed at illustrating for Jimmy (yet again!) that the rodeo is no life for someone like him, some of the more major narrative threads are getting dispatched this week in short scenes — or less.
For example, what’s up with the huge standing offer for — and perhaps covert legal threat to — the Duttons’ ranch? We are Roarke-less in this episode (which automatically gets it docked one star in my book); but we do get Market Equities updates in passing: first when Jamie looks into who actually has the power of attorney for the Dutton estate, and later when Beth finally meets with Chief Rainwater’s personal mischief-maker Angela, and the two of them agree their situation is “a real pickle.” It’s important to note that at no point in this episode does anyone propose plans or take action related to Market Equities’ clients.
Similarly, while John has a good long scene at a local diner with this season’s latest new recurring villain — that buffalo-herding coot we now know is named Wade — all we learn from that encounter is that Wade stole something from John decades ago and that the standoffish Wade doesn’t think he’s under any obligation to give it back. Even the subplot this week involving Kayce and his loyal livestock agents chasing down a gang of rustlers, while exciting, is somewhat abbreviated, and ends with the semi-cliffhanger of Kayce’s men getting shot during an attempted arrest.
Still, between the genuinely thrilling Kayce scenes and the surfeit of great Rip lines, I was willing for a good long while to cut this episode some slack. (Favorite Rip quip: When Mia asks him what he wants to listen to in the truck on their drive down to the rodeo and he answers “air conditioning.”) There’s even another in the recent string of super-sweet moments between Rip and Beth, when she takes it on herself to ask him to marry her. She says she wants to have a wedding in the mountains “in front of my family and friends,” before adding, “I don’t have any friends, but if I were to make one …”
But alas, in the end “The Beating” comes back to Jamie’s big news, and to a stiffly acted confrontation between him and the man he now knows is his adoptive father. Like too many of the conversations on this show, this one starts out as a testy lecture about abstract values. Jamie is pissed that he’s had “honesty above all” drilled into him his whole life by someone who’s been lying to him. John — as John does — refuses to admit any wrongdoing or even to acknowledge Jamie’s raw feelings. Instead he matter-of-factly says that Jamie’s biological father was a mean S.O.B. who beat his biological mother to death with a shower-head.
For such an important scene — with such a big backstory dump — this all lays pretty flat, just as a piece of television drama. The initial reveal of Jamie’s adoption also bodes ill for the remainder of the season, given that he’s now even less likely to feel any loyalty to the legacy of a family that snipes at him all the time. (Although John does make a modest gesture of affection by giving him a “good night son” at the end of their chat.)
What finally soured me on this episode was John wearily telling Jamie that he’s old and tired, even though, he says, “In my soul I still feel 16.” As John rambled on about his zest for life, I wondered yet again why we’ve never seen any of that joy or passion in John. It seems we only ever see John growl out orders and complain about how the world’s no good. To be honest, in most weeks, the file clerk’s job looks more exciting.
The Last Round-Up
• Have you ever noticed that on Yellowstone hardly anyone ever says “thank you” after they ask for something? I know people like to say that shows like this are so popular because they represent “the real America,” but you know what? In the real America where I live, people know how to be courteous.
• Mia’s impressed that Rip has a thousand-dollar pair of spurs tossed idly in the back seat of his truck. Jimmy — who has apparently done zero research into anything rodeo-related — is shocked by that price. But Mia lets him know that’s standard. “Cool shit ain’t cheap,” she warns. “And cheap shit ain’t cool.”
• While playing a conversational party game, Mia admits that she’s way, way into the Sturgill Simpson song “Turtles All the Way Down,” which is a fine thing for anyone to be. (But to answer Mia’s question, if I were stuck on a desert island and could only listen to one song on a loop for eternity, I’d pick John Cage’s “4’33”.”)
• By my estimation, Beth has spent nearly half of this season nestled under one of Rip’s comforters, like the girlfriend in of one of my favorite Onion news items.
• When Beth goes to see her dad, she finds him looking forlornly into his fireplace, and she chastises him for spending so much time lately “doing a whole lot of staring into nothing.” He counters that he has decisions to make that “take time” and “take a lot of thought.” You can always count on John Dutton to come up with a noble reason for why he’s not actually doing anything.