Despite the sprawling TV empire, the most direct analogy for Taylor Sheridan’s work is not Shonda Rhimes or Dick Wolf. Sheridan isn’t even white Tyler Perry. The closest point of comparison for Sheridan is west wing creator Aaron Sorkin. In both of their conceptions, personal events are intended to illustrate relationships with institutions.
Sheridan’s plays’ desire to subvert institutions is as strong as Sorkin’s desire to strengthen them: In Yellowstone, the Duttons see government offices, the law, and the state as dials to be manipulated in the service of ranch maintenance; in Sorkin’s shows, from west wing to The editorial staff, Sorkin writes passionate arguments for the state, for the media, for the constitution itself. Sheridan seeks ambivalence, while Sorkin seeks respect. Both use the same instrument to play radically different melodies.
YellowstoneSeason 4 of concludes with John Dutton delivering what can be understood as a thesis statement for the show. When a powerful corporation seeks to put an airport in the center of its land, John responds by running for governor. In his announcement speech, he stoically announces that “there is a war going on against our way of life. This is progress in today’s world.” Then a warning: “If it’s progress you want, then don’t vote for me. They are the opposite of progress. I am the wall he bumps into. And I won’t be the one who breaks.
By the time the season five premieres, we see that the message has worked: Dutton is indeed the new governor. Deeply unconcerned with how a traditional politician should operate, John issues a series of edicts intended to punish people who view Montana as a second home or vacation rental. When her oldest son, Jamie, objects that some of his father’s policies will set the state back 30 years, Beth retorts, “That’s a good start. The plan is to set it back a hundred.”
Sheridan mocked the conception of Yellowstone as a “red state Succession”, and he is right to do so. Self Yellowstone he is conservative, his conservatism is not a modern conservatism: Republicans are obsessed with identity politics and the free market. Yellowstone it is explicitly anti-capitalist: the Duttons routinely reject unfathomable sums of money and opportunities to get even richer. The show has a solid environmentalist slant, even as it occasionally nods to the environmental movement (a subplot pokes fun at animal welfare protesters for failing to understand the intimate relationship between ranchers and animal welfare).
Yellowstone he also doesn’t hesitate to support his native characters in their goals of self-liberation. Kayce’s wife Monica takes an active role in grooming the white men who prey on Native women; Chief Thomas Rainwater (Gil Birmingham) wants the land back and is willing to do what he needs to get it. The show has been praised for its three-dimensional depictions of Native Americans in the story (if not necessarily the casting). There is plenty of room in Dutton’s version of Montana for both good and bad black cowboys and Native Americans. Racial diversity is not a threat in Montana Yellowstone.
Self Yellowstone whether a “conservative” show or not is not a particularly interesting question. The push and pull about who owns the land and who is trying to take it away, and what the land is for, is as urgent today as it was 200 years ago, and Yellowstone explores it skillfully.
The real threats are the outsiders who want to change the earth. In the show’s pilot, during a routine visit to an ice cream shop, Kayce tells her son that transplants “can definitely make ice cream.” When the boy asks what a transplant is, Kayce grimly replies, “He IS a person who moves to a place, and then tries to make that place just like the place he left.” For the boy, this does not calculate. “That doesn’t make sense,” he replies. “Not a bit,” says Kayce.