Media elites are mystified by the success of “Yellowstone”. But the show is a biblical epic.
“Every millionaire I know wants to be a cowboy. Authenticity is the one thing money can’t buy.
-Paradise Valley developer Dan Jenkins to rancher John Dutton on “Yellowstone”.
Authenticity, our hunger and desire for it, is the secret to “Yellowstone’s” resounding success. Unlike the cartoonish Trumpesque “Succession,” Paramount’s wildly popular story of a beleaguered ranch family captures the anxiety, fear, confusion, complexity, family disintegration and, above all, the violence of our times.
Jesuit philosopher and theologian Bernard Lonergan taught that authenticity leads to progress; its opposite causes decline. Today we ask: who is really authentic? Whose justice, religion, culture, political economy, way of life promote worthy and stimulating values and ideals? “Yellowstone” answers these questions.
Whose justice, religion, culture, political economy, way of life promote worthy and stimulating values and ideals? “Yellowstone” answers these questions.
In short, the Duttons risk being taxed on their land. There are a lot of them: they own a part of Montana the size of Rhode Island, about 1,200 square miles. The threat to them comes from outside developers, such as the oxymoron company “Market Equities”, which buys up surrounding properties, inflates land values and raises taxes beyond what the settlers’ descendants can afford. Above all there is the shadow of the past and present reactions to the original theft of the earth from its original inhabitants.
William Faulkner wrote: “The past is never dead. It didn’t even happen. “Yellowstone” is immensely popular in some parts of the United States and yet invisible in others. Why? Because “Yellowstone” taps into a lot of deep and powerful things about our present, our past, and our precarious future. People who smoke cigarettes and drink beer are often more aware of this than those in faculty lounges and corner offices.
Reason reports that “media elites” are mystified by the success of “Yellowstone”: “It’s not… saying anything big or radical about our world. And yet, 11 million watched the finale of “Yellowstone” (only 1.7 million saw the finale of “Succession”). “1883,” the new prequel to “Yellowstone,” has 5 million viewers, the biggest debut for a cable show in more than five years.
“Yellowstone” tells us a lot of things to be aware of. The show is about life and love, violence and violation, death and destruction, stories as old as the Bible and as contemporary as climate change. Kevin Costner and Taylor Sheridan gave us a biblical epic, Genesis with guns. It’s a contemporary Cain versus Abel in which who his family is is clear, but who his brother or sister is is murky. The Duttons put the capital “D” in dysfunction. Money and power struggles are just the surface. Beneath and behind history hide the primordial and primitive realities that form us and make us whole or design our disappearance.
The overwhelming response to any threat in “Yellowstone” is unbridled violence: verbal, physical, high caliber, often deadly. It’s “The Godfather” on steroids, “Natural Born Killers” in the mountains. John Dutton and Kevin Costner’s Tony Soprano are blood brothers. Yet the Duttons are not outlaws. In Montana, they rule the roost. And the law serves their interests as well as their biased and complicated morality.
The American West paved the way for the Dutton legacy (viewers can read the Hampton Sides book blood and thunderSC Gwynne’s Summer Moon Empire and Dee Brown Bury my heart at Wounded Knee for better context.) Our United States was born in blood and terror, creating incredible fortunes for a few while leaving others to starve and freeze in poverty-riddled reservations. Most don’t consider the brutal violence that structured the world for those who now live between the Rockies and the Alleghenies. Today’s middle class, perpetually compressed and disappearing in “air country”, feels and fears that what is happening to the Duttons is also happening to them. Even those in law firms, medical practices, and middle management know their perches are precarious.
Today’s middle class, perpetually compressed and disappearing in “air country”, feels and fears that what is happening to the Duttons is also happening to them.
A clear and present danger in so many arenas today is the chasm between those who welcome and encourage change because it benefits them, and those who resist it with all their might because they are sacrificed on the altars of “progress” of crony capitalism. John Dutton hates change. The change means his world disappears. As he announces his candidacy for governor, he defiantly proclaims, “I am the bulwark against progress. If you’re for progress, don’t vote for me. In an earlier episode, as Dutton recovers from an assassination attempt, his extremely troubled daughter Beth is asked what kills her father. She replies, “The 21st century.”
