[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “Yellowstone” Season 4, through Episode 6, “I Want To be Him.”]
“Yellowstone” is a simple show. John Dutton (Kevin Costner) is a cattle rancher in the time of Impossible beef, an existential climacteric when the Mountain West’s fastest-growing export is the idea of the Mountain West, brought to you by a booming recreation sector, the fashionability of work clothes from Carhartt, and TV shows like “Yellowstone.” Each season introduces a bigger wolf with designs on how to pump serious money from the land the Duttons have worked since they stole it from the Native Americans, usually by paving over it. “You’re the Indian now,” John’s Native American daughter-in-law tells him at the start of Season 3. Meanwhile, the Crow Indians, with the exclusive right to build luxury resorts anchored by glittering casinos, are in reluctant cahoots with the next wave of gold diggers to arrive in the Rockies. Ancient land snatched by new, greedy hands: It’s the oldest story told about the American west, but creator Taylor Sheridan capably reimagines the enemy for late-stage capitalism: land developers, private equity, eminent domain. It’s not just John’s ranch at stake, but his way of life.
Some shows turn corners across the years, evolve into different shows, but “Yellowstone” doesn’t permit itself much narrative road. When the series premiered in 2018, it was the first hit show set in the contemporary Mountain West since “Dynasty” took Denver (or, as a friend who grew up in Bozeman calls Colorado, “Walmart Montana.”) The sprawling Yellowstone ranch wasn’t just the series’ painterly backdrop but its yardstick: The world is only as pure as the Yellowstone is solvent. Every elegiac season, the Duttons eke out an unlikely victory but for what? The ranch can’t survive the modern world, John can’t survive without the ranch, and no one is watching “Yellowstone” without Kevin Costner. In lieu of evolving, the series, now in the middle of its fourth season, is becoming more audaciously itself: The bunkhouse fistfights are grislier, Beth’s corporate raiding is sharkier, and the body count is, incredibly, higher. With his daughter living with fiancé Rip (Cole Hauser), son Kayce (Luke Grimes) returned to the reservation, and son Jamie (Wes Bentley) estranged, our taciturn patriarch’s most verbose relationship is with his horse (though Costner doesn’t really speak, just makes the shapes of words with his mouth while gargling small rocks). The series reeks of inescapable death — literal, metaphorical, and spiritual. On “Yellowstone,” we’re told again and again, the end is only a matter of when.
The season’s new storylines are sensational if disconnected from the show’s central theme. Beth (Kelly Reilly), for example, makes an unlikely connection with a teen orphan from the wrong side of the tracks. She takes him in — a stand-in for the son she and Rip could have had if she hadn’t had an abortion as a teen, the series suggests — only to banish the boy to the barn like a broken toy when he asks her to buy him more clothes than she offered. It’s an excavation of Beth’s maternal instincts, suppressed after being forcibly sterilized at a reservation clinic, and the limits of her ability to keep her closest secret. Meanwhile, on some other ranch, Jamie is living with his biological father — who orchestrated the assassination attempts on the family that raised him — and is suddenly reunited with the forgotten son he fathered back in Season 2. “Yellowstone” has never been coy about its soap opera bona fides, but there’s chaos to this season’s revelations. At any moment, I’m prepared to learn that Jamie isn’t really Jamie, but Jamie’s evil identical twin brother who everyone thought was dead and so never mentioned. From week to week, I can’t remember which cowboys are fighting over which barrel racer, but I know they will. When John brings home an acerbic eco-protestor (played by Piper Perabo), the reliably batshit Beth pulls a knife on her. Montana’s tourism slogan makes a handy tagline for this season’s recursive plotlines: “The adventure continues” — but it rarely changes.
More than ever on “Yellowstone,” machismo is deified. After the bloodbath of the Season 3 finale, John wakes up from a months-long coma and promptly disregards all medical advice — a decision that produces zero negative consequences and at least one copycat. When Jimmy ditches his neck brace to impress a cocksure horse trader, his stupidity hits like a rite of passage. When I became a real tough cowboy, I put away childish things. For all Sheridan’s protesting that “Yellowstone” isn’t a red-state show, it’s striking that manhood’s become synonymous with ignoring your doctor in 2021. (Sheridan even plays the cowboy who tells Jimmy that cervical traction doesn’t really go with his truck’s caiman alligator upholstery.)
Increasingly, my favorite scenes are the ones of guys just riding horses against the big sky. The reining still doesn’t make much sense to me, but Sheridan has accomplished something more impressive than explaining rodeo to a layperson. As a viewer, I just trust him. If he shows me a sliding stop, it must have been a good one. If he says a livestock commissioner would bury a citizen under a cattle guard to teach him good manners — and get away with it — well, the west must really be wild. “Are you trying to die?” Kayce asks his father in an early Season 4 episode, when he goes riding after being discharged from the hospital. The answer must be yes. The only justification for all the recklessness on the ranch is the constant knowledge that death is inevitable and nearby. John is the Indian, but he’s the mobster and the frontiersman and the vigilante, too. Doing exactly what you want to when someone else tells you no is how a man like John makes his last stand.
Like its characters, “Yellowstone” is a show that leaves a lot unsaid. The effect can be poignant. It can also be confusing. That kid in the barn that Beth discarded? His name is Carter, though everyone calls him “boy,” and in Episode 5 he declares he wants to be John when he grows up: stoic, muscular, merciless. Except soon there won’t be cattle ranchers in the valley. Even as Carter says it, John’s walking up a hill and into the horizon. The land won’t save the Carters of this world. He’ll grow into another homeless cowboy, like Rip. Like John. There’s no saving the Yellowstone, and there’s nothing hopeful in another person joining the fight to save it.
Unless, there is. The sun is shining when Carter makes his pledge, the music is crescendoing, and there’s no more indelibly American idea than fighting the good, hopeless fight until it breaks your heart. “Are you trying to die?” a dutiful son asks the last real tough cowboy in America. If you’ve been watching “Yellowstone” for four seasons, then you understand its internal logic — the peculiar alchemy of horses and masculinity and silence that cures the men who love this ranch. Of course, he’s not trying to die. He’s trying to live. It’s everything else that’s trying to kill him.
“Yellowstone” Season 4 airs new episodes Sundays at 8 p.m. ET on Paramount Network.