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‘Yellowstone’ Season 5 Off to a Rocky Start As It Navigates Expansive Plot

"Yellowstone" fans will no doubt eagerly consume this, but how long until they expect something to actually happen?

Kevin Costner Yellowstone Season 5

Kevin Costner in “Yellowstone”

Courtesy of Paramount

The First Family of Montana is back. It’s time for fans to put on their cowboy hats and strap in for another season of backstabbing from the Duttons. Whether you watch “Yellowstone” or not, the series has left its mark on the television landscape, with competing networks greenlighting shows set in Montana or other rural red states in what has been unofficially dubbed by TV critics as “the ‘Yellowstone’ effect.” The question now is whether series creator and writer Taylor Sheridan can sustain the momentum after four seasons, two other shows on Paramount+, and soon-to-be two “Yellowstone” spinoff series.

The answer might lie in the rocky one-two punch of the first two Season 5 episodes, “One Hundred Years Means Nothing” and “The Sting of Wisdom,” which were made available to critics. Sheridan has his work cut out for him, particularly with last season’s finale culminating with John (Kevin Costner) running for governor of Montana; John’s son Jamie (Wes Bentley) killing his biological father; Beth (Kelly Reilly) getting married to Rip (Cole Hauser) and threatened with jail time for corporate espionage; and sweet Kayce (Luke Grimes) going on a “spirit walk” where he foresaw the end of his relationship with Monica (Kelsey Asbille). So, with such high stakes at the end of Season 4, the premiere proceeds to… spend a lot of time doing very little. 

The Duttons might have increased their already significant power with John in the governor’s mansion in Season 5, but John certainly isn’t happy about it, which leaves the show’s A-list star grumbling and being irritated for two whole episodes. The premiere clocks in at 64 minutes and spends nearly 40 of them touching base with all the characters and indulging in moments with Yellowstone’s resident cowboy cutups before a shocking final sequence ends on a cliffhanger. The average viewer would have a hard time describing what happens in this episode short of, “Well, the Duttons are in the Governor’s mansion….and someone might be dead.” That’s a thin plot for an hour of content.

All John Dutton wants to do is keep Montana filled with native residents of the state (go away, snowbirds), though considering the demographic of Montana is predominately white, is the series going to critique his strategy? Race isn’t a topic the show particularly cares about, outside of having Indigenous characters relegated to B- or C-level characters. Other BIPOC characters remain almost non-existent. So if the theme this season is John’s nativist strategy, the show is certainly talking about what it knows but catering to an audience that is fairly exclusionary.  

“Yellowstone” has always appeared to pass John Dutton off as an antihero, but here he, or Costner, just seems tired and stubborn. He wants to be governor purely to serve his purposes, and it will be intriguing if Sheridan uses that to examine what’s happening in the U.S. government now, though this is also a series that enjoys poking fun at how soft Canadian prisons are compared to America’s seemingly successful law and order policy, so signs point to doubtful. (If the episode didn’t belabor the point, the horse wrangler declaring, “You want to go to jail? In America?” was genuinely funny.)

Kevin Costner, Kelly Reilly, Wes Bentley

“Yellowstone”

Courtesy of Paramount

John as governor should be a way to put John front and center, but it limits Costner’s screentime. Though the actor hasn’t implied a desire to leave the series, there feels like a distinct shift in these first two episodes towards moving John away from everything, as well as a line where John says he’s reminded about “the time I don’t have.” It wouldn’t be surprising to see his cancer return at some point. When he actually pops into the Yellowstone, the ranch he so desperately wants to save, people are surprised and act like he hasn’t been there in years. Then again, that could be because the show engaged in another series of undiscussed time jumps. Season 4 ended with Monica announcing her pregnancy, and we start Season 5 with her close to full term. For how interconnected the characters are this season, there seems to be much less interest in any specific characters.

The characters of the Broken Rock Indian Reservation, led by Gil Birmingham’s Thomas Rainwater, were pretty minor throughout the last season, and though they only get a handful of scenes between the first two episodes, hopefully we’ll see more of them. If John is in the seat of ultimate power, there need to be characters who are audience surrogates, and that really should be Rainwater. Instead, their handful of scenes feels like lip service so we can get extended flashbacks of the Duttons.

Rip, Kayce, and Jamie do a lot of nothing in the first two episodes, but all three actors know their characters well enough to give off intimidation, tenderness, and sadness, respectively, when needed. Beth ended Season 4 by getting married and starts off Season 5 apologizing to Rip for being a horrible person the last 30 years. Is this the kinder, gentler Beth Dutton that was shamed into being last season? Kelly Reilly really is the life’s blood of “Yellowstone,” filling every inch of the frame with panther-like energy. To second Rip’s statement in the premiere, she does need somebody new to fight. Considering how the series has drawn its female characters over the years (and the lack of female directors or writers on the show), if Beth is going to find a soul, it needs to be done in a way that’s specific to the character.

The final images of Season 5’s premiere culminate with a character’s life hanging in the balance. If you’ve watched “Yellowstone” at all, it’s fairly obvious who it is and why it’s so stupid that they’re in that position. It’s even worse when one realizes that the next episode gives them nothing to do to build off the suspense of the final scene. It just shows that “Yellowstone” might be losing its focus with so many characters to juggle. Desperate cliffhangers can only do so much, especially when the follow-up episodes start with “we solved that, now on to something else.” It’s possible that Sheridan’s many irons in the fire — including the upcoming spinoff “1923” — are beginning to take their toll, leading to less than 100 percent focus when he wrote these two episodes. Regardless, “Yellowstone” fans will no doubt eagerly consume this, but how long till they expect something to actually happen?

Grade: C

“Yellowstone” premieres Sunday, November 13, on the Paramount Network.

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