Starring: Kevin Costner, Luke Grimes, Kelly Reilly, Wes Bentley, Cole Hauser, Kelsey Asbille, Gil Birmingham, Jefferson White, Danny Huston
Mood: If you can’t decide between modern Western and political drama and sexy people being horrible and you want “D, all of the above” but with excellent acting and production.
Holy shit. Where to even begin with Yellowstone.
I was walking through a store and my fiancé goes, “is that Kevin Costner?” Now, usually he is so, so wrong about actors’ faces. But lo and behold, Costner was indeed staring down at me from the Yellowstone season 1 DVD set.
A Western series with Kevin Costner?! HOW DID I NOT KNOW ABOUT THIS?! But at least I’m not like, 10 years late to the party, like I was with Deadwood.
I watched the Yellowstone‘s entire first season in three days, then watched it again. Even though the episodes are long, you can’t stop. It’s so deliciously dramatic, violent, thrilling, and downright messed up.
Hang onto your hats – for real, hats are a big f*cking deal on this show. Here come my opinions.
Yellowstone is a modern ranching show, and a political drama, and a rich family soap opera, AND an unflinching view of tensions between Native Americans and white people.
There’s so much to unpack here.
These aren’t adorably entitled rich people like on Schitt’s Creek. The Dutton family are hard, ruthless rich people who have all experienced and done horrible things. I don’t just mean shady business deals and affairs. It’s the real life cowboy mafia.
- Fun Fact: The Chief Joseph Ranch, which is used as the Dutton family ranch, is meant to represent the largest ranch in the entire USA. It’s just over of half the size of my own family’s ranch here in British Columbia, and we ain’t rich.
Be forewarned. There’s a healthy serving of action ranging from brutal fist fights to meth lab explosions, horseback injuries, murder, and even an impaling. If you have no stomach for death, Yellowstone is not for you.
The first time I watched Yellowstone’s first season, I was astounded that a show with so many despicable people could be SO F*CKING ENJOYABLE. I think the reason it works is because the acting is so strong, and most of the characters have at least one redeeming quality.
- John Dutton (Kevin Costner) is a power-hungry land baron who treats his kids like shit, but he’s a doting grandfather.
- Beth Dutton (Kelly Reilly) buys out and crushes businesses for a living and is almost always drunk, but when you see what happened to make her that way you can’t hate her.
- Jamie Dutton (Wes Bentley) is a lawyer and politician with a knack for finding legal loopholes, but he doesn’t actually enjoy it.
- Kayce Dutton (Luke Grimes) is a former soldier who takes the law into his own hands pretty much whenever he wants and hides it from his family; I actually don’t like him at all.
- Thomas Rainwater (Gil Birmingham) is the chief of the Broken Rock Reservation, tribal chairman, and extremely wealthy guy who wants to do right by his people by getting their land back – especially the Dutton land.
- Rip Wheeler (Cole Hauser) is John Dutton’s right-hand man on the ranch and off, and seems to have a good heart that he can switch off to do his boss’ dirty work.
- Dan Jenkins (Danny Huston) is a greedy capital developer who, like Rainwater, has eyes on Dutton’s land. He doesn’t seem to have a good side, but that makes him a great nemesis and counterpart to Rainwater, whose loathing of the Duttons is driven by a respectable purpose.
And that’s just the biggest players. Every single character in each episode is integral to the story.
Kevin Costner is brilliant as the Dutton patriarch. I mean really, truly brilliant. This is some Open Range-quality Costner. He told Entertainment Weekly, “I always felt that I would end up playing a laconic kind of Western character.” Well, laconic is John Dutton to a tee.
Costner is grizzled, stoic, and somehow at once worn down by life and intimidating AF. He gives you the aging cowboy who will still get on a bucking bronc and do the ranch work himself. He gives you the man who will dive into a river to save a kid. And he also delivers on the deadly powerful businessman who is physically crumbling.
I’ve seen all of those characters before, but not in one performance. Costner can do something cold and ruthless one moment, then somehow still make you hope he succeeds.
Probably everyone who watches Yellowstone season one has their favourites, and characters they can’t stand. I just assume mine are the best picks:
- Whether she’s having a screaming meltdown or coolly delivering a sick burn, Kelly Reilly is thoroughly enjoyable to watch as Beth. She has the most range of anyone on the show thanks to Beth’s emotional extremes. You get caught up in her cocky, strong moments, but she drags you down hard in her many crashes.
- Rip is probably my favourite of all these rich, dark characters. Cole Hauser has mastered this sort of hitman-with-a-heart-of-gold persona. He radiates a sweetness and vulnerability even in Rip’s most brutal moments.
- Jimmy the ranch hand is played to a goofy, messy perfection by Jefferson White. Jimmy is pretty much the only underdog in Yellowstone’s first season, and Jefferson literally hurls himself into everything Jimmy does including learning to ride (White had never saddled up before being cast). His earnest portrayal makes your heart ache for Jimmy to find acceptance – and learn to ride a f*cking horse.
I don’t know why I can’t stand Kayce. It’s no fault of Luke Grimes; he plays the character well – he genuinely feels like a haunted ex-military man who thinks it’s his job to right every wrong by force. I think you’re meant to feel bad for him, because he’s so good with horses and so loving with his wife and kid (whom I don’t like either).
But whenever he’s on the screen, I just assume he’s about to mess something up for someone else by making selfish choices.
- Not-So-Fun Fact: Kelsey Asbille, who plays Kayce’s wife Monica, apparently claimed Cherokee ancestry in interviews after she was cast. Actual Cherokee researchers disproved this claim. Adam Beach (Hostiles, Comanche Moon, Cowboys & Aliens) asked other Native American actors to boycott Yellowstone in protest. The problem is that the show offers so many meaty Native American roles that aren’t present in other popular shows, and it does shine a spotlight on real issues. So it’s obviously hard to turn down the opportunity if you’re an actual Native American actor.
Does Yellowstone do a good job of portraying the struggles of life on a reservation, and what it’s like to have a poor Native American community ‘living’ right next to filthy rich white people? I feel like it does – they embrace the ugliness of that relationship head-on. But I’m also a white person so I could be missing something important.
What the show does do extremely well is storytelling. It seems like every time we get a glimpse of a supporting character’s past, the Yellowstone story takes on a whole new meaning. The season finale left me hungry for more backstories, like those of the other ranch hands (especially Lloyd, Avery, and Walker) and of Rainwater’s right-hand man, Mo.
And I LOVE how every episode is like a new shuffle of the deck. You never know who’s going to suddenly turn on someone. Who will get bumped off? Who will make a deal or alliance? It could be anybody!
Yellowstone’s first season is further driven by strong cinematography, great direction, and a killer soundtrack. If you love getting caught up in shows with constant plot twists and next-level drama, this Western’s for you.