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Friday, January 06, 2023


 I was one of the many bicoastals who took a long time to try out Breaking Bad.  My son bugged me for two years to give it a try and finally gave me DVDs of the first two seasons, and I was hooked at once.  Something similar, apparently, has happened with the streamed series Yellowstone, starring Kevin Costner, and it was only during the last month that I gave it a try. For a week or two it replaced the World Cup as the primary focus of my day, and I am now in the middle of season 5, which just finished and will apparently be the last.  There are a number of things I want to say about it, and they will include some spoilers, although I'm not going to narrate any key events of the plot.  

Set mostly in the present with some flashbacks, Yellowstone might have been described in Hollywood pitch meetings as Bonanza meets The Godfather.  It is set on a large ranch in a Montana Valley, just miles away from Wyoming and the National Park of the same name.  John Dutton (Costner) is the family patriarch, lives strictly according to his own codes like Vito Corleone, and lives only to pass on his ranch and his way of life to his family.  His wife died many years ago, and if you take a guess as to how she died (as I did) you will probably turn out to be right.  Like Vito Corleone, he has three sons and a daughter.  The daughter, Beth, is the most striking character on the show.  She is calculatedly over the top and you are likely to love her or hate her; I generally found her entertaining.  She shares Connie Corleone's volatility, but that's about all  The sons, however, are a pretty good match for Sonny, Michael, and especially Fredo.  I won't provide a full scorecard, but Kacey {sic], the youngest son, is a decorated war veteran who originally wanted his own life but is drawn back into his father's orbit.  Like Michael Corleone, he is married to an outsider--in his case, an Indian--who happens also to be a teacher.  The Tom Hagen figure is Rip, the ranch foreman, whom the Dutton's appear to have adopted at a young age.

Like the Corleones, the family is fighting a war for the ranch on several fronts.  They feud with other leading families in the state.  The highly political local Indian chief dreams of using casino money to buy up the entire valley and restoring the Indians' ancient way of life.  Kacey's wife Monica also teaches a very woke version of US history at a local college.  All the Indian characters appear to be played by genuine Indians, and I do wonder what real contemporary plains Indians think of it.   But the most dangerous foes are a California businessman and a venture capital firm that want to turn the valley into a rich person's playground, complete with an airport, a luxury resort, and a new ski area.  Alliances among the various factions continually shift, conflict often becomes violent--factions sometimes enlist local private militias as trigger men--and the body count can get pretty high pretty fast.  All the factions also compete for the support of local law enforcement and the state government.  Meanwhile, in the background, rich people from both coasts are buying up land, forcing up property values and taxes, and threatening established ways of life.

If you love the west, as I do, the show is absolutely spectacular to watch.  The scenery is gorgeous, and nearly every episode features scenes of herds of animals that must have been extremely difficult to film.  The supporting cast includes the Dutton ranch's cowboys, whose culture the show explores in detail.  Here the casting was a little erratic.  Some of the cowboys seem very realistic (Rip certainly does), some are stereotypical, and some are obviously urban-born actors who do not have a clue.  The cowboys in at least one respect resemble a Mafia family, complete with a brutal initiation ceremony.  In one moving episode, one of them is sent to work for some months in Texas, and one character remarks that it is only in flat, relatively arid, desperately hot Texas that the cowboy way of life will survive, while the mountain states, like Colorado, become playgrounds of the rich.

Some people may find the show trite; others will find it, like The Godfather, truly Shakespearean. I was never very taken with Kevin Costner when he was Hollywood superstar 30 years ago, but age has given him a lot more gravitas and his character is well-written.  The series has also spawned two prequels set in the 1890s and 1920s, respectively, and one of them stars Helen Mirren and Harrison Ford.  The plot is becoming more powerful for me as it nears the end, because John Dutton has emerged as the symbol of all the millions of Americans, from factory workers to small farmers to serious scholars, whose way of life has been destroyed by the trends of the last 30 years. I just read a long New York Review of Books piece on American politics that continually bewailed the solidly Republican mountain states but never asked how they got that way--or why they evolved over the last half century from pretty evenly divided territory to solidly Republican.  We all know what has happened to Michigan and Wisconsin factory workers--although the Democrats still assume that those people owe them so loyalty--but much of our rural population, which was also a bastion of the New Deal, has disappeared without a trace and is now completely off their radar.  In that respect, Yellowstone is not merely absorbing drama with great scenery, but food for thought.  


latheChuck said...

If you're upset about "what's happened to Wisconsin factory workers", you can still buy made-in-Wisconsin shoes (some Redwing work boots, and Footskins casual shoes), and HardHat brand clothing. Maybe keep some of them going a little longer.

Skimpole said...

The interesting thing is that much of the west (California, Oregon, Washington, but also Colorado, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico) have become more Democratic. The real shift to the right is in smaller states (Wyoming, Idaho and Montana). Here's one possible explanation I saw mentioned today: Justin Farrell's "Billionaire Wilderness: the Ultra-Wealthy and the Remaking of the American West." From its amazon.com webpages: "Billionaire Wilderness takes you inside the exclusive world of the ultra-wealthy, showing how today's richest people are using the natural environment to solve the existential dilemmas they face. Justin Farrell spent five years in Teton County, Wyoming, the richest county in the United States, and a community where income inequality is the worst in the nation. He conducted hundreds of in-depth interviews, gaining unprecedented access to tech CEOs, Wall Street financiers, and other prominent figures in business and politics. He also talked with the rural poor who live among the ultra-wealthy and often work for them. The result is a penetrating account of the far-reaching consequences of the massive accrual of wealth and a troubling portrait of a changing American West where romanticizing rural poverty and conserving nature can be lucrative, socially as well as financially."