Yellowstone is back with a decidedly dour first episode that cranks the melodrama to ten. That’s just part and parcel of the Dutton package. Now in its fifth season, the show goes out of its way to shock and awe its robust audience. By now, you’re on board or have ridden off to greener pastures.
For me, Yellowstone remains hammy fun. I enjoy the characters so much that I often forget many of them are villains. These people murdered and lied their way to power, all to keep their ranch from falling into the wrong hands. “I love Montana, but the ranch comes first,” John (Kevin Costner) tells his squabbling children Jamie (Wes Bentley) and Beth (Kelly Reilly) — and these are our idols?
Later, we see the Bunkhouse Gang — Lloyd (Forrie J. Smith), Teeter (Jennifer Landon), Ryan (Ian Bohen), Colby (Denim Richards), and Walker (Ryan Binham) — enjoying themselves in one of those patented Yellowstone montages bathed in golden sunlight. Ah, it was only yesterday this same group hung Dan Jenkins from a tree branch. Good times.
Rip (Cole Hauser), our foul-mouthed, ill-tempered, party-adverse Bunkhouse boss, kills people who threaten the Yellowstone way of life. Still, he makes Beth happy, so we forget his propensity for violence and root for his character to thrive in his newfound relationship.
I’m not criticizing the show. Like Game of Thrones, Yellowstone makes us care for terrible people, but that’s part of the appeal. No one is truly bad, you see? Most Yellowstone characters are merely pawns executing John Dutton’s brand of justice purely out of loyalty. It’s to the show’s credit that I still feel a smidgin of compassion for Jamie — the show’s de facto villain and the architect behind the Dutton’s sudden downward spiral — Rip, and Beth, despite their past terrible deeds.
Yellowstone operates in that tiny sliver between right and wrong. That’s what makes it great.
Anyway, let’s get to the first episode of Yellowstone Season 5.
What Worked in Yellowstone Season 5 Episode 1
- The episode opens with John winning the office of Governor. I’m thrilled we didn’t have to endure a painful election cycle, especially after the midterms. Plus, we knew John was going to win anyway. Now, the focus lies on what John does during his four years in office. As newly appointed Senator Lynelle Perry (Wendy Moniz) notes, he doesn’t plan to run again in four years. So, he can do whatever he wants without worrying about appeasing the masses. It turns out John has plenty on his agenda, such as canceling plans for the Paradise Valley Airport project and the surrounding commercial and housing developments, increasing property and sales taxes for non-residents, and charging vehicle and licensing fees to non-residents. In other words: he’s tired of outsiders from California and New York (who mishandled their cities) using Montana as an escape. Preach, John. Preach. Naturally, Jamie doesn’t like this plan and immediately pushes back at the first opportunity. John seems to understand the risk he’s taking, but I’m still determining what he plans to do. No one (aside from Beth?) seems to know what John has hidden up his sleeve. His decisions will cost the ranch millions in revenue, according to Jamie. “There are other ways for the ranch to make money,” Beth says, perhaps referring to Travis’ traveling rodeo. Does Jamie not know about this alternative source of income? Will Travis (Taylor Sheridan) produce enough money to keep the ranch afloat during these uncertain times?
- John’s constant gripes over his new role were a positive. The man was not built for politics and clearly has no patience for the silly parties, empty speeches, and goofy rallies that go hand-in-hand with the office of the Governor. “This is your fault,” he tells Jamie. “This should have been you.”
- As mentioned above, the first episode drops our Bunkhouse Gang into the first of what I assume will be many parties held at the ranch. We see the crew engage in silly roping games, knock down a few beverages, and ultimately have themselves a good time. Honestly, I like Yellowstone when it allows its characters to be real people and not overzealous, violent neanderthals. I could spend all day watching the crew work, banter, play cards, and deal with day-to-day problems on the ranch. Such actions, juxtaposed with John’s ongoing political battles, would be enough to hold my interest every week.
