Sir Gawain cautions readers not to make too much of manliness, of fearlessness in face of death, since even perfect knights may secretly flinch.
You might look around sometimes and think to yourself, a new America has dawned, godless, without the old restraints. Yellowstone, the Kevin Costner Western on the Paramount Channel is the best example I can summon to mind just now, and its third season has just started. It’s a 21st-century story of cowboys and Indians—with characters seeking freedom from law. Practically, this means they must constantly defend a way of life independent of the many bureaucracies threatening their livelihood, and they do so with terrible violence.
Taylor Sheridan is the writer-director behind Yellowstone, and the series follows the success of his movies, Sicario, Hell or High Water, and Wind River. These movies earned seven Oscar nominations, one for Sheridan, and about as many nominations in Cannes, including important wins. Sheridan was raised on a ranch, but his family lost it, so he went to college and Hollywood, recalling Sam Peckinpah’s story. After Clint Eastwood, he’s now our premier poet of manliness.
The Fall of a Patriarch
Conservatives should notice Sheridan and we can start with his story of ranchers in Bozeman, Montana fending off real estate developers trying to modernize everything for the millionaire class. Costner plays John Dutton, whose family has owned Yellowstone Ranch since just after the Civil War, but he’s dying now and his ranch is threatened with destruction. He’s facing an enemy—the Indians on the nearby reservation have a proud, astute new leader, Thomas Rainwater (Gil Birmingham), aiming to buy back his ancestral tribal lands. Rainwater enjoys the support of a California real estate millionaire, Dan Jenkins (Danny Huston).
Beyond the threat to his ranch, there is a threat to Dutton’s power. Everything seems to be slipping from his grasp. He says, “it now takes threats to get what favors used to get.” He “feels a shift” is occurring with all those he once ruled with ease—the statewide politicians, the federal authorities involved in wildlife and every other matter, as well as the ranches and associated businesses making up the local economy.
Worse, his family is falling apart. In the feature-length premiere, his oldest son is killed in a conflict with Rainwater’s Indians who won’t return his cattle, which had wandered onto the reservation and thus out of US jurisdiction. His youngest son, Kayce (Luke Grimes), a horse whisperer and decorated Navy SEAL, had abandoned him long ago because of his tyrannical rule, but must return home to inherit. The middle son, Jamie (Wes Bentley), goes from family lawyer to his father’s enemy in pursuit of his political ambitions. His beautiful, ruthless daughter Beth (Kelly Reilly) has returned home to protect her father’s dreams with the new powers of financial capitalism and her own impressive capacity for intrigue. Completing the family is Dutton’s fearsome right-hand man charged with running the ranch, Rip (Cole Hauser), who’s also Beth’s lover. But none of them get along and the ranch is the only thing holding them together—they are divided by the great suffering of having lost the mother of the family as children; without her love, the harshness of their way of life has made them fierce as well as lonely, unable to forgive or change.
Like any man long in power, Dutton has many enemies, and the more they behave dishonorably, the more you see that he’s touched by greatness, since he has no desire to go hurting people and does not share their cruel contempt for justice or life. Many look to prosper in his place, partly by the prosperity he has made. Worse for Dutton, America has changed—from the national press investigating him to the new economy to the way historical grievances grant authority to demand change—everything is threatening his way of life, built around family, land, and centuries past and future. Indeed, loyalty itself is over and new identities are required, which are flexible and practiced in deception. To succeed in Yellowstone’s new America, it doesn’t really matter whether you know any part of the country or have done well by people, but whether you know how to manipulate institutions and please those who manage the most successful interests, which seem hardly any better than legalized conspiracies.
Like Hemingway’s marlin, which achieves its greatest leap in its death throes and expires at the top of the arc, Dutton is most impressive in agony. He seems superhuman compared to the new American elites. His handling of urgent problems makes him resemble the president—he is an executive. Meanwhile, egalitarianism has not created equality in America, but only a new elite, impatient, ignorant of the future, blind to necessity—thus, astonishingly able to manipulate the new systems of power, since these elites feel no concern for consequences. The real world, where people are tied to a place, to other people, to their past, and the good they pursue, is replaced by access to the institutions and finances that make the world work, which manipulate people’s lives indirectly, in unaccountable and unpredictable ways. Everyone’s tied into legal demands and their lives are increasingly regulated, but only people who know how to use the law to get what they want get ahead in this new situation. The first post-American elite is coming for the last cowboys.
