‘Yellowstone’ Season 4 Premiere [Recap]: Taylor Sheridan’s Ranchers Stay On The Throne In A Blaze Of Revenge & Payback


Writer, producer, director, showrunner actor Taylor Sheridan (the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of “Hell Or High Water”) is having quite the fall. His new prison industrial complex series, “The Mayor of Kingstown,” airs later this month on Paramount+ (November 14), a trailer for his new Western series, “1883,” debuted yesterday (December 19 premiere) and last night saw the two-part premiere of “Yellowstone” season four, his flagship Paramount Network, one of the least talked about television shows proportional to its popularity. Translation: “Yellowstone” is wildly popular, the most popular show on cable TV that surpassed “The Walking Dead” in 2020, but generally regarded, broadly anyhow, to be a show watched by Red State, flyover State, Middle America viewers (though man, when you watch this on Cable, the ads are definitely targeted to people who wear Carhartt, own farms, Dodge Rams and pride themselves on doing physical labor for a living).

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Having never really written much about this series on our site (we’re admittedly latecomers to the series), permit me to set up the basics. “Yellowstone” is a family empire/dynasty show that’s not unlike “The Godfather” or a mafia movie mixed with “Game Of Thrones,” really, only set on a ranch in Montana. It’s a show about holding onto power, and power that’s fading as a modern era of progress encroaches and threatens this good ol’ boys way of lifestylin’.

“Yellowstone” centers on the dysfunctional Dutton family and its rugged, tough-but-fair patriarch John Dutton (Kevin Costner, ideally suited for this role) trying to keep control of the vast acres of land they own in Montana that center in and around Yellowstone National Park. The problem is: everyone wants that land, and Dutton, a proud and honorable man, made a promise to his father to never sell the land, a promise he intends to hold until his dying breath. As the Livestock commissioner of Montana at the time (a total conflict of interest, of course), John Dutton isn’t afraid of bending rules, breaking laws, putting everyone in his pocket, and using all his money, power and influence, to make sure the land stays his.

In season one, it was land developers (represented by Danny Huston) and an Indigenous American reservation and its Chief, Thomas Rainwater (Gil Birmingham) that threatened that land, trying every machination under the sun to try and either force the Duttons to sell, price them out, devalue their land, strike fear into their hearts, etc. (though the Duttons just don’t scare easily, sorry). In seasons two and three, it was the advent of Market Equities, the Fortune 500 real estate company seeking to claim the Yellowstone by whatever means necessary.

Meanwhile, all the fractured family elements played out: Kayce Dutton, a former US Navy SEAL and the youngest Dutton (Luke Grimes), did everything he could to disassociate himself from his family, distancing himself and his Native American wife and son from them; Jamie Dutton (Wes Bentley) the attorney and aspiring politician, the legal knight of his father’s chess table, dutifully did what he was told, all the while resenting the way he was pushed around like trash; Beth Dutton (Kelly Reilly), the financier and unpredictable sledgehammer of the family was always up to the craziest and riskiest maneuvers (she loathes Jamie), and Rip Wheeler (Cole Hauser), the loyal Yellowstone/Dutton Ranch foreman and violent weapon, not a biological son, but an honorary, surrogate one, crossing all moral lines and cleaning up the bodies every time John Dutton had a problem he couldn’t fix with above-the-board methods.

After three seasons of vanquishing disparate challenges to the Yellowstone throne (including the very violent and bloody challenges by the nemesis Beck brothers represented by Neal McDonough), fast forward to season four. In the season three finale, a vicious hit is put on the Dutton family. The patriarch John is gunned down in the street, saved only, ironically, by his loathed cell phone that takes a bullet, but badly wounded and clinging to life, Kayce, the new livestock commissioner, his office is raided by armed thugs, Beth is nearly blown to bits in a bombing (this show is sometimes not subtle) and Jamie, well, he found he’s adopted and has disassociated himself from the family, so his life is spared.

