That’s more like it. After a slow start to season five, “Horses in Heaven” feels productive. There’s some plot happening in a few different corners of the story. And one of the show’s most important relationships — one that’s been trapped in a holding pattern for arguably the entire series — is starting to shift.
I’m referring, of course, to Beth and Jamie. It’s always been difficult to tell who Yellowstone wants us to root for in their fights. On the one hand, Jamie murdering a reporter in season two gives him the “worse person” distinction; season three seems to confirm that with the reveal that he took Beth to get sterilized as a teenager unknowingly. On the other hand, Jamie’s biggest missteps typically come from his weakness and cowardice, not genuine malice. Despite the show’s occasional missteps, he has a vulnerability that makes him baseline tolerable. Besides, there’s always been some confusion about exactly how much we should blame Jamie for what we did to Beth; they were both kids, he thought he was helping her, and it’s a very rare circumstance that she could get a procedure without even speaking to a doctor or knowing what’s being done to her.
Beth has probably done fewer irredeemable things than Jamie, but her character’s surface-level “toughness” has become grating and repetitive in recent years, making her hard to root for (though the multiple lives she’s ruined don’t help). In countless scenes, she marches into Jamie’s office, dresses him down for no real reason, and leaves to take out her endless reserves of fury on someone else, usually a tourist or developer or otherwise non-Montanan. It makes you naturally want Jamie to fight back, to get the upper hand for once.
Luckily, we get to see some of that in “Horses in Heaven,” which really changes up their dynamic for the first time … ever? It starts with Beth in jail and Jamie tasked with convincing her victim not to press charges. (Beth says it’s “not her problem,” but it literally is.) The legal argument he ends up using is this: There are technically no victims in a bar fight, so if Hailey presses charges, she’s exposing herself to prosecution, too. She was the instigator, he tells her during her visit to the police station, so she’s putting herself at risk.
Jamie’s plan works, though Beth will still have to pick up trash for her disorderly conduct charge. (That should be a fun image next week.) But when he picks her up and she spots the baby seat in the back of his car, any small hope of gratitude from her is swiftly extinguished. “God gave you a boy?” she says, almost hysterical. “You have my womb cut out of me, and God gave you a boy?” It escalates into a roadside confrontation where Jamie emotionally reminds her that taking her to the clinic was the greatest regret of his life — though that’s never been enough for Beth to forgive him. She vows to rob Jamie of fatherhood, telling him, “Next time you see him, you can kiss him goodbye because he’s as good as gone.”
If you were hoping Yellowstone would soften Beth a little or make her more sympathetic, it’s not a great moment. But it seems like the right move to escalate the war between Beth and Jamie now rather than keeping it at a boring simmer forever. And her threat feels legitimately dangerous; you believe she’s capable of doing something to Jamie’s kid in service of destroying Jamie. That makes it even more thrilling when he gets back in the car, screams, and drives toward Beth, almost running her down.
It’s nice to see Beth shaken for once, though she quickly goes back on offense by following Jamie to his date with Sarah Atwood and snapping a photo of her driver’s license while she and Jamie are mid-fornication. But the episode still ends with Beth in a more vulnerable place than usual, once again forced to share a home with the brat who’s fucking her husband.
I’m curious to see what Summer’s reintroduction into the series means; I thought she was a one-and-done character, but John gets her supervised release in return for her help learning about environmental activism. (Nice fake-out with John’s questions about his pardoning powers; we’re led to think he’ll pardon Beth.) Now, to be clear, I have no idea how Taylor Sheridan will handle all this. Last season, Summer’s liberal beliefs were most often a source of mockery, framed as a byproduct of well-meaning naiveté. But if Sheridan intends to let John learn something for once about the people different from him, this is a good start.
I’d certainly like to see Yellowstone put John through more legitimate challenges. So far, season five has depicted his ambivalence about the governorship as an endearing quality. His charming straightforwardness makes him a refreshing leader, even if it throws everyone in the capital for a loop. In “Horses in Heaven,” he cancels an educators luncheon because there are no actual teachers in attendance; he refuses to schedule lunches but suggests people just swing by his office when they need something; and he fires his team of policy advisers after a silly bit of rhetorical jousting, pointing out the hypocrisy of suspending natural gas leases to protect sage grass while still clearing the land for solar panels.
In almost every instance, Sheridan depicts the current way of doing things as outdated, with disingenuous advisers making too much money for how little they accomplish. And sure, that’s often the case. But while it’s amusing to see John upend tradition, it feels a bit like the show is venerating him without ever getting critical. It’s not that John is uniquely honest and genuine in his politics; there are likely plenty of people in Helena who want to make Montana a better state, including some of those advisers. But it’s difficult, almost impossible, to work in politics and stay completely true to your morals. I’d like to see John struggle with that more — besides, it’s not that fun to spend so much time just watching the protagonist own the libs.
But John does get a genuine act of kindness at the funeral for Kayce and Monica’s son, comforting Monica with an anecdote about his little brother who died after 18 hours. “All he saw of this planet was you, and all he knew was you loved him,” he says, perhaps one of his most insightful pieces of wisdom in this show. “That boy lived a perfect life, Monica. We’re the only ones who know it was brief.”
With the sheer amount of tragedy in Kayce and Monica’s lives, I’ve struggled to really engage emotionally with this latest cycle of grieving. But that scene between John and Monica is thoughtful and emotional in a way this show rarely is. I’d love to see more moments like that, moments that push John out of his comfort zone even as they show how he became the surprisingly beloved force of nature he is today. Let’s hope his time as governor will provide more.
The Last Round-Up
• Our one glimpse of the ranch hands in this episode is when they help out another ranch with some livestock branding. It makes for a nice small break from the drama, though it feels a bit arbitrarily placed.
• John plans to meet with Chief Rainwater on the reservation, so we should finally see that next week.
• John learns about the latest collared wolf snafu from Fish and Wildlife, who warn him that the NGO paying for the wolf research will come after him.
• I have to say, the use of “hillbilly” as applied to the most powerful family in Montana is starting to get a little ridiculous. Ditto the constant references to California or New York, the bad states full of snooty rich people who visit Montana on vacation but take it for granted. I usually find it easy to ignore the murky politics on this show, but the “us versus them” vibes are getting to be a bit much.
• According to Beth, “Sarah Atwood” must not be her real name. But setting aside the silliness of Beth Googling a common name and clicking on only two links before giving up, shouldn’t Sarah still show up on search engines? After all, she’s an established corporate shark whom Caroline Warner uses regularly.
• Honestly, I didn’t need Summer to start sleeping with John again, especially so soon after she told him she wouldn’t. There’s something particularly weird about her referring to it as “hard work” and rubbing it in Beth’s face.
• Anybody else getting déjà vu from Beth suggesting John find a woman last episode, then changing her mind when Summer comes into the picture? It’s basically what happened last season.