The American Dream is over in Yellowstone, and billionaire gentrification is coming for the last refuge of manliness in a country that produces compliant subjects rather than free citizens. In this grim world, cowboys are stand-ins for the white working class. They don’t go to college and they work dangerous jobs without much healthcare and for little pay. They are not disrupting the economy. They are America’s past, not future. Their virtues are Stoic and this might simply mean resignation to death.
The parts of America exposed to violence are now very small compared to the past, but they are a reminder that it is not possible for human beings to make a paradise. There’s always something going wrong and freedom requires taking responsibility for violence. Cowboys are noble inasmuch as they are aware of death and determine to face it without flinching. Modern cities, however, are full of systems of rational control aiming to conquer chance, and yet we call violence, even death, an accident. Systems are in place to regulate more and more of life, but no one is ever responsible, not even our highest officials. We do litigate everything, though, and it’s worth asking whether people believe in justice anymore.
Justice is built on nobility, and in Yellowstone, Sheridan draws our attention to this through the characters’ relationship with their horses. So understanding horses is the core of Stoicism—the horse is the noblest animal and America’s love of horses lasted well into the last era of popular country music and the Western, in the 1970s, because a horse rider presents the image of someone more than merely human. It is a greatness available nearly to anyone, at least anyone willing to face harsh nature. Horses are everywhere in Yellowstone, so one might not read much into it. They symbolize certain virtues, however. The horse is a power that will obey the rider, but not against its own nature. To ride a horse requires endurance in face of pain or weariness, courage to face fear or whatever weakness might come, self-control in face of temptation, and moderation—those habits that make man thoughtlessly sovereign. Without these, you die when it’s suddenly dangerous. One cannot talk oneself into it and there is no technology to accomplish this, either. It’s a way of life, not a job. It takes long practice which allows you to understand yourself and develop self-discipline. As such, horse riding leads to a kind of self-knowledge.
We see Beth learn to control her fear, so that she won’t scare her horse, which encourages her to see herself as a master, and we see that the wrangler who teaches her is himself sure of his own honor, so that he’s willing to risk his life rather than commit a crime. We see a former drug dealer turn into a rodeo champion by earning confidence in his endurance, which again requires facing fear and danger, and putting up with crippling pain rather than surrender morally to weakness. But even the best riders, Dutton and his son Kayce, still get in the saddle and ride through their range because it reminds them of themselves and the world around them, without all the worries, fantasies, and regrets life is full enough of.
This is how cowboys become free. America is built on equal freedom, each man doing what he wants, and the consequences are not what people want. It’s not enough to say that people make their choices, then face the consequences—that’s not right. Freedom requires an education if we’re to grow into making our choices and facing consequences. The cowboys get something of the education required for citizenship—the self-reliance, which is built on facing trouble. And that’s something we all need: Despite all the promises of happiness and satisfaction and self-fulfillment, we live in a society where both poor and rich look to pharmaceuticals for a way to get through mere life…
The Duttons are not Christians, few of their like seem to be—not even the death of the firstborn leads to a church funeral. They believe in freedom and nature—ruling over the land, over the horses, over people. They despise weakness and treasure loyalty. They trust family, not morality. Compared to ordinary Americans, they’re shockingly aristocratic. They believe in choosing the means to defend family and their land because family itself is unchosen—it’s nature, and therefore reliable. But can they live in America, where most people have no family? They rely on their old-fashioned patriotism to defend the ranching way of life, but the country has changed without them and it seems they can either adapt and sacrifice their family, or stay loyal and lose everything.
The opposite of a man in America is a bourgeois bohemian, to recall David Brooks’s signal contribution to our sociology in Bobos in Paradise (2000). Brooks is a sophist for this class, so he will not tell the ugly truth—but Tom Wolfe did in A Man in Full (1998), and even scooped Brooks. It’s not an accident that he saw clearly: Wolfe was the poet of American Stoicism and understood the threats to manliness.
The people who define elite taste in America are themselves opposed to violence, but not because they are Christian or even moral. It’s because their own rule doesn’t require that they ever take any personal risks—poorer people do that, who live in other parts of town or are completely removed from sight by gentrification. Nowadays, the rich take no responsibility for the poorer or those suffering violence, or even ever shake their hands, which is why our cities are such madhouses. There is no noblesse oblige.
