In the third episode of Yellowstone’s triumphant fifth season — it’s now the most popular show on TV besides football — we reach a turning point. John Dutton (Kevin Costner, 67), the rancher bent on keeping Montana free of airports, ski resorts and infernal Californians and New Yorkers, is governor. Yet his character recedes from center stage of the sprawling drama, and John’s ferociously loyal daughter, Beth (Kelly Reilly), steps right up into his field of schemes. She seems more and more to be not just his key strategist but his fully committed avatar, a rattler coiled to strike.
Costner has compared the Dutton family to “Murder, Incorporated,” but now John’s cinched into his respectable gubernatorial gray suit, a straitjacket for a cowboy used to taking what’s his (i.e., everything). He starts to wonder philosophically what he’s doing it all for — the Dutton ranch? The people of Montana? But Beth is free to be, in the words of her fave philosopher, Nietzsche, “beyond good and evil,” doing dirty deeds for personal power and Daddy. John’s partly — temporarily? — tamed, but Beth can be the executrix of his unacted desires.
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Yellowstone is Freudian soap opera, but it also parses rather complicated political points. Even though coastal blue viewers were slow to catch on to its appeal, it’s not just a hit for conservatives, the red states’ Game of Thrones. That’s a common charge the showrunner Taylor Sheridan denies, and the opening flashback of Episode 3 proves it: In a long shot, four horsemen ford a creek in the gorgeous wilderness, and the young John Dutton (played by Josh Lucas) comes across some wolf-mangled cattle carcasses. He’s the livestock commissioner back then, so at a shouting-match meeting between local ranchers and bureaucrats, he rebukes the nature-ignorant pols who have been preaching about species endangerment. Do we root for the men-of-action ranchers saving their livelihood or for the ecologically evolved powers that be?
Nobody’s dilemma is simple or safe. Terrifying, airport-building Market Equities CEO Caroline Warner (Jacki Weaver, 75) is suddenly in jeopardy, but oily Market Equities lawyer and fixer Sarah Atwood (Dawn Olivieri) is an ascendant, Beth-worthy threat in her slit skirt and sangfroid. Yellowstone’s Native American power broker, Thomas Rainwater (Gil Birmingham, 69), is Dutton’s nemesis but also his opportunistic anti-developer ally — and now he’s under assault by activists picketing his casino, and his increasingly rebellious aide Angela Blue Thunder (Q’orianka Kilcher), who thinks he’s selling out their people to Dutton and other commercial interests, all under what she calls ‘slave rules.’ ”