Wednesday, June 20, 2018

REVIEW: 'Yellowstone' - The War Between the Dutton Family and the Reservation is Already Deadly in 'Daybreak'

Paramount's Yellowstone - Episode 1.01 "Daybreak"

Kevin Costner stars as John Dutton, patriarch of a Montana ranching family, and owner of the largest ranch in the U.S. It's the story of Dutton's fight to defend his land and his family from the modern-day forces that threaten his way of life.

"Daybreak" is a long premiere for Yellowstone. That should be the first thing that anyone notes about this episode. It is 91 minutes long. That's simply too long for an episode of television. Yes, one can make the argument that a lot happens in this hour. It needs that running time in order to adequately cover everything of importance. And yet, it still feels like most of the time is spent on exposition while there also being a couple of things that are just mysteriously introduced in order to create a sense of suspense moving forward. It is telling a moving story about this conflict between John Dutton and the neighboring Indian reservation. But it also feels like there is a version of this episode that could be cut down significantly without losing any of the power that comes from the main plot. Right now, the show is highlighting all of the conflicts and adversaries that the Dutton family are currently dealing with. There is the ambitious Thomas Rainwater who wishes to raise enough money to buy back the land from the Duttons that was illegally taken from his people all those generations ago. There is also land developer Dan Jenkins who wishes to expand the community by building subdivisions without feeling the need to inspect how it will change the local environment. All of this runs the risk of it seeming like too much plot for the show to handle. It probably would have been better if the show could focus on one threat to the Dutton ranch. Sure, it would be simplistic. Right now, John is trying to teach his children that running this ranch means keeping an eye on many changing developments from so many corners of this world. But it's also a lot of stories vying for attention from the audience and it seeming unlikely that the show will be able to handle all of them with the nuance they deserve.

The show is basically making the pointed statement that John Dutton is fighting against Jenkins changing this community because of a deep respect for the land and the way that things have worked for generations even though his ancestors were the ones who took this land from the local Native Americans and changed it into the ranching and drilling community that it has now become. As such, it paints a picture of John Dutton wanting to perceive himself as a hero even though he's a much more complicated figure than that. And yet, no one in the conflict is all that sympathetic. Jenkins has no problem just going around the need for an environmental impact report when it comes to building this new subdivision. He's perfectly fine polluting the water and sending toxic chemicals downstream to Dutton's ranch. That's absolutely horrifying. Meanwhile, John is concerned to the point that he doesn't want any more outsiders in his world. He understands the environment is most critical to Jenkins' plans. And so, he just decides to blow up the river to ensure that Jenkins can't use those resources in order to build the community he wants on his land. He has already built a golf course and it is already an annoyance to John. And then, Rainwater is hoping to use the money from the Indian casino he runs in order to purchase the Dutton land. In the meantime though, he is more than comfortable stealing cattle from them and setting up these huge conflict between the two sides over who has the right to these animals. It's a conflict that turns quite deadly on both sides. As such, there is blood on his hands just in the hopes of creating a sensational story in the public that turns the community against the Duttons. It's all very manipulative but it's so complex without there being a clear side that the audience should feel comfortable in supporting.

As such, it's fascinating to see one of John's sons actually straddling the line of this conflict. Kayce actually left the family ranch when John told him to go. It's said that John told all of his children to leave and go make something of their lives. He wants to rely on all of them for the skills they bring to the table. Of course, Kayce chose to stay away because he didn't want to simply be following orders from his father all of the time. He wanted the chance to build his own life. That just happens to lead to him living on the reservation with his wife and son. He's welcomed in this community to an extent. The locals make sure that he is always aware that he's an outsider. As such, the tension of this latest issue only turns them more against him because he cannot understand the struggle they have endured for all of these years. He is actually told to go back home before this conflict starts to turn deadly. It would simply be easier for everyone. And yet, he doesn't do that. Yes, he does start to form more of a relationship with his father by allowing him to see his grandchild every once and awhile now. There is even just a nice moment of bonding amongst the brothers. At first, it seems like Beth is the only member of the family whom Kayce can stand. That's only because she escaped the town to make something of her life as well. She's just back to provide a service for her father by figuring out what Jenkins is planning on doing in this community. But then, Kayce is able to have a good time fishing with his brothers even though his son doesn't know his uncles well enough to know when they are just kidding around. It's a nice moment that establishes the easy bonds of this family and that they can get along together. It's a kind of moment that is necessary before the devastation that occurs in the final act of this premiere.

