I am watching the second episode of Yellowstone, and unless I have missed something, a main character has inadvertently discovered dinosaur bones.
When I reviewed the pilot of Yellowstone for our print magazine, I thought I had a somewhat clear perspective on its best traits and most obvious flaws. The Paramount Network modern western (debuting June 20) stars Kevin Costner as Montana ranchlord John Dutton. He’s power-struggling against various forces: government, corporate development, the nearby Native American reservation, his own adult children.
Yellowstone is partly shot in Montana, and the pilot gives a keen sense of Big Sky Country place. It also casts a wide narrative net. The governor of Montana is a character, while Jill Hennessy, one of my favorite people on Earth, plays a senator. There are four Dutton children, three of them dangerously boring. The fourth is Beth, a maneating boozehound tycoon played with Sin City hyperbole by Kelly Reilly.
The Yellowstone pilot reminded me, intangibly, of Boardwalk Empire, the HBO drama which defined one of the most popular modes of TV drama in this decade: Expensive to look at, painfully slow, lovingly violent, overly dedicated to uncovering the secret sadness lingering in the heart of murderous egomaniacs, generally pointless. But I watched every episode of Boardwalk Empire, curse me, so I gave the Yellowstone pilot a B. If the show had a problem, I figured, it would be glacial pacing, too many postcard visions of Montana, too many big speeches.
But now I’m watching the second episode, and John’s son Kayce (Luke Grimes) has just discovered dinosaur bones in his backyard.
He discovered them because there was a tree stump on his property that was bothering him, and he tried to pull it out with a tractor, and then he just used dynamite. And now John himself is here, theorizing that the dinosaur was probably killed by a prehistoric shark. One thing I wasn’t expecting this month was Kevin Costner talking about dinosaur-eating sharks.
I guess that maybe Montanans do just discover dinosaur bones in their backyard, sometimes? But Yellowstone did not necessarily seem like the kind of show where people would discover dinosaur bones, and then the next episode not mention the dinosaur bones anymore, as if “discovering dinosaur bones” was just typical Tuesday stuff. Kayce has a young son, Tate (Brecken Merrill). If I were Tate’s age, I would spend the rest of the year only talking about those dinosaur bones. I would make every show-and-tell about dinosaur bones. The teacher would assign me To Kill a Mockingbird for a book report, and I would explain how Boo Radley is like the fossil of a velociraptor, and then let everyone touch my beloved dinosaur bones.
Strange things keep happening to Kayce. Later in episode 2, he’s going for a drive with his wife (Kelsey Asbille), and they’re driving by a random house, and that house explodes. “Meth lab’s my guess,”Kayce drawls, as he runs toward the explosion. So now Yellowstone is just a show where houses blow up sometimes.
And then a little later, Kayce’s driving down a road, and sees a wolf crossing in front of him. (I think it’s a wolf. It could be a coyote.) Kayce stops, and stares, and a large truck smashes through the wolf, and thus dies the wolf. Jesus, maybe it’s a metaphor.
Meanwhile, Kayce’s sister Beth wakes up one day in a pile of pill bottles. And she takes a publicly naked bath in a trough drinking champagne straight from a bottle. And she tells her brother Jamie (Wes Bentley) to “BE A F—ING MAN!” while she’s beating him up.
In sequences like this, Yellowstone reveals an unexpected penchant for the luridcrous. But co-creator Taylor Sheridan has written and directed every episode I’ve seen so far, and when he’s not indulging himself with random gunfights, he has a weakness for wannabe poeticism, letting his characters muse darkly. Everybody gets one portentous line per scene. “What are your thoughts on Judgement Day?” “All men are bad, but some of us try real hard to be good.” “You killed the bodies, now you kill the souls.” “Not a thing on this planet stays where it is.” “I am the past, catching up with you.” “I’m in no mood to explain why we don’t have the same peepee.”
Sorry wait, what was that last one? There are so many long scenes of manly men talking how, like, the future is the vengeance the past takes on the present. And then someone will say something tremendously goofy. Often it’s Beth, and Reilly energetically plays her impossible character. Introduced in the pilot as a tough modern business lady, she spends the next couple episodes swanning through her daddy’s ranch, wearing a bathrobe if she’s wearing anything.
You feel she’s finding the right tone for this material, halfway to Dorothy Malone’s ravenous heiress in Written on the Wind. Everyone else is half-asleep. Costner looks the part of the frontier monarch, but he’s coasting on gravitas fumes. Gil Birmingham gives a resonant performance as the Chief of the nearby reservation, and yet the show seems less interested in him than it should be. This is, it turns out, another “rich family with problems” primetime soap, so embarrassed by its own soapiness that it keeps trying to sermonize itself toward importance.
Oscar-nominated for the wonderful Hell or High Water, Sheridan also wrote 2015’s overblown Sicario and last year’s Wind River. Yellowstone debuts on June 20, nine days before the Sheridan-scripted Sicario sequel.
The pile-up doesn’t do him favors. He’s starting to repeat himself, overindulging base swagger. The money line in the Sicario 2 trailer is Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro talking about international security like a couple hotshot screenwriters pitching a higher-stakes sequel:
BROLIN: “You’re gonna help us start a war.”
DEL TORO: “With who?
At the end of the Yellowstone pilot, Beth says to her father: “Just tell me who to fight.” And John says: “Everyone.” Watch out, everyone! C+