If you haven’t been watching “Yellowstone” on Paramount Plus, which enters its fifth season, you’ve been missing a treat. A cross between “Sons of Anarchy” and “Falcon Crest”, the show features Kevin Costner (He of tongue in bottom lip fame) as John Dutton III, the patriarch of the vast 50,000 acre Yellowstone ranch in Montana his family founded and own since the 1880s. Created by Taylor Sheridan, the show has been labelled by some as a conservative or red state show, and superfically it could bear that label. The value of “keeping what’s ours” is one repeated by many characters throughout the series, and coupled with the constant resort to frontier justice, you can easily see why a certain type of conservative would like the show.
And yet, the politics of the show is much more blended with grey and subtlety.
Dutton is obviously a wealthy and politically powerful man in the state, practically handpicking certain state offices that matter to his business interests, including appointing himself state livestock commissioner, which allows him to have a de facto private police force. He uses a helicopter to both travel to the state capital but also to ranch. In one scene, whilst remonstrating with a Chinese tourist who complains about one man owning so much land, Dutton declares “This is America: we don’t share land.”
And yet, he’s not without money worries. It becomes apparent that whilst his land might be worth nearly half a billion dollars, his personal wealth is probably closer to $40m and he fears local development could sharply increase his property tax liabilities beyond his ability to pay.
Nor is he greedy: when he’s offered huge wealth in return for abandoning his family legacy he simply refuses, even though he knows he is fighting a losing battle against change. For him, legacy and family is everything, a value many Americans can see and respect very easily. He’s not without compassion either: intervening to help a widow deprive a bank of assets he feels her family needs more.
His various nemesis also have a political dimension: his ranch is bordered by a Native American reservation led by business savvy politician Thomas Rainwater (Gil Bermingham) who wants to retake the Yellowstone ranch because “for thousands of years our people hunted, fished and lived on that land: then John Dutton’s great grandfather built a house.” Rainwater supports development because it brings his tribe more revenue for public services. Yet he also shares, with Dutton, a desire for conservation and preserving as much of the valley they both share.
The show is also full of contradictions. Dutton sees the irony, in his family claiming the land in the 1880s from Native Americans, then having to face off against even more well-resourced developers who make the same point the Chinese tourist did, and marvel at the arrogance of one family blocking the creation of thousands of (low paying) jobs. Indeed, one developer, Dan Jenkins (Danny Houston) is genuinely outraged at Dutton’s belief that outsiders have no right to share in the beauty he owns except on his terms.
One other aspect of the show is the disparity in wealth on display: Dutton, Rainwater and the developers all live in relative opulence, whilst their employees and voters live in a world of precarious employment, threats of banks foreclosing, and the powerful pretty much deciding which candidates will be permitted even contest elections. Most of his employees live in a dormitory on the ranch. Many Europeans will look at Dutton paying for an employee’s medical expenses not as a sign of generosity but an indictment where vital medical treatment is only available on the whim of a wealthy employer. The occasional gun battle, normally led by Dutton’s ex-special forces (On USTV, there are no ex-military cooks or plumbers, only special forces) son Kayce in his guise as a Livestock Agent, tend to be against hired goons from developers muscling in on Dutton, or petty criminals trying to make a living in the hard scrabble society of modern-day America. And yet few complain: so inbred is that “Keeping what’s ours” mentality that far fewer people in the show question the morality of a single man owning a vast part of a state than applaud his son and shake his hand for machine gunning a petty cattle rustler and leaving his daughter an orphan.
If it has a political bias, Yellowstone is culturally liberal (recognizing the great crimes committed against Native Americans) whilst just shrugging its shoulders at economic disparity as if it is some form of natural phenomenon, like a tornado. That’s probably a mainstream view in America today.