I was introduced to the Yellowstone series by my father. He had heard the hype. We watched the first episode as he suggested I do the same in 2018 which I did. Yet he never ironically watched it again. Nevertheless I watched every episode that followed through the end of Season Three. It stars recognized actor Kevin Costner (of Dances With Wolves, Waterworld and The Postman fame) as rancher John Dutton along with a cast of actors and actresses of lesser notoriety that are basically earning their notoriety through the series itself. I initially had some superficial attraction to the show from the onset. After all, it was thematically set in Montana, a state I called my home away from home from 2014-16.
I am disappointed with the fact that this supposed prestige television drama is so bleak, dark, and nihilistic. It’s a neo-noir Western-themed television series for the twenty-first century. I ascertain that life itself is a checkered, pox-marked affair full of violence, sin and depravity. I could see a theologically-rich Augustian statement in the 2018 series trailer from Chief Rainwater about human nature: “All men are bad, but some of us try real hard to be good.” So I don’t have to decry everything that’s not family-friendly nor religious-oriented in the entertainment world. With that being said, Yellowstone is thematically set in what amounts to a conservative state, and the overwhelming majority of its populace of 1,000,000 souls claim adherence to a religious faith, typically one of the major Christian confessions. The series revolves around a protagonist family of ranchers that soon turn antagonist towards one another after fighting off their earlier antagonists, spanning the chasm from greedy unscrupulous land developers to criminal casino owners.
The Yellowstone series from the onset has the lead characters making bleak nihilistic statements all of the time. In the pilot episode, during a fight over cattle, Kayce Dutton shoots his brother-in-law dead after his brother-in-law shot his brother dead. Just before dealing the coup de grâce head shot, Kayce has to sneak in this snarky nihilism-tinged line: “In case you don’t already know, there’s no such thing as heaven.” My father lamented how the Hollywood media always has to sneak in their stark godlessness into everything after that scene. He never watched another episode of the show.
Later in the third season, Kayce’s sister, Beth Dutton, is having a philosophical discussion with her lover, Rip Wheeler, about what she believes, and she relays influence from Friedrich Nietzsche in order to quell his guilt over murder. The two then concur morality doesn’t really matter. Earlier in the series, the family patriarch John Dutton was having a conversation with his priest (implying the fictional Dutton family has a nominal Catholic-Christian pedigree,) and John was telling the priest that he “didn’t regret a single sin he had committed.” These people are supposed to be ranchers, and ranchers in a rather conservative religious state, namely Montana. Montanans, and most normal American folks for that matter too, don’t prowl around muttering bleak nihilistic lamentations all of the time nor espouse disheartening ruminations of existentialist philosophy. The show briefly hinted it could have been rescued from its dismal descent into the dark Nietzschean bloodbath it ended up becoming. It had an early morning scene with a coffee-drinking John Dutton giving a faint glimmer of a mustard seed of faith whereby Kevin Costner’s daughter Lily sung a Gospel song entitled Heaven’s Gate in the background soundtrack. But alas the show’s writer seems determined to crush the possibility of the Dutton’s rapprochement with God and faith.
The chief culprit for the show’s underlying nihilism is really just the show’s director and lead writer, Taylor Sheridan. He’s an outspoken atheist trying to turn the series into his bully pulpit soapbox for his dark worldview, and wants to put his own black heart on display for the world to see. Sheridan’s claim to fame was the nihilistic 2015 Sicario film about the U.S. national intelligence community’s morally compromised handling of the illicit international drug trafficking trade along its southern border with Mexico followed by the gritty 2017 film Wind River.
Who else is to blame for the show’s failure? None other than A+ List actor Kevin Costner. Costner could reign in on Sheridan if he so desired. Yellowstone is a mass-market entertainment franchise. And Costner himself could dramatically influence the direction it takes as a condition of his participation. But well, it’s glaringly obvious by now that Costner dropped the ball and decided he wants to be associated with such sleazy soap opera trash.
The series too has a remarkable lack of originality. When actor Neal McDonough was cast as one of the evil Beck brothers, Malcolm Beck, it seemed to be little more than a conjuring of McDonough’s casino crime boss character Jay Hamilton in the 2004 film Walking Tall. Sheridan too mirrored a kidnapping scene of a young Native American girl from Wind River in an episode of the series.
The Yellowstone series had a lot of potential and promise, but has ultimately failed in its execution precisely because of this crass nihilistic writer Taylor Sheridan. Some of his writing was just cheesy like a bad episode of the 1990s Fox TV show Beverly Hills, 90210.
The other factor to consider too is that the writing and plot of any show really are critical to its success. It’s taken for granted Hollywood filmmakers can do a superb job with cinematography, transitioning between scenes, and musical soundtracks, but substance ultimately is at the heart of good film. Substance of any film is found in the scriptwriting and storytelling at the end of the day! Thus Yellowstone‘s excellent cinematography cannot redeem it nor can its alluring TV show trailers. It’s a colossal disappointment and one I doubt I will reengage in Season Four. The show has fallen flat on its face in spite of its mystery suspense ending in the third season to rival an episode of Dallas in the 1980s.
Make no mistake. Life is full of violence, heartache, and betrayal, and the culmination of all of these things gives us cause for reflection upon man’s depravity in a fallen world. J.R.R. Tolkein’s epic novel The Lord of the Rings too was full of violence, but it had redemption in its meaning and is a profound morality play. Without morality, and without God, we flawed humans will never make any sense of the world, nor draw any true meaning from it. The Yellowstone series fails to offer a meaningful morality play in its senseless bid for ratings with its gratuitous violence and nihilism-tinged statements from its protagonist characters. Nihilism, the philosophy of Nietzsche is an omnipresent reality amid today’s banal entertainment. As Nietzsche said, “if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.”