Both John and Rainwater are arming themselves in this conflict. John believes he is entitled to these cattle because they were branded for him. The reservation believes they have a claim to them because they are now on their land. The animals don't know the difference. They just roam wherever they are free to go. The fence was no long up that separated the two properties. That too could have been a tactic used in order to provoke this conflict. Rainwater is testing John's patience and resolve. He is trying to understand what kind of man he is. Kayce says that his father is a man of principle until he is provoked. This entire premiere is John being provoked. He is forced into doing some brutal actions in order to maintain the life that he has always known. He's trying to teach his children how to step up and replace him in this business. But there is no natural successor. Jamie and Beth have their own careers as a lawyer and businesswoman, respectively. Kayce chose to leave the ranch after he returned home from the navy. Lee has all the natural abilities to be a good rancher. But he wants to work the land not run it. That is a significant difference that John understands and embraces. Even though he doesn't say it out loud, everyone in the family knows that John loves Lee the best. That's what makes it so tragic when Lee is the one who dies in this conflict. He is shot down as soon as John makes a move in the middle of the night to steal the cattle that rightfully belong to him. It's the exact kind of carnage that Rainwater was hoping to get in order to provoke a conversation in the media. But there are such immense personal consequences for the Dutton family. One that inspires them to come together during a time of grief. And one that will keep them angry at the people responsible for attacking them in this way.

Of course, Lee wasn't really a major character before he was killed off. It plays as this shocking death that will forever change the family. And yet, the audience barely got the chance to get to know him. It means that John will have to rely more on the other ranchers who work for him to keep the property functioning just as well as it always has. The family will be more focused on maintaining this conflict and fighting for what is theirs. That too could be a fascinating story that pulls Kayce only further into the conflict. He was the one actually there to witness what had happened to Lee. Lee taunted the reservation into firing at him if they wanted the cattle back. And then, they did shoot back. But it wasn't just anyone either. It was the brother of Kayce's wife, Monica. As such, that will produce so much personal drama for him at home. He knows exactly what happened. In fact, he fired back and killed his brother-in-law. He is trying to be there for Lee in his dying moments. He wants to get him help. But it's no good. All he can do is return the body home to the family ranch. After that he goes completely quiet, he's not sharing what happened to anyone. That's going to put such distance in these family dynamics though. John will want to know what happened to Lee while Monica will demand answers about her brother. Kayce holds the truth but he is shutting down. He wanted to get in the middle of this conflict. He tried stirring the cattle up so that they wouldn't be easy for anyone to wrangle. It was an additional hassle that everyone would have to contend with. And now, the only remorse he can give his father is by returning the horse that needed to be broken. That's the only comfort he can find in the world at the moment. That's heartbreaking. But it should be interesting to see what happens next after this tragedy.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Daybreak" was written by Taylor Sheridan and directed by Taylor Sheridan.
  • John Dutton kills a horse in the opening moments of the show. That's a sequence that proves that he can be a compassionate person who is also in an incredibly violent and brutal world. He's in this horrific accident that kills the driver of the truck. But there's no real explanation for what happened. It just shows that John is willing to give the horse the peace in quick death after it's being kept in agony with its current injuries.
  • Both John and Rainwater have friends in the local politicians. John is close with the governor of the state while Rainwater is forming an alliance with a key senator. Both of those connections should be compelling to see play out. It's also fascinating that both of those roles are played by women. This is a very male-heavy show that needs more of that female perspective in order to help balance things out.
  • Of course, it also seems likely that the world will want Jamie to pursue politics. The governor certainly brings that up to John. The patriarch is very reluctant about the idea though because he needs Jamie to continue being the legal mind who is able to help with the various problems of the world in that regard. And yet, it is still going to be Jamie's decision. And right now, he is too busy chasing his father's respect.
  • Beth is just an incredibly frank woman. That's refreshing and makes her the comedic highlight of the series here. She is brutally destroying a man's company. And yet, she's demanding his respect and appreciation as well. She is able to expertly pick apart a city man coming here for an adventure away from his boring life and family. And then, she doesn't have any time for the frivolous feelings her brothers have regarding their father.
  • There's a horrifying reveal that some of the ranchers brand themselves in honor of John Dutton. It means they will be loyal to him no matter what. They will do illegal actions in his name while knowing that he has the power and influence to ensure that they never get caught. It's a tempting offer. But it's one presented without any choice once Jimmy is brought into this world and needing to plant the dynamite that will destroy the river.
  • I honestly have no clue how well Yellowstone will do for Paramount Network. It's a huge gamble in the hopes of establishing the channel as a prestige player. And yet, the majority of the reviews have been lukewarm at best. The direction is stunning. The landscape is picturesque. But the story is incredibly familiar and not all that special just yet. Will the ratings need to be huge for the network to justify a renewal? Or is a Season 2 already a foregone conclusion because of the talent involved?