A Vanity Fair Leftie Looks at “Yellowstone”
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Tracy Moore assures fellow Coastal Elite liberal Vanity Fair readers that they, too, can watch Yellowstone’s new season (starting tonight).
The show’s flagrant Conservative values and attitudes, you see, are only on the surface and they’re simply there to pull the wool over the eyes of the bitter clinging yokels. In reality, the popular program is speaking the orthodox leftist gospel: denouncing cisgendered masculine violence and ruthless individualism, condemning the white colonialists’ crimes against the noble red man, and agreeing with Proudhon that Property is Theft.
Yellowstone has been called “prestige TV for conservatives,” which explains a lot. “People perceive all my stuff as red state, and it’s the most ridiculous thing,” Sheridan told the New York Times in 2019. “If you truly look at this show…these are pretty wildly progressive notions. The people who are calling it a red-state show have probably never watched it.”
That may be. Or maybe it’s that Yellowstone buries its progressive notions in soapy scenes, over-the-top violence, and grandstanding soliloquies. But either way, Yellowstone is up to something curious. It’s an entertaining and sometimes graphically violent drama, but one that hooks viewers with entertaining brawls, complex family threads, and a willingness to (mostly) punch up. The show may not enjoy the prestige it wants, but it’s a clever conceit that pulls a nifty trick on its core audience.
At a glance, Yellowstone does look like a white male conservative power fantasy—and a white conservative female fantasy of the protection that comes with that. Son Jamie Dutton (Wes Bentley) is a weak-willed college boy who brought his Harvard law degree home to protect his family’s empire. Son Kayce (Luke Grimes), a Navy vet, married Native American woman Monica (Kelsey Asbille), and had a son, Tate (Brecken Merrill), all of whom remain on the reservation, far from the ranch’s perks. Over three seasons, we’ve watched the Duttons negotiate with Broken Rock leaders, whose new chairman, Thomas Rainwater (Gil Birmingham), intends to use his own Harvard MBA to settle an age-old score. We’ve seen a stream of villainous billionaire developers eager to refashion this natural wonder into ski resorts and second homes. We’ve seen alliances change faster than a horse bucks a cowboy at the rodeo.
There’s also a steady stream of sick burns about California and the white libruls enticed to Big Sky Country, whether it’s mocking pour-over coffee in nearby Bozeman, or scheming developer Dan Jenkins (Danny Huston) delivering this scathing line: “This isn’t California, gentleman. It’s Montana. We can do anything we want here.”
City folk are endless fodder, depicted as weak, soft-handed interlopers. Most every granola tourist is from the Golden State, and they often meet gruesome ends thanks to their arrogance about the landscape’s beauty, which hides danger at every turn.
There are only two kinds of men here: Real ones and pussies, a word slung so often in the show—mostly by women, all spun from golden hyperfeminine grit—that I lost count. It’s easy to imagine old-school conservatives—the kind who already had a boner for Reagan but save their biggest boner for Teddy Roosevelt—eating this up.
As entertaining as it sounds, there’s more going on beneath Yellowstone’s surface. One fascinating through line is the insurmountable struggles of the Native Americans on the rez, who endure poverty, addiction, violence, and suicide, with the elders determined to change that by casino, lawsuit, or land grab. Another involves the hardscrabble existence of the cowboys (and occasional cowgirls) in the bunkhouse: the orphans, drifters and ex-cons Yellowstone Ranch hires, who keep the ranch going with their backbreaking labor and the muscling. In a place that makes its own rules, street justice must be served swiftly with brawn on both sides.
But the Duttons’ wrongheaded white ways are also undercut at every turn, with hypocritical callouts aplenty. “No man should own this much land,” scolds a trespassing Chinese tourist when confronted by Dutton with a shotgun. “This is America,” Dutton grumbles. “We don’t share land.”
Yet the show never shies from underlining how Dutton is a dinosaur under threat of extinction. Under all that tough cowboy sumbitch stuff, Yellowstone slow-doles a harsh critique of every form of white supremacy even as it humanizes its central family. Monica may be married to a Dutton, but she teaches oblivious, mostly white freshman at the nearby state school the truth about American history and the genocide that nearly killed her people. On the ranch, a barrel racer tells her cowboy boyfriend that the Yellowstone brand on his chest—the Duttons like to brand their cattle and their men—doesn’t prove he belongs there, but that he’s only as good as property.
It’s obvious that the show believes our history’s ideology and laws are deeply encoded with racism; it also thinks things won’t always stay this way. Watching the series, its conservative viewers are forced to face their biggest fears, whether they realize it or not.
I originally misidentified the author as a Canadian television critic. Actually, the correct Tracy Moore is this one.
My biggest fear is that Rip won’t get his hands on those responsible for the attacks on the Duttons in the first episode of Season 4.