After a season of Sons-of-Anarchy-meets-Dallas melodrama, Paramount Network’s surprise hit Yellowstone makes its way back to television with a lighter, less dour season 2 premiere that revels in plenty of cowboy hijinks (with a new character named, of all things, Cowboy), until it doesn’t. The series from Taylor Sheridan (Sicario, Wind River) and starring Kevin Costner took a number of twists and turns in its first season, not the least of which was the unexpected death of Lee Dutton (Dave Annable), the eldest child of Costner’s wealthy Montana rancher, John Dutton, which set off a three-pronged struggle for control of the Dutton-run Yellowstone ranch. That conflict was the backdrop for what amounted to nine hours of soapy, violent, and often overly earnest storytelling, all of which apparently struck a chord with viewers, making the series a success for the recently rebranded Spike network.
Given the prestige-aping excesses of the first season — in particular, Kelly Reilly’s Beth and the scenery she chewed through like it was her personal buffet, and Cole Hauser’s amazingly named, always on edge cowpoke, Rip Wheeler — it’s easy to see why Sheridan and co-creator/writer John Linson might want to reintroduce the audience to the Dutton clan with something other than surly blustering. The result, then, is ‘A Thundering,’ a more manageable (and standard) hour of television that sounds like a premium channel offering, and plays like an antihero cable drama or parody thereof (Darkness at Noon, perhaps?), but one that really wants to demonstrate it can be more than a severe, overripe morality play.
Although ‘A Thundering’ takes a slightly different approach with regard to its tone — attempting more often than not to find humor in a variety of jocular insults between cowboys meant to suggest another cowboy’s inherent lack of cowboy-ness — it’s not necessarily a re-imagining of the series. Costner is still the hardened ranchman and business owner who is beloved around town and ready to do battle with his various enemies at the drop of a 10-gallon hat. And while the Dutton family’s enemies — primarily Thomas Rainwater (Gil Birmingham) and Dan Jenkins (the always entertaining Danny Huston) — are present and accounted for in the first hour, their machinations take a backseat to a glimpse at a day in the life of those working on the sprawling ranch.
That glimpse leans hard on the concept of authenticity, whether it be the sight of ranch-hand Jimmy Hurdstrom (Jefferson White) elbow deep in a cow — resulting in the grizzled Lloyd (Forrie J. Smith) describing his efforts as like “watching a monkey try to f**k a football” — or in how the series approaches anything outside the shoddily defined confines of what’s perceived to be “simple, uncomplicated ranch life” — like Jamie Dutton’s (Wes Bentley) ungainly and on-the-nose introduction to pour-over coffee — is somehow an inauthentic experience. (That coffee continues to be television’s go-to example of simple things being “unnecessarily” complicated is just another example of how outmoded this show’s observations or stabs at humor can sometimes be.)
Instead of making a comment about gentrification or corporate culture consuming every last vestige of family-owned businesses, Yellowstone seems content to take on the role of the cranky old man yelling at the coffee-swilling youngsters to cut their hair and get off his well-manicured lawn. Such jokes feel out of place, even when the purpose is to illustrate just how out of his element Jaime is, despite the sense that, as an actor, Bentley is incredibly well suited to playing a pour-over coffee enthusiast. Circumstances are a little more forgiving for Reilly’s Beth, a cutthroat businesswoman who excels at keeping her adversaries off balance with her aggressive style and propensity for dick jokes, like when she tells Bob Schwartz (Michael Nouri), “I always knew you tucked it in your sock, Bob,” after reaching an agreement on a shady real estate deal.
Yellowstone is so earnest at times it’s difficult to tell if you should be laughing with or at most of its characters. That problem becomes ever more challenging with the arrival of Steve Williams’s (The X-Files, The Leftovers) character, Cowboy. There’s a sense that Cowboy is named Cowboy because he’s the cowboy-iest cowboy who ever cowboy-ed, and he spends most of his time on screen letting everyone else know it. While the bit gets tired after the third “you ain’t a real cowboy unless…” speech, Cowboy’s declarations do eventually lead to the episode’s most entertaining set pieces: when the ranch-hands play “Cowboy Poker” (where everyone sits at a table being charged at by an angry bull), and later, when a bar fight leads to Rip Wheeler unleashing that same bull on the saloon’s patrons in an act of retribution.
The episode’s lighter tone is abruptly flipped, however, when John encounters Dan at a local diner and is reminded how his actions led to the death of his eldest son. Yellowstone doubles down on the somber note when John collapses, and a vet diagnoses him with a bleeding ulcer, one that has to be operated on immediately and without anesthesia. The moment works in terms of Yellowstone’s commitment to hoisting John up as a paragon of masculinity, even when it undercuts the show’s attempts to escape its own melodramatic shadow.