Not since Julia Sugarbaker told Marjorie about the night the lights went out in Georgia has a female performer given audiences a feast of camp and fury like Kelly Reilly serves every week on “Yellowstone.” And I, a gay man, am here to say that she ate, no crumbs, she is Mother, and whatever we’ll be saying next year because we no longer live in a world that won’t discuss Reilly’s performance as Beth Dutton. With the first half of Season 5 now available to stream on Peacock with the rest of the series, I need to go on the record about something.
Yes, I watch “Yellowstone” (or as most publications call it “That Show Your Parents Love”). Yes, it is problematic and messy and sometimes cringe, and yeah, OK, I do tend to bear down on the fast-forward button when the men are talking about, I dunno, familial duty and fatherhood and whatever patriarchal stuff straight men dressing up for an office job in cowboy togs meaningfully discuss.
Beth doesn’t dress like a woman living on a ranch. Wearing more kohl than Elizabeth Taylor in “Cleopatra,” she stalks through Montana in leopard-print coats, wreathed in cigarettes and alcohol fumes and sometimes clad in jarring cottage core that enhances her unpredictability. Would a woman wearing cap sleeves really order a double Tito’s and then reprimand the waitress for correcting it to a martini by saying, “A martini has vermouth and is enjoyed with friends. I don’t like vermouth, and these aren’t my friends”? If it’s Beth Dutton, she will, and you’ll record it and post it to Instagram stories with the caption, “Me on a first date.”
A lot of series premiered over the last few years boasting about a female antihero, usually name-dropping Don Draper or Walter White. What makes Beth so iconoclastic is that her viciousness isn’t in service of her own self-interest. If anything, she’s made herself borderline unhirable with the kinds of business shenanigans last seen on “Melrose Place” (Amanda Woodward may be the only one who could go toe-to-toe with Beth). Beth destroys companies and lives because her father is determined to preserve the family ranch, a quixotic mission she herself repeatedly refers to her as Alamo. She knows the game ends in failure and ruin, but she keeps playing.
That combination of fatalism and fury is catnip for audiences starved for the kind of “bad girl” character that TV has only provided in the form of white wine-soaked housewives of late. There is no redemption for Beth; even her backstory (her dying mother blamed her) is shot through with an over-the-top quality that borders on the surreal: On the anniversary of the Dutton matriarch’s death, Beth drinks from a bottle of champagne naked in a horse trough in front of the ranch hands.
Maybe a more honest version of this argument is simply to list off Beth’s best lines and moments, from destroying a racist shop owner’s s tore (and sense of self-worth) to refusing to show fear as she’s beaten and threatened with sexual assault and murder to putting her on again, off again lover in his place after sex with, “I always remember your dick as being bigger. I guess that’s just the nostalgic in me.”
Nevertheless, there is a growing consensus that cruelty and skullduggery and fabulous eyeliner do not a character make — at least, not after four-and-a-half seasons. I wonder how much of that is how flinty and unyielding Beth is (especially in Reilly’s hands). “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” also received pushback for allowing Midge to flourish no matter what, but not to the virulent degree that Beth receives. At its worst, the criticism hinges on the unlikeliness of Beth Dutton; she is, they say, a woman obviously created and written by a man. But Beth is also the most fully realized character on “Yellowstone.” Such is the stuff of the rest of the series that most friends look aghast when I tell them I watch the show; the bulk of the coverage has consisted of the modern-day cowboy epic rather than what it more frequently is: “Dynasty” with spurs. (Though “Falcon Crest” with cattle might be more apt.)
But so too were the great female roles of classic Hollywood written by men. Beth Dutton calls back to the women Molly Haskell singles out in her book “From Reverence to Rape.” Long before the feminist movement, Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn and Rosalind Russell played single, childless career women — up until the final moments, when men exerted their authority once more and presumably transformed them, happily, into wives and mothers after the credits rolled. Beth Dutton is a rejection of that, a woman whose tragedy was forced sterilization as a teenager but who corrects the child she has taken in when he calls her “Mama” by saying she’s not his mother.
What is the endgame for Beth? Will she ever relax, find happiness with her husband, walk away from her family? I hope not. Her tragic flaws are Shakespearean in scope and made all the more tragic by her acknowledgment of them. Beth doesn’t deserve a happy ending — and she knows it. With nothing to lose, she’s a wildcard in ways that women have not often been allowed to be. There are no severe pants suits for her as she systematically destroys a man’s complacency in a board room or a bedroom. She doesn’t adjust herself to appeal to anyone. (Imagine that for a moment!) And for gay men who over-identify with problematic women, that’s one of the greatest gifts we could get on a weekly basis. “Yellowstone” might well be the show your parents love, but hopefully, Beth Dutton’s best moments will be the clips that play on a loop in gay bars.
“Yellowstone” Season 5A is now available to stream on Peacock. “Yellowstone” Season 5B is still (maybe) set to premiere on Paramount later in 2023.