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Kevin Costner Rides Higher Than Ever in TV’s Most Unexpected Smash Hit, ‘Yellowstone’

In the modern Western’s fifth season, Costner’s rich rancher John Dutton battles outsiders as Montana’s governor

Kevin Costner as John Dutton in "Yellowstone."
Kevin Costner as John Dutton in "Yellowstone."
Paramount Network

In the two-hour fifth season premiere of Taylor Sheridan’s modern Western Yellowstone, an unexpected No. 1 hit, rancher John Dutton (Kevin Costner) is a man poised somewhere between stoic and sad, wearing an unwanted new suit and reluctantly prepared to be installed as Montana’s new governor. He remains a man beyond tears, disinclined to empathy and determined to keep rich snowbird outsiders from invading with their big-state ways and development plans. Montana for Montanans — especially Duttons! But his ruthless daughter, Beth (Kelly Reilly, the rising star of the series), is more overtly snarling, with the brains to unpack conundrums and the quiet savagery to make her points stick.

John’s adopted son, Jamie (Wes Bentley), is on John’s side too, but he looks more haunted than ever after Beth made him kill his biological dad (for threatening Duttons) in Season 4’s finale, then snapped a photo of Jamie with the body to blackmail him into her control. Jamie has committed an act out of Greek tragedy and wears the aftermath on his always interesting face.

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​He and Lynelle Perry (Wendy Moniz), the former Montana governor who’s now a Montana senator and John’s sweetie — but no friend of Jamie’s — often seem to be the only ones in the room with a lick of political and jurisprudential caution. John and Beth are more apt to come out with sixguns blazing. Jamie and Lynelle are often saddled with being the show’s plot explicators, what director Ridley Scott called “Irving the Explainer” characters, but they’re vivid anyway.

Jacki Weaver as Caroline Warner in "Yellowstone."
Jacki Weaver stars as Caroline Warner.
Paramount Network

​Lurking dangerously in Dutton’s domain is newcomer Caroline Warner (Jacki Weaver, who was brilliant as the monster mom in Animal Kingdom). She’s the killer queen of the powerfully bankrolled, utterly loathsome Market Equities, which is out to build megadevelopments to besmirch pristine Dutton country. She expresses displeasure by splattering table servings on the walls, along with you if you get in her way.

Yet perhaps the most promising new character is Dawn Olivieri’s corporate moray eel Sarah Atwood, fresh off the private jet from odious Manhattan. She’s fiercely attractive, self-identified as greedy, and possibly looking for a real man who knows how to rip a bodice. Like Beth, she was put on earth to, in Thomas Pynchon’s apt phrase, “tantalize and send raving the race of man.”

(Left to right) Kelly Reilly as Beth Dutton and Cole Hauser as Rip Wheeler in "Yellowstone."
(Left to right) Kelly Reilly as Beth Dutton and Cole Hauser as Rip Wheeler.
Paramount Network

In a compact flashback, we see the youthful Beth’s unafraid sexuality and manipulativeness on a date with sensitive young Rip (Cole Hauser). Today, Rip is taking more responsibility running John Dutton’s ranch now that John’s stuck with gol-durn governor work. Rip’s as surly and profane as ever, but in a turn that Hauser executes with grace, Rip is now Beth’s husband, feelingly plumbing her persona for the heart he declares lies within that scary exterior. Regardless of whether Rip is right about Beth’s inner capacity for niceness, she and Sarah will surely make for more epic combat than Game of Thrones and Succession put together.

Gil Birmingham (right) as Thomas Rainwater in "Yellowstone."
Gil Birmingham (right) as Thomas Rainwater.
Paramount Network

The conniving tribal leader Thomas Rainwater (Gil Birmingham, so effective in Sheridan’s much-lauded 2016 Western movie Hell or High Water), remains eager to expand his people’s reservation into land he regards as stolen, and willing to cut deals with his enemies, be they Duttons or newcomers. Birmingham makes Rainwater feel real — and maybe just cynical enough to join forces with Market Equities. As in the must-see Hell or High Water, the overall motor of this series is the ambition of the big-money interests out to crush anyone who stands in the way of their profit-making schemes. The ruthlessness of the invaders, with their access to Wall Street and corrupt Washington, is made scaldingly real in a subplot in which a crew chief building a cell tower spreads toxic pesticide freely enough to kill wildlife. In John Dutton’s world, that could earn you a bloody nose, or worse.

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​What’s the secret of Yellowstone’s success? (It’s such a hit, it’s become a cowboy galaxy of shows, with the prequel 1883 soon to be joined by another prequel, 1923, starring Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren as Prohibition-era Duttons, and a modern-day spin-off set in Texas, 6666.) In a time when lots of people feel angrily defensive, it’s fun to root for the two-fisted Duttons from the heartland, and their ranch hands who can ride, rope, shoot, spit, cuss and brawl against the suits. Down with capitalist chicanery and technocrat carpetbaggers from the wicked coasts! Self-reliance and refusal to capitulate are deeply imbued in the American grain, and never more intensely than right now. Yellowstone’s new season captures that feeling — that’s why it’s riding higher than ever.

Watch it: on Paramount Network