In the end, no one is dead (this is “Yellowstone,” and people seem to survive the most insane of attacks because they’re “tough” salt of the earth people, but also because this is TV), but the entire family is battered, bruised, left for dead or clinging to their life. The season four opener is the aftermath of the attacks, but also a scramble for revenge and “justice,” a thirty-something minute concentrated five-alarm that just blazes with taut intensity and really shows the best of Taylor Sheridan’s writing and direction (though Stephen Kay directs these first two eps). As Kayce, Rip, and the various police officers essentially on the Yellowstone payroll or in their pocket rush to get the attackers, this is some of the most satisfying and gripping TV we’ve seen all year.

The knock-on “Yellowstone” (a legitimate gripe) is that it’s frequently soap-opera-ish, melodramatic, or just bafflingly hyperbolic in some of its writing choices. Dramas escalate and ascend, only to get dropped and forgotten. Kayce and his wife Monica (Kelsey Asbille) vow, in one breath, to get as far away from the Dutton family bloodshed as possible, only seemingly to forget it a few episodes later when another twist or turn changes their mind.

Still, when the show is at its best, as this opening, it’s both emotionally and physically visceral. One could argue that muscular opening was the closest we’ve seen to Michael Mann doing an explosive entrance to a new TV pilot. So yes, with half the Dutton clan down, Kayce, Rip, and the local law enforcement hunts down, track and decimate the forces who crippled them. The question is: who called in the hit? Who is responsible?

Yellowstone

Beth, nearly blown to bits in her domestic terrorist attack but somehow still alive enough to just say “fuck it, I’m having a smoke” on the curb, thinks it’s Jamie Dutton. Having met and tentatively bonded with his biological father, Garrett Randall (Will Patton), Jamie is out of the picture, no longer living at home. And he’s distancing himself, but Beth’s posit is a bridge too far.

The next-in-line culprit is Roarke Morris (Josh Holloway), the rancher Market Equities stockholder whose family owns Cross Creek Ranch, trying to muscle in on the Duttons in season three. While he’s devious and underhanded, he’s not actually responsible, but he’s shown himself to be too dangerous, so Rip takes him out (one of the most gruesome and hilarious deaths on the show so far).

The real culprits? It’s unclear, but all signs point to the coalitions in the Militia forces they gunned down and murdered in frontier justice in season three (the Beck brothers hired militia to kidnap Tate Dutton [Brecken Merrill]). So, it seems this was their longtail revenge plan. But who is at the top of the Militia food chain? All teaser signs point to that being revealed in episode three, but it’s unknown right now.

The clunkiest bit? A jarring, out-of-nowhere flashback that’s essentially just a long-form commercial for the upcoming “Yellowstone” prequel, “1883.” Image in the middle of “Game Of Thrones” (if it were still on) suddenly and unexplainable flashed onto a five-minute scene from the upcoming “House Of Dragons” show, then flashed back to present day and didn’t say anything about it.

A two-hour opener (essentially just premiering two episodes back to back), episode two (“Phantom Pain”) is a quieter affair than the first (“Half The Money”) and centers on more of a fuller recovery. Set months later, John Dutton is healing from his wounds, out of his coma, and being released from the hospital (with lots of protesting about how it’s done, of course). “Phantom Pain” also centers on the Bunkhouse, aka the lower-level cowboys and ranch hands of the Yellowstone that Rip leads. The Bunkhouse is complicated in that, in that it’s supposed to be just roping, steering, cowboy job shit, but thanks to the pledge that some of them have taken (a Yellowstone branding on the chest), they’re indebted to do whatever the Dutton wants, and that means sometimes murdering too.

Yellowstone

The Bunkhouse was attacked too, but these roughnecks turned the tables on the militia with a vengeance. However, Jimmy Hurdstrom (Jefferson White), the knucklehead ranch hand and amateur bronco rider, got it the worst—due to his own hand. Jimmy, the naïve, numskull of the show, injured himself in season three bronco riding. He made a promise to Mr. Dutton not to ride again in exchange for the Yellowstone ranch paying for all his medical bills and keeping him on board. But love intervenes when the barrel racer and ranch hand Mia (Eden Brolin), his girlfriend, makes the dumb decision of telling Jimmy she may not love him if he ain’t living life to his full potential or some such BS. He decides to ride again and is almost crippled in the process (“Yellowstone” is really watchable and engaging, but falters in places like this where it doesn’t even bother interrogating her selfish decision; too many characters, not important enough).

