‘Yellowstone’ Might Be Lib-pilling Our Conservative Parents and I Love It
Or as Rip might say, taking their worldview to the train station.
I have to admit it. I avoided Yellowstone like the plague for its first five seasons. I saw trailers full of Kevin Costner in cowboy dad drag and a fanbase that seemed to be made up predominantly of midwestern, white republicans. It seemed very much like it must be MAGA propaganda, or at least, mushy Hallmark-level americana dreck. But it is, by far, the most popular program (despite being on the least popular Paramount Network) in the United States and has spawned not one, but two star-studded prequel series (1883 stars Sam Elliott and 1923 which is coming soon, will star Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren.) And many smart and insightful critics, like Mark Harris, love the program and so I thought “what am I missing?”
I decided to give it a shot.
And boy was I glad I did! Now I’m only one and a half seasons in, but the show is… nuts. The first season opens with John Dutton, (Kevin Costner), having to shoot his horse in the face after they were both grievously injured when a semi hit his trailer. It isn’t Hallmark. It’s The Godfather. But with cowboys. We watch the Dutton family extort, murder, and bully their way through Montana in an attempt to conserve their vast ranching empire. Someone who could hurt the Duttons is murdered in almost every episode of the first season, and several by the youngest son Kayce! Dutton often assigns the dirtiest, most violent work to his senior ranch hand Rip, who is actually more like a traditional mafia enforcer… in a Stetson. The family actively hates each other. Siblings Beth and Jamie are constantly sniping at each other, and even coming to physical blows, and Kayce refuses to even live on the ranch (at first) after his own father branded him. And remember that dad is Kevin Costner! It’s wild! It’s mafia cowboy Succession!
But that isn’t even the most shocking part. The most shocking part is the show’s politics. It is not conservative MAGA propaganda, despite the sexy cowboys and beautiful rural pastorals. The family, much like in Succession or Billions or the Corleones, are all rich, miserable, monsters. Even as we like them, and like watching them, the show never lets us forget that they are just really awful human beings. And while one of the main antagonists to the Duttons is a Los Angeles real estate developer (played by Danny Huston) hellbent on stealing the Dutton ranch away from them and turning it into another McMansion luxury playground for the rich, the other is Chief Thomas Rainwater (the amazing Gil Birmingham), the newly elected leader of the Broken Rock Reservation. His goal is to take back the Dutton’s land, and he’s not afraid to play a dirty white man’s game to do it.
And the thing is, the show goes out of its way at every opportunity to show that, despite his methods, Rainwater is usually right. The Duttons, we hear in the show, took that land from the tribes using violent, genocidal tactics (as most colonizers are wont to do.) The show also spends at least half of its time with the Native characters, giving them rich material and the space to exist as fully fleshed-out characters. In fact, the only truly good and decent character on the show, Monica Dutton (Kayce’s wife), takes a faculty position at the local college on the condition that she can teach the class on Columbus and American History her
And boy does she. Her lecture, starting with the dressing down of a sexist and racist male student, is one of the “wokest” things I have seen on a mainstream television program, maybe ever. Here is her speech in full:
“When Christopher Columbus first came in contact with Native Americans, it was the Arawak people in the Bahamas. I’ll read to you from Columbus’s journal:
“‘They willingly traded us everything they owned… They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They will make fine slaves… With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.’
“You ever feel like that, Trent? Ever feel like making someone do what you want, whether they want to or not? It’s a very European mentality, stemming from the oppressive political and religious structures of the Renaissance.
“That was the mentality of the men who discovered America. And it is the mentality our society struggles with today… What you know of history is a dominant culture’s justification for its actions. And I don’t teach that. I’ll teach you what happened. To my people. And to yours. Because we are all the descendants of the subjugated. Every one of us.”
And there is no equivocating about her being an antagonist or a bully to the student. In fact, the show wants us to know that she is good because they send the male student she shamed back to her after class to apologize for his shitty comments. Her message got through to him (at least for now.) Which means there is a chance that it is sinking in, maybe unconsciously, into our conservative parents and relatives and middle America as well.
Because the show isn’t subtle. It is explicitly depicting the wealthy Duttons as, (as Mark Harris so eloquently said), “murder lunatics.” It is saying that these people, the wealthy capitalists, are murderous and evil. Even as we root for them, the show never lets us forget what they are. They are the legacy of the colonization and genocide inflicted upon indigenous people across the United States. And they will continue to murder and extort to hold onto this territory that does not belong to them.
And while yes many conservative fans might still watch the Duttons and think “fuck yeah!” while clicking purchase on ludicrous “thin Yellowstone line” shirts, they are also absorbing the messages of Monica Dutton and Thomas Rainwater. They are slowly, but surely, getting dosed with the actual progressive text of the show.