- We get an interesting flashback to young Beth and Rip, who go on an awkward first date. She enjoys making him squirm and sleeps with one of his Bunkhouse mates to prove a point. The two young actors playing the characters are tremendous, even if they do that thing where they act like miniaturized versions of their adult counterparts. So, Beth and Rip were exactly the same as kids? Anyways, the point of the flashback was to set up a present-day scene where Beth could again apologize to Rip for her cruel actions in the past. Does anyone else sense the show is setting these two up for a tragic end?
- There’s a great moment where Rip observes the Governor’s party rom afar. When Beth beckons him to join in on the fun, he says, “That party isn’t for me.” He then recalls the Roman Emperor Nemo and the time he played a fiddle while his city burned. “This reminds me of that,” he warns before stating, “John’s gonna lose his ranch.” Rip may be little more than a blunt instrument, but he has a keen eye for danger.
What Didn’t Work in Yellowstone Season 5 Episode 1
- Following his inauguration as Governor, John, Beth, and Jamie hop in a car and head home. Beth pours some whiskey for her father but denies Jamie his share. The two bicker. John intervenes and tells them to shut the f*** up so he can enjoy peace and quiet. Amen. Jamie is a horrible mutant, but I hate how the show practically pushes him to break bad in the worst way. At this point, he’s a powder keg waiting to explode, and Beth’s insistence on lighting a match so close to his fuse makes her look more petty than sharp.
- Chief Thomas Rainwater (Gil Birmingham) continues to sit on the sidelines with little to do or say. I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t consider him a threat anymore, and the show seems to be setting up his exit via the always-snarling Angela Blue Thunder. Yellowstone started as a dispute between John and the Chief but raised the stakes over the last two seasons. Was that always the plan or did Chief Rainwater get left in the dust for more ambitious ideas?
- How much longer can Yellowstone keep up the villain-of-the-month story structure? We’ve already seen the likes of Dan Jenkins, the Beck Brothers, and Roarke Carter roll into town, and now the first episode of Season 5 introduces a new villain, Sarah Atwood. We have yet to see the character, but she’s powerful enough to entice Caroline Warner, which is never a good sign. Is it enough to have John go up against a new foe each season?
- Somehow Carter grew up in the interim between Seasons 4 and 5. Finn Little looks nothing like the kid we saw last year. I had to rewind the episode to make sure it was him. “Quit growing,” John growls. “It’s a reminder of how much time I don’t have. If you grow a beard, you’re fired!” Indeed. This made me feel hella old.
- Finally, I like Kayce (Luke Grimes), and Monica (Kelsey Asbille), but tragedy mires their relationship to a comical degree. This poor family has endured quite a bit over the years, and it’s a wonder they’re not seeking counseling for all they’ve experienced. In this episode, a pregnant Monica decides to drive herself to the hospital with Tate (Brecken Merrill), and subsequently crashes her vehicle into an oncoming car. The results: Tate is again traumatized, the baby (named John, no less) is dead, and Monica clings to life. This entire plot point felt cruel and unnecessary, another heavy-handed dose of shock and awe to satisfy the masses. There’s enough substance on this show via colorful characters and engrossing political intrigue to keep us tuned weekly without relying on gratuitous violence/death. Indeed, this entire plot beat felt like an offspring of Season 1 and a minor step backward for a show that typically makes all the right moves. Oh, Yellowstone, just when I thought you had matured!
MVP: Kevin Costner grumbles his way through the episode, but packs the right amount of world-weariness and cynicism into John’s walk of disdain through the political underworld.
Best Line: “Right now, we are seen as the rich man’s plaything. We are New York’s novelty and California’s toy.”
What Happens Next: It’s hard to gauge this season after one episode. If I had to guess, something terrible will happen to Rip this season. That scene where Beth apologizes to him felt a little too on the nose. The pair are too cozy. Also, this episode wants us to think John will lose the ranch. Maybe he will someday, but our boy will certainly do all he can to keep the Dutton Ranch secure for the time being.
Final Thoughts: Yellowstone is at its best when it emphasizes politics and character over action and spectacle. For the most part, the premier episode featured enough of the former and a nice chunk of the latter but took an unnecessary turn toward melodrama in its closing act. While I’m curious to see what happens to Monica and Kayce, this latest subplot feels one step too far for the tragedy beset power couple.