Long after it has run its course on TV, the show “Yellowstone” will provide fodder for countless PhD candidates in whiteness studies.
In certain precincts, the verdict about the smash hit that has spawned a cottage industry of spin-offs is in — the show is about whiteness, and particularly white grievance.
In a recent podcast about “Yellowstone,” Sam Sanders of New York magazine said, “Kevin Costner sets up the imagery of conservative white grievance without any of the negative baggage.”
His interviewee, New York Times critic Tressie McMillan Cottom, added that the context is a “show in post-Trump America, the political backdrop of white grievance and white reclamation that we are undergoing, trying to claw back to a sort of mythical 40, 50 years ago, when our systems worked better for white Americans than they did for non-white Americans.”
Another piece at New York a couple of years ago observed that the show advances “a desperate and threatened appeal to American identity and white masculinity.”
The debate over “Yellowstone” isn’t new; the show is in its fifth season, and after a brief hiatus, the latest episode drops Jan. 8. But the debate matters. As the most popular scripted show on cable TV, it is a significant cultural phenomenon.
So is the hostile and racially reductive critique of the show accurate?
It is certainly true that the protagonist (and anti-hero) of the show, John Dutton, is white. The family patriarch and owner of the Rhode Island-sized Yellowstone ranch in Montana, Dutton fights off hostile forces threatening his land-empire through political subterfuge and murder — you know, the way all white people do.
That you can’t help but sympathize with Dutton, despite his loathsome methods, is a count against the show, although too much shouldn’t be made of this.
Dutton has charisma on his side — he’s played by big-time star Kevin Costner, who looks like the Marlboro Man and sounds like Clint Eastwood.
Taylor Sheridan, the show’s creator, has been at pains to deny “Yellowstone” is a conservative show.
About this, he is correct. It has no sympathy for capitalists, corporations or economic development. But it is decidedly populist — and right-leaning populist — in its disdain for these things. By skewering assorted coastal elites while taking an unsentimental view of Native Americans, it steadfastly refuses to bend to contemporary progressive pieties.
In its appreciation for land, place, family and tradition, the show channels Wendell Berry via the ethos of the Wyatt Earp vendetta ride.
There’s nothing particularly “white” about this. Protecting and valuing what’s yours is a universal American, nay, human, quality.
Then there’s the notion that the land is somehow “white” because the white man stole it from the Indians. The show doesn’t have any problem acknowledging Native American claims. The chairman of the local tribe, Thomas Rainwater, has a vision of buying back all the land with the profits from a casino project.
Kathryn VanArendonk of New York magazine maintains that Rainwater is “an otherness to Dutton’s whiteness.”
Yet Rainwater is less an “other” than someone who wants the same thing as Dutton — namely, the land — and who schemes and maneuvers to try to get it.
The true hero of “Yellowstone” is traditional masculinity as reflected in the ideal of the American cowboy. Of course, there’s an exaggerated emphasis on fisticuffs and violence. But in a show where most people are unhappy, the grace notes tend to come via the bunkhouse where the ranch hands socialize among themselves and in honeyed moments of appreciation for the outdoors and for horses.
In a culture that relentlessly boosts college degrees and other credentials, “Yellowstone” at its best is an oasis of a different way of looking at accomplishment and value.
This aspect of “Yellowstone” must account for a large part of its appeal. The progressive critics who see the show through the prism of “white grievance” are only proving that they, not Taylor Sheridan, are the ones obsessed with race.