Today, who decides what our world will be like? Whose authenticity? Are we the land of cowboys and wide open land, where you roam under starry skies, unfenced and free? Or are we hip city dwellers, sipping $5 Starbucks lattes, happy to rent 300 square feet in New York City for $3,000 a month? For the Duttons, “progress” portends destruction and death, not only of their livelihood, but also of the “Amurica” enshrined in Westerns.
Interestingly, in “1883,” the prequel to “Yellowstone,” what happens to the Duttons is juxtaposed with similar dynamics that destroyed the way of life of tribes like the Shoshone and Arapahoe. And once again the past is never finished, not even past. In “Yellowstone”, the Duttons not only fear and fight coastal raiders who want to create a new Aspen a few miles from Yellowstone National Park; they are threatened by the president of the local tribe, Harvard MBA Thomas Rainwater, who dreams of reclaiming the lands stolen from his ancestors, using the thieves’ descendants’ own resources, which are voluntarily provided by the bosses of the tribe’s lucrative casino. .
Most “Yellowstone” viewers are probably fiercely supportive of capitalism and have a visceral reaction to the word “socialism” (even though we all live in a mixed socialist-capitalist economy). Let me give an example from my own life. In Cody, Wyo., A guy calls Bernie Sanders a “socialist.” Knowing how angry he is with strangers buying up land near Cody and banning hunting and fishing where he did as a child, I gently challenge him. “You are a capitalist, aren’t you? You say Bezos has earned “his” money and he can do whatever he wants with it. So, are you okay with him buying all of Wyoming and kicking everyone out? »
In “Yellowstone”, Kayce Dutton, the extremely violent ex-soldier, explains to his grandson at one point, “A transplant is a person who moves to a place and then they try to make that place exactly like the place they just left.” The boy responds, “That doesn’t make sense.”
“Yellowstone” preaches that deep down we all dream of an authentic life, a good life unpolluted by chaotic change.
Much of what is happening in the United States today makes no sense to people caught up in the machinations of the political economy of global capitalism. People cannot understand or counter those in power. Trust is rare. Even John Dutton doesn’t trust the system, and he is the system. Families, churches and communities are being shattered by everything from unemployment to opioid addiction to political polarization. Many recognize that “Yellowstone” tells our story.
We are the stories we tell. How we went from “It’s a Wonderful Life” in 1946 to “American Beauty” in 1999 to “Succession” in 2021 is a long and sad story of decline. John Dutton confesses to the local priest: “I have seen too much evil to believe that there is a God.
“Yellowstone” preaches that deep down we all dream of an authentic life, a good life unpolluted by chaotic change. A life where hard work pays off, where someone’s word is their bond, where you can rely on the guy or girl working next to you. “Yellowstone” says we all want to be cowboys and cowgirls. It is the hope for a place and a time where we can roam freely, live in the joy of open range.
Interestingly, the aforementioned Father Lonergan’s vision of a future “Cosmopolis” envisioned and articulated in his book, Overview, can help us understand how we can reinstate the beneficent graces of God’s progress. In Fr. Lonergan’s vision, Cosmopolis “is concerned with the fundamental question of the historical process”. What is the purpose of Cosmopolis? “[T]o prevent the formation of screen memories by which a rise to power hides its wickedness; it is his business to prevent the falsification of history; it is his job to satirize catchwords and sales pitches and thereby prevent the notions they express from coalescing with passions and resentments to spawn obsessive nonsense for future generations; it is his job to encourage and support those who would tell the plain truth even though the plain truth is out of fashion.
Like Cosmopolis, “Yellowstone” and its characters speak truths that many cannot hear or bear. The beauty of the earth, the goodness that should be, is mired and obscured in the evil of past and present. The ultimate truth revealed by “Yellowstone” is our desire for true justice and future liberation.