Why Hamilton is the musical for our time.
The best series currently on TV now has a fourth season. Taylor Sheridan’s Yellowstone represents the last stand of American manliness and old-fashioned American freedom, and gives new life to the Western, America’s favorite kind of story. It’s been a very successful show, partly because of stars like Kevin Costner, partly because of a wonderful supporting cast, but above all because it has a remarkable story to tell—a vision of how America could be defended from a new kind of corrupt elite, which doesn’t love the land, the people, or the past.
The first three seasons of the show tried to show the Dutton family at their best, in their proud independence, their ownership and defense of the great Yellowstone Ranch in Montana, fighting off the developers of the millionaire class, who have the mad desire to destroy American freedom and replace it with a fantasy available only to themselves—a new Aspen or Breckenridge, as a corporate minion puts it.
The fourth season is different above all in showing that the Duttons, great as they are, are not strong enough to defend themselves from the legal and financial elites of America. To be independent, they have to become more American, they have to let more of America on the Dutton Ranch. Indeed, they have to make their self-defense into a defense of America.
In the season opener, the Dutton family barely survives an attack. The premeditated and synchronized shootouts, home break-ins, and close-quarter combat are reminders that most of us are only safe because no one has decided to endanger us. Most Americans are peaceable, but are we able to defend our peace? The Duttons pride themselves on their strength and yet they are vulnerable, too. Why should that be? Yellowstone dramatizes the breakup of the American family, which we dare not acknowledge publicly. In a way, the Duttons suffer all America’s problems in an exemplary way.
In the aftermath, at the hospital, the sarcastic daughter Beth mocks a teenage boy until they get to what they have in common: dying fathers. The boy says heroin is killing his father. Beth replies that the 21st century is killing hers. That’s the suggested alliance between the working class and all proud Americans who don’t share in their poverty or helplessness. We certainly all have in common a quiet humiliation that comes with the pride of being American. So much was promised, was it all a lie? Are we failures? Were we betrayed? Why are people flaunting publicly how much better off they are than the rest of us while claiming we are monsters?
The fourteen-year-old boy is a dropout and asks the lady for a cigarette. Beth tells him to stay in school or be a ditch digger. She gives him a cigarette and a warning—he will waste his life because he has no one to admire and, without that, he’s a victim of circumstance. Later, the boy has nothing to say to his dying father except that he hates him for abandoning him. It could be the new American motto, now that we’re giving up on each other: I’ll see you in hell.
This is terrible suffering and, in a way, a hopeless life we all know is the ruin of many people. But it is not a tragedy, because it doesn’t involve aristocrats like Romeo and Juliet, to say nothing of imperial politicians like Caesar and Mark Antony. In America, we celebrate even the fake suffering of woke celebrities, but ignore the real suffering of ordinary people. Neither tragedy nor anything else will return dignity to the afflicted. Yellowstone tries to teach that suffering is dignified both because it reveals the character of our existence and because it can lead to strength.
So Beth takes the boy in and he learns from the rough and violent cowboys how to avoid the life of a drug addict, or indeed any similar kind of weakness. He is now released from the self-loathing that comes from believing one cannot do anything for oneself—that an evil system or an indifferent cosmos is blighting one’s life. Like all Americans, the boy is free and that means first of all that he must live by his own choices. But he is a poor orphan of the underclass, so freedom might just encourage self-destruction. The Duttons instead offer him something in exchange for hardship—he learns obedience, endurance, cowboy skills, and thus he might have a future of work rather than misery.
As with the boy, so with the other young orphan, Jimmy, whose childhood has also been blighted by drugs. He too was making the worst of his all-American freedom because he couldn’t obey the rules of the ranch. While Jimmy is no longer a man of vice, he remains weak and hospitalized for a horseback injury. Patriarch John Dutton sends Jimmy to Texas, which seems cruel in many ways—he’s thrown off a ranch where he faced deadly dangers; he’s losing the girlfriend who alone cared for him in the hospital; and he’s thrown into an unknown world of cowboys who are all his superiors.
Dutton tells Jimmy that this pain is an honor—he’d be representing the ranch—and an opportunity to earn his self-respect by becoming a real cowboy. The pain and humiliation of recovery from his injury, as well as the hardship of the life to come, do not recommend themselves to Jimmy, since he’s weak. But having been in a rodeo, he knows that he would love to be able to be a real cowboy. In a way, it’s what he’s always admired—beauty, power, control. He can become the kind of man who can rule himself and therefore can rule his horse, too. He realizes that the chance to keep his word in front of a great man is somehow a test of his own manliness, so he accepts.
