Every now and then a film or TV series catches the mood of a nation and it’s viewing figures take off, it becomes an enduring classic. In the early 1980s, a time of massive unemployment in the UK we had Auf Wiedersehen Pet about migrant British workers and Boys from the Blackstuff with Yosser Hughes anguished cry of ‘give us a job, I can do that’ both catching the national mood. In the more prosperous 1990s the American import, Friends with its focus on young upwardly mobile professionals caught the mood.
In the past 3 years one TV series seems to have both caught the mood and helped to shape it in the USA.
Yellowstone, starring Kevin Costner is modern day Western that is such a massive hit in the USA that having reached season 5, the demand for more is so great that 2 spin-off series are in existence with another being planned. What does the popularity of this series say about how the USA views itself?
Yellowstone (set in Montana) is interwoven with themes emphasising independence, honesty, loyalty, self-reliance and hard work, and in keeping with traditional westerns, Yellowstone does not believe in moderation; characters, SUVs and landscapes are ‘larger than life’.
The initial star of the series, John Dutton (Kevin Costner) is almost God-like (more Old-Testament and vengeful than is immediately obvious), all powerful, dispensing wisdom, fixing problems, cleverly outwitting and defeating those who want to lessen his control over his land, whilst at the same time maintaining almost complete control over his wayward and disturbed children, who must devote their lives to maintaining his control over his land. He is a Trumpian hero believing in keeping the government out of his business, but by the time we reach Series 4, John Dutton is more Godfather than God and the social message of this series becomes more disturbing.
In older westerns like True Grit or Unforgiven, which were set in the past when modern law and order was underdeveloped, it seemed reasonable to portray the solution to problems as being a brave man with a gun, but Yellowstone is set in the 21st Century and the violent heroes it offers us are not people we would want as family members or neighbours. In this part of Montana, rich men have all the power, controlling the sheriff, manipulating the government, controlling the livestock commissioner with its armed livestock agents acting like a private police force or militia and dispensing ‘justice’ with violence including extra-judicial executions, where deemed necessary. The clear message throughout is that ordinary people can achieve justice only through the benevolent patronage of the rich, such as when Dutton’s daughter, Beth, uses her power and wealth to humiliate a shop worker who has treated her sister-in-law badly.
You feel sorry for the poor ranch hands who work for Mr Dutton, being ruled by an iron fist in a velvet glove, sacked with ease, beaten senseless by the foreman Rip and occasionally being executed if they are judged a threat to the ranch. All of this is done with a polite smile as though it was perfectly normal & justifiable. Even when a female journalist who asks too many questions is strangled by one of the Dutton sons, the story is about how that son deals with his guilt and the loss of his father’s approval.
As the show progresses (I have reached Season 4) Beth’s love affair with Rip (a ranch-hand who is deeply traumatized yet honourable in his way) becomes the heart of the show, but even here some of the social messages portrayed are worrying. When they take in a homeless boy, they make little allowance for his traumatic early life and when he displays a lack of impulse control in a shop their reaction is to remind this child that he is entitled to nothing and that he can be expelled on a whim. Similarly, when another character breaks a promise to John Dutton, he is expelled from the only place he can call home, from this imperfect Garden of Eden to Texas where he must learn to become a man. In another scene, reminiscent of when Homer Simpson tries to make Bart into a man by getting him to shoot a reindeer, the traumatised Dutton grandson (homeschooled because he doesn’t need school), has had to save his mother’s life by shooting her attacker and now hides in his room. He is ‘cured’ not by doctors or the love and indulgence of his mother, but by being told to conquer his fear by his father who blames the mother for his son’s lack of courage.
Forget the Poor, Only Rich People Matter
Don’t get me wrong. If you ignore the abuse of the poor by the rich and don’t mind the violence this is an enjoyable series; just remember that the problems of the rich matter and the problems of the poor are incidental, but what does the extraordinary popularity of Yellowstone say about how the USA views itself and its future.
When Donald Trump was elected many expected him to moderate his policies, to become less extreme once in power, but others predicted correctly that America would move sharply to the right once Trump was elected. Even the attempted insurrection of Jan 6th 2022 has not really sufficiently damaged the prospect of a Trump re-election in 2024. Trump will be delighted if the USA embraces the messages of Yellowstone where the importance of a person is based on their wealth.
When John Dutton declares that his life begins and ends in his valley, the land that he owns, he perfectly encapsulates the isolationism of right-wing small-town America, where federal government is seen almost as a foreign malign influence. The fact that the Dutton grandson stops attending school to become homeschooled reflects the trend in America where the number of children homeschooled has risen in recent years (perhaps encouraged by the voucher system) to 5.22% of all school-age children. And of course, the National Rifle Association will be delighted at the way so many problems can be solved with a gun.
Are there any fans of Yellowstone out there? Is Yellowstone representative of what the USA aspires to become?
Arnold is a retired teacher from Belfast.