If you’re a fan of television shows about incredibly rich people absolutely wrecking each other’s lives, then the COVID-19 pandemic has likely played havoc with some of your favorites. The Good Fight and Billions both had their most recent seasons cut short; and HBO’s Succession hadn’t even gone into production on its third season before everything shut down.
But take heart! Yellowstone is still going strong. The Paramount Network hit has all the political power plays and bitter family squabbles of those other shows. Plus, there are gunfights.
One of those gunfights — a real humdinger, involving white supremacist militias and nearly every major character on the show — ended season two. Season three begins with an episode called “You’re the Indian Now,” with the Dutton family busy bandaging their wounds and surveying the damage done to their business and reputation. They barely have a moment to rest before a new threat arrives, in the form of yet another land-development company, out to monetize yet another piece of Montana abutting the Yellowstone Dutton Ranch.
As is nearly always the case with Yellowstone, there’s a mix of good and bad in “You’re the Indian Now.” (That includes the title itself, which is both provocative and kind of stupid. More on that later.) Perhaps the biggest difference between this season premiere and what this show’s done before, though, is that this episode is much less heady. It could best be described as a “soft reset” for Yellowstone. Writer/producer Taylor Sheridan and director Stephen Kay spend most of a tightly packed 40 minutes establishing which parts of last summer’s arc are going to carry over to this summer, while just briefly introducing this year’s nemeses.
Not carrying over: the Beck brothers, the season two villains who were shot dead in last year’s finale, after they themselves had season one antagonist Dan Jenkins killed. The brothers’ impact does linger, though. Kayce and Monica’s son Tate, who was kidnapped by the Becks’ lackeys and stashed at a neo-Nazi compound, is suffering through some serious post-traumatic stress, waking up screaming in the mornings. Meanwhile, Beth still sports the bruises from when a couple of the enemy’s goons roughed her up. And the Dutton patriarch John’s choices in going after the Becks — which involved calling in favors from Chief Rainwater and Sheriff Haskell, as well as his Livestock Commission agents — has called his judgment into question, and has cost him his position as Commissioner.
Some good did come out of the Becks’ bloodbath. The Duttons were forced (for now, anyway) to put aside their differences and to protect their own. Jamie’s back in the fold, doing penance for his sins by living and working alongside the ranch hands. Beth rekindled her romance with Rip, who saved her life and was rewarded with his own house and his own share in the Dutton family legacy.
So as this season begins, our heroes have decided to focus on protecting their assets. This means clinging fiercely to every piece of land they control (even the parcels set aside for conservation easements), while getting back to some good old-fashioned ranching and starting to regain some of the power they’ve pissed away on feuds … even if that means letting the untrustworthy Jamie return to politics, as the new Livestock Commissioner.
It doesn’t bode well for these plans when Kayce and Rip ride up on a group of men and women in business attire, representing an organization called “Providence Hospitality Management,” surveying lots for their latest developments. (“Is this your land? Incredible,” a spokesman coos, ominously.) Then there’s the matter of the handsome stranger Beth finds fishing in the river, roughly five miles deep into the Dutton spread. (Claiming he walked downstream and lost track of where he was, the man chuckles, “I have a lot of stamina,” to which Beth snaps back, “I highly doubt that.”)
The one new element I’ve been most looking forward to in Yellowstone’s third season is this character: Roarke Carter, played by one of my favorite ruggedly charming actors, Josh Holloway (of Lost and Colony fame). Holloway does not disappoint in this first episode. We don’t yet know what Roarke’s deal is (at least not in the context of what the series itself has shown us … some of Paramount’s promotional material has spilled the beans); but the actor’s clearly in his element bantering with Kelly Reilly, who has some of her funniest lines in their first big scene together.
Beth tries to roast Roarke by making a crack about how Chippendales “must’ve changed their policy on capped teeth,” but he refuses to take the bait, smiling back at her and insisting that an insult only lands “if I understand it.” He asks her if she’s interested in dinner, and she says, “I dine on my joy for life.” He calls her “the most interesting thing that happened to me today,” and she says, “You should analyze that.” Give me one or two extended Beth/Roarke interactions every episode for the rest of this season, and I’ll forgive a lot of Yellowstone’s transgressions.
Speaking of which, let’s get back to this episode’s title. “You’re the Indian Now” refers to a line spoken by Monica to John, where she compares old landowners like him to her ancestors, right before the white men moved west. That’s a powerful way to frame the overarching theme of this show, which is all about people being forced off their land throughout history, by a combination of inevitable progress and vile greed. But this comparison is also a reminder of Sheridan’s at-times unfortunate penchant for romanticizing his main character, justifying John’s excesses by suggesting he’s not so different from the noble victims of past atrocities.
Then again, that’s the deal you strike when you watch a Taylor Sheridan project: Some parts of nearly any movie or TV show he works on will almost certainly prompt some eye-rolling and/or exasperated sighs. The trade-off is that you also get nice moments like the one at the end of this episode, where Kevin Costner settles into the “wizened old man” aspect of John Dutton, trading stories about dreams with his grandson. Yellowstone strains sometimes — okay, a lot of the time — to bring relevant new meaning to the images and motifs of the classic western. But regardless, those images and motifs are still pretty damned stirring.
The Last Round-Up
• The upside to watching a show created by a writer with a strong point-of-view is that the occasional idiosyncrasies can enliven even the most routine material. There’s no real narrative reason (as near as I can tell) for Taylor Sheridan to include the scene in this episode where Beth gives money and a pep talk to a liquor store clerk sporting signs of spousal abuse. But it’s an emotionally charged couple of minutes of TV; and it continues Sheridan’s much-appreciated effort last season to give Yellowstone’s most fascinating character more grounding.
• The downside to watching a show created by a writer with a strong point-of-view? That’s evident in the scene where Monica berates her college students for looking at their cell phones … and before class, no less. She assumes they’re all absorbed with the shallowness of social media, as they sit outside on a beautiful day, at a time in history when the mega-wealthy are destroying natural resources and robbing their fellow citizens of their future. She’s not wrong about the mega-wealthy. But how does she know these kids aren’t online reading the news or organizing a movement? Monica doesn’t even let them defend themselves; she just storms off as they bow their heads in shame. That’s some Aaron Sorkin–level cranky-old-man shit from Sheridan right there.
• Welcome back to Vulture’s Yellowstone recaps! We didn’t cover season two for various reasons; sorry about that. But this remains one of the most popular shows on cable and — reportedly — the most-watched series by viewers who already have access to NBC’s new Peacock streaming service. It’s worth grappling with why this neo-western is so beloved. So let’s grapple with it! Hope to see you back here next week.