Long after it has run its course on TV, the show “Yellowstone” will provide fodder for countless PhD candidates in whiteness studies. Progressives are obsessed with race and evil.
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.”
Got that? 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.