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‘The Ranch’ Part 3 Sneaks a Pro-Choice Argument Into a Superficially Conservative Season

Review: Ashton Kutcher and Sam Elliott step aside so Debra Winger can explain a man's role in the abortion debate — none.

The Ranch Season 2 Elisha Cuthbert Ashton Kutcher

Greg Gayne/Netflix

Heather immediately leaves, and Colt goes home to try to get drunk. He’s not listening to her, but maybe he’ll listen to his parents.

“She’s just upset,” Beau says. “She’ll come around and do the right thing.”

“Maybe she already did,” Maggie (Debra Winger) says.

While Maggie won’t go so far as to say she wants Heather to get an abortion, she does manage to convince her ex-husband and son to hear her out.

“It’s just that it’s Heather’s choice,” she says.

“So when the kid comes, it’s my responsibility, but whether or not it comes, I don’t get a say?” Colt asks.

“Yes, Colt,” she says. “That’s exactly right.”

Beau disagrees and says Colt has as much right to the choice as Heather, but Maggie doesn’t back down.

“It’s Heather’s choice because she has to carry this baby and it’s going to affect her life way more than it’s going to affect yours,” she tells her son.

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Later, in Episode 3, Maggie keeps pushing Colt in the right direction.

Maggie: “Try to imagine what it would be like to be a 23-year-old woman in a small town getting an abortion. She feels like everybody’s judging her — including you.”

Colt: “I ain’t judging her. I just think what she’s doing is totally wrong.”

M: “Let me rephrase: Heather could use your support.”

C: “How am I supposed to support her if I don’t believe in what she’s doing?”

M: “You do it because you care.”

And that’s exactly what Colt does. His mother’s words get through to him, and he goes back to Heather, apologizes, and asks to help her in any way he can — including taking her to the clinic. She says it’s a bad idea because “he doesn’t believe in what I’m doing,” but Colt says, “This isn’t about what I believe. If we were having this baby, I would drive you to the hospital and be there the whole time. This is my responsibility, too. I’m just asking you to let me support you.”

“We’re probably not ever going to see eye-to-eye on this, but I want to support you. I care about you,” he says.

The Ranch Season 2 Ashton Kutcher Danny Masterson Netflix

The Ranch” doesn’t follow through on its admirable set-up. After a long wait at the clinic, Heather says she can’t go through with it and decides to keep the baby. It’s a bit of a cop-out — both thematically and narratively — but at risk of over-praising a mediocre show that’s past offenses don’t earn it any extra credit, there’s still a lot to appreciate about what the first three episodes present to their audience; an audience who — judged on the show’s apparent political and religious beliefs — may not appreciate being told to, in so many words, “Shut up and back off: It’s a woman’s right to choose.”

For one, Colt isn’t portrayed as an influencer. He’s not convincing Heather to keep the baby in the waiting room. He doesn’t guilt her into reconsidering, nor does he act out of his own self-interest. It appears he’s taken his mother’s words to heart, and here’s where “The Ranch” proves how much we’ve underestimated its nuance over the past three seasons: Part 3 isn’t a continuation of Beau’s story. It’s not Colt’s either. It’s Maggie’s.

Not only did her consultation serve as the voice of reason and humanity in the above discussion, but she wasn’t treated like an other; she wasn’t made into a punchline or talked over by the men in her life. Maggie was given a platform to speak and was heard — both by the characters and thus (we can only assume) by the audience. And all the while, she remains a hard-drinking, frank-talking, gun-toting conservative. Her role isn’t diminished or altered to serve the whims of the writers. She’s a woman with great agency, and she spends the rest of the season making unpopular decisions and then proving her family wrong for judging her for them.

“How am I supposed to support her if I don’t believe in what she’s doing?” Colt says while getting advice from his mother.

“You do it because you care,” Maggie replies.

This exchange wasn’t an isolated discussion: It sets up Maggie’s arc for the season. She asks them to accept her choices [season finale spoiler alert] — to sell the bar, to leave town for a while, and to be with other people. She says they have to accept it because they care about her. And they actually do! Rooster is first to come around, then Beau, and finally Colt. They get behind her even though they don’t like it, but they still respect her choices.

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The abortion debate isn’t really a debate at all. It’s a thematic staging to foreshadow a woman’s right to choose — in all aspects of her life. While “The Ranch” has always painted Maggie as a character willing and eager to go her own way, never have we seen her plight from such an oppressed lens. She’s spent her adult life giving up her dreams for the good of her family, and she’s tired of it. “There will always be a reason not to go,” she says. “You don’t have to like it. I’d just feel a whole lot better leaving if I know you didn’t hate me.”

No, “The Ranch” didn’t set a perfect example of how to depict this situation. For all of Heather’s screen time, we never get a clear sense if she really does want to have the baby, or if she’s just afraid of what will happen after the abortion. One could easily argue the show is catering to Beau’s viewpoint: “She’ll come around and do the right thing.” Undoubtedly, many viewers will feel that way and take less from Heather’s struggle because of it.

But if you look at the situation through Maggie’s lens — as we’re asked to do more prominently in Part 3 than ever before — Heather’s story is a tragic one. Like Maggie, she’s made a decision that will trap her, and — even if she’s happy she had the baby — it could be 30 years before she gets the opportunity to make a choice for herself instead of her family.

Perhaps it’s a stretch to think this is the prominent takeaway for everyone who binges “The Ranch” this weekend. Between all the vomit jokes, drinking jokes, and sex jokes, this sitcom still goes down as easy as your first Bud Light and can be forgotten just as quickly. But there’s a feeling that lingers. It keeps us coming back, year after year, finding new lessons in a show that portends to offer none. Maybe we’re crazy, or maybe, just maybe, this sneaky show is pulling off one helluva con.

“The Ranch” Part 3 is streaming now exclusively on Netflix.

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