6 reasons to watch Yellowstone, Kevin Costner’s wildly popular cowboy drama

Everything’s better with cowboys, right? With the third season of Yellowstone now streaming on Stan, critic Travis Johnson lists six reasons you should be watching.

A new season of Yellowstone is upon us, the third season now streaming on Stanwith new instalments dropping weekly. This makes me very happy, because Tyler Sheridan’s soapy, occasionally ropy neo-western is extremely My Jam. It takes all the backbiting, double-crossing, sex and violence common in the current crop of ‘power corrupts’ dynastic dramas (Billions, Succession et al) and adds boots and a Stetson hat. Everything’s better with cowboys.

See also
* Best new movies & series on Stan
* All new streaming movies & series

I’m not alone in this opinion. Yellowstone has proved wildly popular, with season two being the most watched cable TV series of summer 2019 in the U.S.

Popularity and quality aren’t the same thing, though. Critical response has been a little lukewarm, tending to praise the performances and production values (shot in Utah and Montana, Yellowstone is often jaw-droppingly beautiful) but throwing shade at the series’ convoluted plot machinations and heightened, histrionic tone. But those are features, not bugs. Yellowstone is all about the Cowboy Code running headfirst into the modern world and seeing what interesting sparks are struck (or wildfires lit).

Besides, how can you not love a show when…

1) It’s Dallas meets Sons of Anarchy

That’s the elevator pitch, in a nutshell. Set on the largest cattle ranch in the U.S., Yellowstone follows thew the fortunes of the Dutton family, led by old school cowboy patriarch John (Kevin Costner) as they deal with various threats to their home, business and loved ones. Those threats are legion: land developer Dan Jenkins (Danny Huston) wants to carve into the ranch to build condos, while Thomas Rainwater (Gil Birmingham) of the nearby Broken Rock Reservation wants to reclaim the land the Dutton ranch sits on for his Native American people. And there’s the usual array of tough guys, ne’er-do-wells, drug runners, malevolent militias and more to fend off.

To do so, our man John isn’t afraid to employ, er, extralegal measures. Not only is he quick to apply political and economic pressure to get what he wants, he keeps a bunkhouse of ultra-loyal cowhands, under the command of the stoic Rip Wheeler (Cole Hauser) who are ready to go the extra mile when the chips are down. How loyal are they? Well, they’ve all been branded with the Dutton mark, which indicates a bit more commitment than the usual lanyard and ID photo. This means when things get tense, gunplay is never far away, with Glocks and AR-15s swapped in for Peacemakers and Winchesters.

2) It’s got an award-winning pedigree

All this maverick mayhem comes to us courtesy of creator Taylor Sheridan, an actor-turned writer and director who appeared as cop David Hale in the first couple of seasons of Sons of Anarchy before fanging out a series of critically acclaimed modern westerns—writing Sicario, Hell or High Water, Wind River (which he also directed), and Sicario: Day of the Soldado in rapid succession (okay, that last one was less acclaimed).

Sheridan specializes in mixing the mythic and the mean, setting modern day crime stories against the vast backdrops of the American Southwest, the border states, and the Great Plains. His characters are people not too many steps removed in attitude and capability their forebears of a century and a half ago, but struggle with modern problems and complications: the narco war and the global financial crisis.

This approach has won over critics and audiences. Sheridan is an awards season fixture, with Hell or High Water alone racking up four Oscar nominations, while the action and thrills appeal to the popcorn munchers. But speaking of award winners…

3) It’s Kevin Costner’s first television series

Yellowstone’s whole ensemble is pretty impressive (see below) but the big draw is, unarguably, Academy Award winner Kevin Costner as John Dutton, an old school cowboy trying to hold onto his patch in an increasingly hostile modern world.

Costner’s gravelly gravitas and his history in the genre (Silverado, Dances with Wolves, and Open Range are modern classics, and even the bloated Wyatt Earp is worth a look) do a lot of heavy lifting here. When all about are losing their heads or shouting for the cheap seats, the steely old cattleman keeps it all grounded. Yellowstone is a hyper-violent soap opera, but Costner is pitching his performance for a prestige drama. In fact…

4) It’s King Lear on a Ranch

Which is not the most original premise, but then William Shakespeare was a pretty light-fingered scribe himself, so it gets a pass.

Dutton Senior has three children (well four initially, but being a Dutton can he hazardous to your health) who all vie for his approval, chafe under his control, and form alliances or wage bitter rivalries—sometimes within the same episode!—for his favour. Aspiring politician and family attorney Jamie (Wes Bentley) wants to modernise the Dutton operation, using his business acumen to better the family.

Jamie’s key rival is his sister Beth (Kelly Reilly), a master manipulator carrying a punishing burden of trauma that she mediates with heavy drinking and promiscuity. Former Navy SEAL Kayce (Luke Grimes) wants none of it and spends much of his time with his Native American wife and son but being a classical cowboy, he’s the apple of his father’s eye.

5) It has a formidable supporting cast

Every season brings a pretty stacked deck in terms of cast. The principal players aside, Gil Birmingham is fantastic as Thomas Rainwater, a man balancing his concerns for the wellbeing of his people with the grim and ruthless realities of modern business. Danny Huston is reliably slimy as greedy land baron Jenkins, Cole Hauser is simply none more cowboy as the loyal but quick-tempered Rip, and so on.

Guest turns include the likes of Dabney Coleman, Neal McDonough, Gretchen Mol and Steve Williams. However, the most intriguing figure in the back half of the cast is Jefferson White as Jimmy Hurdstrom, a recovering meth addict who is given a second chance to become one of Dutton’s cowboy enforcers (and yes, he gets branded). He’s an interesting point of view character, and his arc from barely functional junkie to born again hard cowpoke is an engrossing one.

6) The third season’s off with a bang

At the end of season two, the Dutton family rallied together to rescue young grandson Tate from a nasty posse of human-smuggling militia members, an act that resulted in no small amount of gunfire. This season old man John is paying for it in spades. He is losing his position as livestock commissioner (and a lot of his political clout), trying to help poor Tate get over his PTSD with a bit of range-side male bonding, and so far is fairly unaware that new threats are gathering in the form of an expansionist property company and neighbouring ranch heir Roarke Morris (Lost’s Josh Holloway). And those are threats he {probably} can’t shoot.

Still, it’s early days; there’s plenty of time for someone to eat a bullet. In Yellowstone, that’s pretty much guaranteed to happen on the reg.