TV Review: "Yellowstone" S5
"Yellowstone" is the biggest series on TV, massively popular even as streaming takes over and Hollywood goes through massive change.
In its fifth season it remains one of the most reliably watchable series around, a Sheridan-specific cocktail of soapy melodrama, violence, romance and gorgeous mountain views that keeps viewers wanting more. But it's hard not to wonder when the Western, which is beginning to show its age, should come to an end. Like the fictional family whose domain exists over a significant amount of land, creator Taylor Sheridan has solidified a true TV empire that rivals the likes of “Succession”, “Dallas”, “House of the Dragon”, or any other series you can name that revolves around a dynasty.
With a whole televisual universe being built around the phenomenon, one question remains: when you reach the top, what do you do next?
That's what's on John Dutton's (Kevin Costner) mind at the beginning of the fifth season of Paramount Network's western "Yellowstone" after he begrudgingly ascends to the highest office in Montana. It's also probably on the mind of Sheridan, who also created two spinoff series (Paramount+'s "1883" and "1923"). He’s now the master of his own little TV universe just as our protagonist John is the master of his not-so-little swath of Montana land. Both Sheridan and the man he created are at the top of their game, but there is a risk that both of them may fall.
Season 5’s premiere picks up on election night when John easily wins the race for governor, which he only entered to spite Jamie, and is now stuck with a lot of duties he couldn't care less about. It's fitting that, when dressed in a suit for his gubernatorial life, John almost always wears a black tie, as if he's at a funeral for his rancher life. It's a testament to Costner's performance in the role that John can still remain a compelling character on-screen, but there are also believable limits to how far his worst trait — his stubbornness — can endure. It's a quality that his on-again, off-again love interest and departing governor Lynelle Perry (Wendy Moniz) calls him out on. The voters may have rallied behind him as a way to protect Montana from outsiders, especially ones like Market Equities who are intent on razing Yellowstone Dutton Ranch to the ground, but that doesn't mean John can just run the highest office in the state as he does his home. The season does automatically improve itself by surrounding the new governor with voices who are informed enough to point out the risks in his decision-making, even if there's a sneaking feeling that John will only entertain them for a moment before doing what he was planning on from the beginning.
Meanwhile, the family's choice to bring Jamie back into the fold — albeit under blackmailing conditions — might have created a tenser détente, but it also lends itself to some of the most dynamic scenes in Season 5's premiere, including a Jamie-Beth face-off that reminds you just how good Bentley and Reilly are when they're put in a room alone together. Beth, however, is ecstatic at her father's new position and the perks that result from it (being cruel to her brother, more money and power). Her somewhat rushed marriage to ranch hand Rip (Cole Hauser) is going well, at least as far as their dysfunctional relationship can. The youngest Dutton, Kayce, is settled into family life with pregnant Monica and his work with the livestock enforcement agency.
Even as "Yellowstone" remains the entertainment equivalent of a nice steak dinner – always good, always predictable, no real need to fuss with the formula – there is just the slightest hint that things are going stale in Season 5. New characters and conflicts are introduced, but they feel just a shade too repetitive of seasons past. There's the bullish female executive and the wealthy outsider, and the same members of the Dutton family seem to wind up in the hospital over and over again. The final images of Season 5’s premiere culminate with a character’s life hanging in the balance. If you’ve watched “Yellowstone” at all, it’s fairly obvious who it is and why it’s so stupid that they’re in that position. It’s even worse when one realises that the next episode gives them nothing to do to build off the suspense of the final scene. It just shows that “Yellowstone” might be losing its focus with so many characters to juggle. Desperate cliffhangers can only do so much, especially when the follow-up episodes start with “we solved that, now on to something else.” It’s possible that Sheridan’s many irons in the fire — including the upcoming spinoff “1923” — are beginning to take their toll, leading to less than 100 per cent focus when he wrote these two episodes. Regardless, “Yellowstone” fans will no doubt eagerly consume this, but how long till they expect something to actually happen?
All those quandaries aside, it's early yet, and this is only the beginning of a season that will be split into two parts, meaning it'll be an even longer wait to see how all of these emerging plots play out. What remains to be seen as of now is whether Yellowstone's latest outing will be able to develop into its most ambitious one to date, one that sinks its teeth into us and refuses to let go, or if it'll break by fighting against its own progress — the type of wild, dynamic storytelling that this series' best version of itself has successfully embraced in the past.