Sheridan wants to show the violence in America to rebuke this bloodless view of things. So in the first season we see, through the real estate developer drama, how the new American elite is moving in to remove the last ranchers. This establishes the difference between real men and those who want to rule merely through institutions and finance, as though history had ended and we’re just dividing up luxuries. In the second season, we see rule by violence, in order to understand the difference between men and beasts. Sheridan shows that not all who kill are the same. Only then is it possible to defend the ranchers against the bobos persuasively.
The Duttons are patriots, fighting America’s wars through the generations. They’re the sort of men we need if anyone’s going to stand up for law and order—if our freedoms are to be protected. They’re also conservatives, holding on to good things and uninterested in getting more. They lack curiosity and are aggressive toward strangers on principle. They admire the Indians, because Indians were free and noble first. They may also think this because the Indians are hopeless—they’re not waiting for Christ—their joys are bound with strife and war.
The Tragic Education Elites Require
Yellowstone depicts the end of the harshest form of manliness and its replacement by something gentler, first of all seen in love of children. Even the cruelest of the family, Rip, loves the only child on the ranch, Kayce’s son, Tate. Tate wants to be a cowboy, so they teach him how to hunt deer and take care of a horse. Rip thinks you have to tire the horse into submission; but Kayce thinks you can love the horse and the horse will love you back—it wants a master, but it takes patience for habituation. Kayce chooses for a while to live with the Indians, whose mysticism is persuasive to him because it speaks to his strong, but silent passions, which seem to follow from his gentle heart. He’s forced into violence, but doesn’t choose it.
The older Americans were not sufficiently attuned to nature, because they believed in God more. But as the churches are emptying, people are looking elsewhere to learn who they are. Some turn to nature, because human beings are not trustworthy. We may say mankind is naturally perverse, always coveting and therefore often violent or treacherous, which is why harshness was required in the past, to establish property and then defend it. This is certainly Dutton’s view, who only goes to church once, to make a priest manipulate a parishioner into obedience. And as a family, the Duttons are only happy when they revert to their old ways, taking care of their herd from an improvised camp so far away from civilization there’s no cell tower in range.
The only way to end the human drama would be to stop being enviable. End greatness and thus end striving. On the other hand, to defend greatness is to defend suffering. This way, we learn that suffering builds character—it brings people together, as do common enemies. This problem, the future of America, is the show’s indirect concern. Is it possible to retain honor in a dishonorable world? It’s not obvious how we can defend freedom without honorable men making sacrifices. Nor how we can raise honorable men if we tolerate bobo elites who despise honor and use every institution of government and market to end it. Dutton raised his kids to correspond to his understanding of rule. The treacherous Jamie is a Harvard-educated lawyer who tasted the bobo life for a while, but in order to redeem himself, he works like hired help in the stables. Beth is a finance genius, which plays to her ruthlessness, but at the price of undermining her ability to love and trust. Kayce is the truest cowboy, but what makes him so loyal also blinds him to the complexities of 21st century America. They each amplify something in Dutton, but in this attempt to pass on the ranch to a new generation, it turns out honor and savvy have been utterly split apart.
This acquisitive capitalism that corrupts honor is the enemy that returns in the third season of Yellowstone. That’s what the name of the show is about—the place of nature in America. Is it a museum, a zoo we visit occasionally, enjoying the beauty after all the danger is under control, and the millionaire class gets extra privileges? Or is there also a human nature that we need to learn to respect by treating physical nature with some respect, lest our elites treat us like pets as well? To defend manliness in America, it may be necessary to defend wild nature. That is a preparation for political freedom. To go too far in the opposite direction is to treat human beings, but especially men, like savages—as our elites do to the urban and rural underclass.
The purpose of the show is to persuade Americans to believe in nobility again. To face cruelty and violence as a preferable alternative to institutionalized despotism. To accept America’s tragic past with gratitude for the freedom we still have, if we are willing to earn it again. We have had so much success, we’ve created a class who profits by this success without any connection to America or regular Americans. We need to educate new elites about what’s worth loving and defending. Sheridan wants to teach by tragedy, so his protagonists are essentially honorable, which is no longer tolerated in our storytelling. Americans have never accepted tragedy before but perhaps now we will, since our freedom is once again in danger.