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Yellowstone - Season 1 - Advance Preview

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The opening shot of Taylor Sheridan's "Yellowstone" is striking and perplexing. The sprawling 90-minute pilot opens on a gorgeous sky, and after a moment, a hand reaches across the screen, and as the camera pans across, the hand caresses the face of a horse. The camera swings back slightly, revealing that the hand belongs to a bloodied Kevin Costner, and then pulls back out, so that the faces of both man and horse are in the frame. Costner leans against the horse, saying "It's not fair, this life".

It's soon revealed that both Costner's character John Dutton and this horse have been in a terrible car accident, and Dutton is forced to kill the animal, putting it out of its misery. The whole scene is striking - and, it should be mentioned, after three episodes remains mostly unexplained - but after watching this far too long pilot, and the two subsequent episodes, it's that opening shot that has lingered with me about "Yellowstone" the most. It's beautiful, it has a raw, elemental power, and yet I'm not sure what Sheridan is trying to say and how it fits in with the rest of the show.

I'm talking so much about this image because it serves as a surprisingly good microcosm of the show as a whole, which is awesome in its scope, beauty, and ambition, but feels like a collection of interesting ideas that haven't been properly fleshed out or drawn together into a unifying, meaningful whole.

"Yellowstone" follows Dutton and the rest of his family, who own the Yellowstone ranch, the largest contiguous ranch in the United States. The series revolves around John struggling to keep hold of his land in the face of challenges from land developers from the nearest town, and from a nearby Indian reservation, and in particular from that Indian nation's new Chief, Thomas Rainwater, played by the great Gil Birmingham.

If you're familiar with Sheridan's previous works, this will probably sound kind of familiar. In his three prior films he has explored weighty themes, setting his stories in modern frontiers - the US/Mexico border, snowy Wyoming, etc - far from media scrutiny. Where "Yellowstone" differs is in its ambition to not just be a complex story of conflict over land ownership, but also a family drama, in the vain of the great antihero crime dramas Sheridan is obviously inspired by here.

So much of these three episodes is focused on John's relationship with his children, primarily Kayce (Luke Grimes), Beth (Kelly Reilly), and Jamie (Wes Bentley). Kayce is estranged from the rest of the family and lives a cowboy existence on the reservation with his Native American wife Monica (Kelsey Asbille). Beth is a hard-drinking, hard-talking corporate woman who returns home to help her family, all the while nursing childhood trauma. And Jamie is a lawyer and aspiring politician who constantly seeks approval from his father; approval he hardly ever receives.

The family drama starts out as serviceable, with each of the children being little more than stereotypes, but as the first three episodes progress they gain additional shading, particularly Kayce and Beth. Beth as a character and Reilly's performance often seem like they're out of a very different show, which breathes life into several scenes, and while she starts out as a bit much, the series later finds time to explain why she is the way she is, and also learns to lean into Reilly's BIG performance and mine it for comedy (in a memorable scene from the second episode, Beth watches a pack of wolves eat an elk from a car before running out and screaming at them drunkenly, scaring them away), as well a tragedy.

Kayce, meanwhile, is the character in the show who most resembles a typical Sheridan protagonist: a man living a cowboy-like existence with past demons and a family to protect, who never feels like he's truly a part of the world in which he lives. It's through Kayce and his inner conflict between both his families - the one he was born into and the one he made - that the series best marries its various ambitions.

Thomas Rainwater is perhaps the most surprising character the show has to offer: while it would have been very easy to have him be a fairly one-dimensional, black or white antagonist to our antihero, Sheridan and Birmingham give him a refreshing amount of nuance. The series doesn't shy away from the horrors that take place on the reservation that are left ignored, as well as all that the Native American people have suffered over centuries, and yet despite this Rainwater is often portrayed by both actor and camera as if he's a villain, though one with understandable and even moral motivations.

All of this hasn't quite come together just yet, and Sheridan is, after three episodes, still wrestling with how to write good melodrama, something that one doesn't find much of in his screenplays - which are usually very lean and muscular, the opposite of "Yellowstone" - and yet is almost essential for good TV drama. But there's something special here, a great show that could well emerge from this fascinating, beautiful mess.

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