The Duttons, in that sense, are like Christianity—they give hope to hopeless men by preaching the dignity of suffering. Of course, they’re all about work and this life rather than prayer and the life to come; they are ferocious in war and quite angry even on an ordinary day. It’s not obvious they know what mercy means or that it occurs to them that they, too, might one day need it. They seem incredibly cruel, but they point out at every opportunity how much crueler the new America is, where in the name of niceness and democracy men are reduced to savagery or despair, all done legally and bureaucratically.
Still, the Dutton program for rehabilitation must grow more democratic and less cruel. They allow not only these damaged kids, but also women to cowboy for them. There’s never a shortage of spirited women in America, so we find a number of takers precisely because they recognize Dutton is great. The ranch gradually begins to look like a number of families, almost a tribe. Further, its new horse ranching business in Texas also suggests a vast American alliance in favor of a freedom earned through hard work and harshness.
The events of the season might seem random until you notice this pattern, which reaches its highpoint in John Dutton’s resolution to run for the governorship of Montana, thus forcing a conflict between the old Montana of the cowboys and the new Montana of the city, where liberalism dominates and loathes everything about these manly men. Dutton is supposed to be a perfection of Trump, a man from an older, rougher America, who built an empire and who turns unwillingly to public life only when it’s necessary, who tells ugly truths with evident relish and despises all the weaklings who hide their greed behind idealistic rhetoric. Of course, Dutton is something of a Romantic hero in that he’s all about keeping his word rather than suckering the other guy. There are many differences, but poetry and politics both are all about our necessary idealizations.
Yellowstone insists on suffering as much as most of our pop culture denies it, in order to compensate for our generalized sentimentality and the therapeutic ethic that makes storytelling, just like manliness, “toxic.” Especially in this season, the characters express something close to existential despair—a certainty that freedom is almost conquered by oligarchic systems that would have been unrecognizable or anathema to previous generations of Americans. They almost express the conviction that America is doomed and the greatest empire of modern times is quickly self-destructing.
The family lives by its sempiternity, by the possibility of leaving good things to a new generation, an inheritance from a father to his son. The Duttons, however, seem to be losing that hope—they hope only to delay the Dutton Ranch’s inevitable defeat. Does America have a future? That seems to depend first of all on America’s past, whether it can be understood and properly lived up to. Not just the American Indians, but the Duttons, too, constantly refer to their ancestors and the way of life they are trying to preserve. It’s not merely something dear to them, it’s a belief tested by the times and also a teaching that alone allows them to understand themselves when everyone around them is confused or mad with oligarchic dreams.
Remembering America’s past is remembering freedom and thus learning how awful the new elite is—people who believe in nothing except moralistic luxury, who talk about equity while endlessly accumulating wealth. Yellowstone is unique in American entertainment for the demand it makes of its audience to identify with suffering and overcoming it rather than comfort, as a condition of facing up to the national past, with all its suffering and injustice. It might be a permanently minority option, but this doesn’t mean it doesn’t speak to the democratic majority. Everyone used to love cowboys and maybe most of us still do, even if we don’t want to embrace that hardship. For my part, I believe Sheridan is right and a certain harshness of sentiment, imagination, and thinking is necessary to remember the past rightly. Softness creates only oblivion and woke hysteria.
Of course, the work of restoring the power of the American past is generational. Art and entertainment, education and public opinion are not under rational control. If they were, we would have a techno-woke tyranny that would end America. Manliness, freedom, and the confidence to deal with our difficulties might soon become popular or it might take a long time. Yellowstone offers the example of people who never give up their beliefs and never give up the habits that make it possible to stand up for those beliefs. It is human nature to admire men more than ideas, character more than argument, and it is wise to look to deeds, too, not only speeches.
America needs more heroes and they’re likely to be people who work hard somewhere beyond the spell of glamour. A change of taste is necessary to discover them and appreciate their virtues and encourage them to do something good for America as a whole. For my part, I hope the taste for celebrity wanes and the taste for tougher, more serious people develops. I think this is what Sheridan is trying to accomplish and I hope you’ll find it as impressive as I do.