This Land Is His Land

It’s too simplistic to label “Yellowstone” a “red-state drama.” But the cowboy soap speaks the language of culture war with a perfect accent.

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By James Poniewozik

After every national election these days, someone circulates a map that divvies up the country by color, vast swaths of Republican red speckled with accents of Democratic blue. And after every election, someone responds to that image, “Land doesn’t vote.”

This is true, in the literal sense and in the spirit of majority rule. It is not, however, the point of view of last TV season’s highest-rated drama.

On Paramount Network’s “Yellowstone,” which returns for its fifth season on Sunday, land damn sure does vote. It confers political power and wealth and a sense of identity. It is a source of legitimacy and an object of lust.

The more land you have, on “Yellowstone,” the more you matter, no matter what anyone on Twitter complains. And John Dutton (Kevin Costner), the embattled patriarch of a Montana ranch big enough to eat a small northeastern state for breakfast, matters more than anyone.

On one level, the appeal of “Yellowstone” is apolitical and as old as TV. It’s a big, trashy, addictive soap about a family business, like “Dallas” or “House of the Dragon.”

Sibling rivalries are fought, deals plotted, secret paternities revealed. There are wolves and sex and a wolf watching characters have sex. There are gunfights and fisticuffs and bombings. So many people die over the first four seasons, you wonder how Montana’s population grew enough to get a second congressional seat. The plotting is melodramatic, the dialogue unsubtle, the action sublimely over the top. In one episode a character is murdered by having a rattlesnake thrown at his face.

But the show is also a hybrid of something old and new. The creators, Taylor Sheridan and John Linson, have crossbred a throwback Western with a modern antihero drama, let it graze on the myth of the West and hormone-injected it with a rural-vs.-urban culture war.

John Dutton, a Marlboro Man Tony Soprano, runs the Yellowstone Ranch like a quasi-mob. His wranglers, many of them ex-cons, are branded with a “Y” to mark them as his. When they’re not breaking horses, they’re breaking his enemies’ faces (and often one another’s).

He’s as ruthless a father as he is a rancher. He honed each of his children like weapons to defend his interests. He pushed Jamie (Wes Bentley) to become a lawyer and now despises him for it. Beth (Kelly Reilly) is the relentless, cruel corporate killer. (She’s also haunted by guilt over the accidental death of her mother when she was a child; “Yellowstone” has a theme of mothers dying and taking the good in their families with them.) Kayce (Luke Grimes), an ex–Navy SEAL, has become his father’s bloody right hand despite his moral qualms.

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