Mr. Dutton recognizes that Jimmy has broken his promise, and the Dutton way of doing things would be kicking him to the curb. Still, he’s a soft and generous man, underneath the hard exterior with a lot of empathy to spare despite how goddamn tired he is of everyone’s bullshit. He sends Jimmy off to a cowboy camp. If they can’t turn him into a real cowboy, no one can.

Meanwhile, three more significant subplots are revealed—there are a dozen or so notable characters on this show, so there’s always a lot of plot and irons in the fire developing. Probably the most important in terms of external threats to the Yellowstone empire, the introduction of Caroline Warner (Jackie Weaver), a new Market Equities head honcho still trying to move forward with a plan to build an airport in the area (something that the Duttons don’t want because it’ll devalue their property and bring in an influx of tourists). She offers Chief Thomas Rainwater a deal too good to be true—helping fund his Casinos, but only if he makes five-star ones that draw an elite clientele— and it remains to be seen if he’ll take her up on the offer he can’t refuse. Still, if he does, it’ll put him back in the enemy category of the Duttons.

Subplot two is more intimate and personal. The on-and-off-again Beth and Rip are getting married; however, in season three, she revealed that she couldn’t conceive children (the reasons are too long and fucked up to explain here). So, right on cue, a drifter, orphan, and surrogate son falls into Beth’s lap. The kid, Carter’s (Finn Little) father, has just died of an overdose, and his options are falling into the foster home/juvenile corrections system and dire chances for a promising future. She takes pity on him and invites him into the home. Rip, brutal and unempathetic, isn’t having it at first but eventually gives the kid a trial job shoveling shit in the stalls for now.

Yellowstone

The final subplot, which will flourish later, centers on Jamie Dutton’s identity, coming into his own and Kayce and John realizing he’s not responsible for the attacks, nor was capable of them.  Egged on by his biological dad—”it’s time to cast your own shadow”—and building his own legacy, Jamie, now Montana’s Attorney General, decides to start buying up land around the Yellowstone. A broker remarks that he thought the Duttons were done buying properties, but Jamie makes sure to make it known he’s doing it for himself. Still, John wants to know where he stands. Even before Jamie knew he was adopted, he always felt like an outsider, and his relationship with his father was complicated and fraught. As he grapples with coming to terms with who he really is, –and how his adopted father John Dutton, essentially groomed him to be a lawyer to fight the ranch’s legal fights and how he realizes he’s always been used as a tool—season four’s definitely going to be about whether Jamie separates himself from the family (he’s left them before), or if he sticks around for good.

The main question for “Yellowstone,” since everyone seems to abandon the flock at some point, only to come back more loyal than ever, is whether the show can hold and sustain these emotional and philosophical contradictions. Family is a complicated four-letter word, but at some point, at some point, some of these betrayals are going to be too unbelievable to come back from. Still, the show has managed it thus far.  It constantly takes bold swings, bends, and tests suspension of disbelief—there are were definite points during a binge-watch of seasons one-three where I thought maybe this is getting too stupid and I should bail—and then quiets down and suckers you back in with these deeply compelling stories of family, loyalty, trust, betrayal, and complications and consequences that are constantly testing the family bonds and foundation. If the writing was ever clunky and tried that suspension of disbelief—and boy it has—it somehow still acts as an addictive salve and glue that keeps you coming back for more each week. “Yellowstone” is kind of the modern-day “Godfather” meets “Game Of Thrones” (maybe throw in a little “t” for good crime/family/drama measure), the struggle for power within a vast network of people all struggling for their piece of the pie and the almighty land that everyone lusts. [B+]  





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