3 reasons we love Yellowstone, and what that says about us right now

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Spoiler alert: This post talks about plot points from the show Yellowstone, so if you haven’t watched it yet but might, you should do so before reading this. (And if you haven’t watched it, why not?? It’s great!)

How are we feeling about Kevin Costner these days? I have to admit, regardless of how effectively he danced with wolves, or how romantically he bodyguarded Whitney Houston, I’ve never been a fan. However, that sentiment is rapidly changing, and for one reason: “Yellowstone”, a TV series now in its fourth season on the Paramount Network, which I have binged over the last month. Costner stars in and executive produces the show, and I’m hooked. 

I’m not alone in my obsession. Yellowstone is a massive hit. In fact, it’s one of the most popular shows on TV. More than fourteen million people tuned in to the premiere of Season 4 in November, making it the biggest cable premiere since “The Walking Dead” in 2017, and that was considered a phenomenon!

So, what’s going on with this cable juggernaut?? Thanks for asking!

I have some thoughts to share, but first, here’s a little background

Yellowstone follows a family that controls the largest contiguous ranch in the United States. It’s located in southern Montana and borders Yellowstone National Park. Kevin Costner plays John Dutton, the family patriarch, whose mission in life is to retain possession of the ranch, as did the five generations of Dutton men that preceded him. He has four adult children, one of whom has mysteriously died. The three living Dutton offspring help their father maintain the ranch in various ways ranging from cattle wrangling to legal, political, and business shenanigans. 

Of particular importance…

The Duttons are in a constant state of battle with land developers, politicians, activists, an Indian reservation, and pretty much anyone else who has a vested interest in Montana but isn’t named Dutton. Here’s my high-level assessment of the characters of Yellowstone: They love and resent each other. John is probably a sociopath, but a ‘good’ one. He’s our sociopath. The mother is dead. (Probably a sociopath, too.)  Most workers on the ranch are branded like cattle with a blazing hot iron (to ensure loyalty, I think, and also to make sure they don’t wander off?). The workers are very good at horses, and one of them (a worker, not a horse) plays guitar. When workers disappoint John, they get thrown off the side of a mountain to their death. This happens regularly, but to be fair, the people involved are usually not surprised by it. They know what they did. In summary: Yellowstone is a real hootenanny.


WHY is a story about a family of rich, angry cowboys so popular? Given the show’s growing fan base, there are no doubt many reasons for its appeal, but here are three that crossed my mind repeatedly as I watched *38 episodes of Yellowstone in roughly 30 days:

*You heard me. 38.

I get it. I mean, I really get it. My family originated in Montana. The seeds of our family tree were planted there in the mid-1800s when Montana was a territory hoping to become a state. The majority of my family have always been cowboys or cowboy-adjacent. Over the last two hundred years, many of my ancestors worked on wheat and cattle ranches. Some were teachers in one-room schoolhouses in remote locations that could only be reached on horseback. Many made their living competing in rodeos. One, my paternal great-grandfather, traveled from town to town with a wild west show that occasionally ran afoul of law enforcement. He was arrested frequently, including once for riding his horse into the lobby of a hotel to promote the show. 

The details of my family’s stories are unique, but we’re not alone in our cowboy lineage. The Lousiana Purchase, which took place in 1803 and doubled the size of the U.S., led to almost seven million Americans migrating westward in search of land and prosperity. Thousands of them were employed herding cattle, caring for horses, repairing fences and buildings, and working cattle drives. In other words, thousands were cowboys.

As the country became more established, and some facets of agriculture became more automated, the number of cowboys dwindled (the US Bureau of Labor Statistics says there are now about 9,000 workers in the employment category that includes cowboys). You know what didn’t dwindle? The cowboy mystique, which, thanks to Hollywood, has been served up in a fairly regular diet of movies and shows since 1920. They’ve featured cowboy actors like John Wayne and led to modern works like Yellowstone.  

So clearly, the American love affair with the cowboy concept is alive and well in the 245th year of this nation’s existence, and it’s currently manifesting as the Dutton family (which I must admit is a lot of fun, but also a little disturbing).

