Taylor Sheridan’s “Yellowstone” — a captivating, contemplative neo-Western drama and the Paramount Network flagship series — is beginning to embody its own premise and characterization, perhaps the most important of which is it ain’t goin’ nowhere, just like series patriarch John Dutton’s cattle ranch in Montana. Its fourth season premiere on November 7 drew a staggering 8 million viewers, a statistical reality that’s gotten the industry’s attention and reveals much about America in 2021.
“Yellowstone” follows the internal and external conflicts of the Dutton family and the patriarch’s sixth-generation cattle ranch under constant attack by modern versions of age-old enemies — corporate land developers, an increasingly radical and politicized Indian reservation, and the legacy and reach of America’s first national park. In other words, it’s a riveting ensemble drama surrounded by every defining characteristic of rural America today: the multibillion capitalist industry, a sordid history with indigenous peoples now “commercialized,” and an ever-growing federal government.
Not only is the series an effective, resolute modern Western that intentionally reveals its characters and conflicts meticulously to maximize dramatic impact, but it’s a story about America’s history that’s faulted yet fulfilling. It reminds Americans of what our past endured to make the present possible, and how a simple parable can evoke depth and meaning far beyond postmodern expectations.
Yet the drama’s most fascinating phenomenon — as both a streaming series and a metaphor for America — is how the recent premiere revealed the range and spectrum of its initial criticism slowly evolving into reluctant critical acclaim, and even more importantly, its demonstration that much of this country is willing to confront the past to understand the present in a more meaningful, though painful, way.
There’s a reason Westerns were uniquely American: the frontier will always be a defining characteristic of the country’s history and Manifest Destiny — accepted or not — remains a fundamental element of the American Dream. So “Yellowstone” is a “modern-day King Lear in the American West,” a streaming series version of “The Searchers,” the story of a brutal ethos that’s fundamental to taming the frontier but ultimately unwelcome in the civil society it helps create, preserve, and protect.
Criticism Speaks Volumes
But beyond civilized survival, “Yellowstone” is living out its own message as a series facing monumental opposition, yet rallying the support of an ignored, forgotten audience. It’s an undeniably American story about identity, history, and community. And the criticism it has garnered speaks volumes.
Last year, as Sheridan’s series trudged through its third season, critics offered mocking commentary like, “Yellowstone is still the most popular show you’ve never seen or heard of,” giving credit to “the production’s massive street team of parents telling their millennial and Gen Z offspring that they watched something called ‘Yosemite.’” Keep in mind that was when streaming numbers totaled about 4 million. A year later, they’ve doubled.
So what did mainstream critics do? They doubled down. Just accuse Yellowstone of racism, patriarchy, and a depiction of America that doesn’t exist anymore — or shouldn’t exist anymore — and then describe how it’s just another ensemble familial internecine drama like “Billions” or “Succession,” except in this case it’s “the most anxious, white, myopic, [and] male American show on TV.” Or if that doesn’t work, maybe critics could target its “big, messy, soapy collection of testosterone-fueled cliches and smattering of one-liners and soliloquies,” likening it to “Dallas” and “Dynasty” decades back. That’ll do it, that’ll make it go away. Right?
Quite simply, make the show’s impact, resolute gist, and authenticity its insurmountable problem. But it never worked. The series isn’t designed to please progressive sentiment — casting based on demographics or equity depiction — nor is it willing to “revise” a national history that’s always been honest and sincere about its sins.
‘Yellowstone’ Is a Slow Burn
Paramount’s “Yellowstone” is the embodiment of Taylor Sheridan’s core attributes as creator, writer, and director. He provides a mesmerizing world of natural landscapes, environmental wonders, and national history through a stark, violent story. And fittingly, the ensemble cast — beautiful actors torn down to their bare forms — depicts either rugged men and women who couldn’t care less about the world changing for the worse or self-serving activists leaving behind their frontier past for profit and prestige. For better or worse, these are real people with meaningful priorities; priorities bigger than themselves.
And for Kevin Costner’s first foray into serialized television shot entirely on location in Big Sky Country, his depiction of John Dutton, baron and patriarch of the family ranch, is a fitting climax and culmination of his career. Always the passive, “grimacing and graveled” protagonist, he embodies the character — and implicitly the editorial voice of the series — in a way only he could handle. Whispered one-liners and steel-eyed stares emulate John Wayne’s legendary gravitas, though Costner’s not a caricature from a generation past. He’s today’s version of the anti-hero willing to do anything to preserve history, protect his family, and solidify our future.
So it’s no surprise “Yellowstone” is that quintessential “slow burn.” It’s just that in 2021 mainstream media criticisms sound like a Slate or The Atlantic review of “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.” And that brazen reality is entirely to Sheridan’s credit — and Paramount’s profit — because it assures the audience that “Yellowstone” as a message in and of itself is sweeping, sentimental, and sentient.
Show Resonates with Record Viewership
The reason viewership is setting records is simple. Even if we find him hostile or lacking humility, Yellowstone’s sympathies lie with John Dutton. He’s relatable and resonant, exemplary though imperfect, a neo-Western anti-hero who not only represents a viewer’s personal journey, but the state of America’s current struggles known by many, respected by few. He may be an imperfect guardian of the Manifest Destiny he symbolizes, but he knows he’s the only guardian left.
The idea that “Yellowstone” is seemingly impervious to today’s most explicit and ludicrous demands about “revised history,” systemic racism, or corporate tyranny is exactly the cornerstone of its seemingly ignored success. Because it’s that America between New York and Los Angeles, that Red State America, that America willing to know its past and value the lessons learned that is identifying with “Yellowstone.”
If nothing else, the realistic depiction that life is struggle, that virtue is earned, that American masculinity and social civility is still alive and well is what makes “Yellowstone” so resonant. And it’s not idyllic or idealistic, nor is it meant to be. With ownership, there’s mastery. With freedom, there’s interference. There’s simply what must be done to protect and preserve.
For a series about American exceptionalism, the show’s strength is precisely its stunning realism. Yes, it’s cinematic and dramatized. But it’s the modern portrayal of what once was done — a frontier harnessed and tamed in the late 19th century — now fighting for its footing against the very enemies it created.
Manifest Destiny came and went, but “Yellowstone” is now the story of America fighting its own legacy. So in that sense, the dramatic arc, the devoted, growing viewership, and even the constant negative critical reaction proves the story’s legitimacy. Because it’s not just a story about an American family steeped in American history — it’s an expression of America itself.