Mario Puzo’s Godfather saga was inspired by Shakespeare’s King Lear, which was inspired by the legend of Britain’s King Leir, who is thought to have lived around the 8th century BCE  (about 3,000 years ago). It can’t be denied, we love stories about kings and their kids, and that’s exactly what Yellowstone is: The tale of a ruler trying to protect his kingdom and keep his kids in line, only in this case it’s a modern-day rancher fighting off threats to a parcel of land worth billions of dollars that he wants to preserve for his descendants.

People love the Duttons, especially John Dutton, for many of the same reasons they love Michael Corleone. For example, both men are powerful, and we Americans love demonstrations of power, especially when they’re connected to affluence. Michael runs the five major crime families in New York and also controls a large network of corrupt public officials. The Duttons aren’t officially a crime family, but they exert Corleone-like influence over Montana’s elected and public officials, its business community, and the media. (By the way, the LinkedIn profiles for John Dutton and Michael Corleone would be amazing.) And even though John and Michael consistently engage in questionable, sometimes violent actions to achieve their goals, they don’t seem to enjoy the violence. It’s a means to an end, and the end is to protect their families. In addition, both men are Kardashian-level rich, which is important to fans, because observing rich people is an American pastime. They’re also intelligent, at least when it comes to solving the challenges they face in maintaining their kingdoms. Seeing those struggles play out helps the audience identify with and feel empathy for Michael and John, and because they usually prevail, we can feel like we’re on the winning team.

You know, when it comes to entertainment, Americans seem to vacillate between rooting for righteous heroes who uphold laws and play by the rules, and celebrating outlaws who take pleasure in flaunting the system to achieve their goals. Right now, we seem to be in a phase of celebrating outlaws, which is resulting in shows like HBO’s Succession becoming wildly popular. 

I’m not sure why we’re so drawn to outlaws at the moment. Perhaps it’s because some have lost faith in our foundational institutions? I don’t know, but I DO know the Duttons could probably take care of whatever is going on, as detailed in the next section. 

If you work on the Yellowstone Ranch, you know the tasks you’re supposed to complete, how you’re supposed to behave, who’s in charge, and what the consequences will be if you don’t follow the clearly-stated rules. You also know that if you follow the rules, you’ll always have a home on the ranch and be protected by the Dutton organization. And when rules are broken, justice is served immediately, and it’s delivered by the correct level of the command structure, the person’s supervisor. (It’s usually Rip, the head ranchhand, and he smacks you in the corral. I don’t mean that euphemistically. He would likely make you stand in the corral, and then he would smack you. Rip is scary.) The point is, there’s very little ambiguity in the Yellowstone universe.

An unambiguous universe sounds very appealing two years into a constantly-evolving global pandemic. We humans have been suffering intense levels of uncertainty during the COVID era, which psychologists say is among the most “insidious stressors” we can experience. We’re wired to assess situations and choose specific courses of action that will allow us to survive. When we aren’t able to do that, as has often been the case during COVID, we experience debilitating anxiety. This type of prolonged, unresolved feeling of being threatened by something that might not be right in front of us, but is out there somewhere, then causes us to develop more psychiatric disorders and chronic physical diseases, which does appear to be occurring right now. Recent surveys by the Mayo Clinic show a major increase in the number of U.S. adults who are reporting symptoms of stress, anxiety, depression, and insomnia during the pandemic. 

I can say that gettin’ binary (I’m trying to make expression take off) with Yellowstone has been comforting. I have a feeling many of the show’s other fans would agree with me. 

I also want to take this opportunity to ask some questions: 

  • Am I the only one who thinks Beth and John have an unhealthy, co-dependent dynamic?
  • Is it going to ruin her relationship with Rip? 
  • Speaking of Beth and Rip, does anyone else think the kid they quasi-adopted is annoying? 
  • Also, does Kaycee ever wash his hair? He’s cute, but I feel like he smells funky.  

Please submit responses to me at:  sam@samalotmedia.com. Seriously, I really need to talk about this before the season finale. 

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