Back in Yellowstone’s third season, when the sweet-natured, perpetually in-over-his-head ranch hand Jimmy Hurdstrom started dabbling in rodeo-riding, his boss John Dutton rolled his eyes, letting Jimmy know he didn’t approve. To John, being a real cowboy means staying deeply connected to the land, the horses, the cattle, and the climate—even if it means putting your life on the line to protect the honor and the property of your employer. The rodeo demands a similar physical sacrifice. (As Jimmy learned quickly, the sport can break a rider’s body in a split-second.) But it’s all for personal glory, not for any communal good. It’s showbiz, not stewardship.
In this season though, John has suddenly changed his tune. Not only has he invested heavily in some top-of-the-line show-horses and riders—led by the swaggering Travis Wheatly, played by Yellowstone’s creator Taylor Sheridan—but he’s ordered Jimmy to assist this crew, as they drive down from Montana to Texas to deposit him at the Four Sixes ranch. (Fans of the Yellowstone franchise should recognize that name; 6666 the title of a planned spinoff.)
What convinced John? Last week he said he was gambling everything on the show-horses as an exercise in brand-building: to make the Yellowstone ranch so famous among western enthusiasts that it would be bad PR for venture capitalists like Market Equities to buy it up and break it apart. But maybe there’s more to it than that. Maybe surviving his third or fourth near-death experience of the past few years has shaken some sense into John, getting him to see that he’d better off cooperating with the folks who want to turn Montana into a tourists’ wonderland. Heck, he might even let guests stay at the Yellowstone. (But “no weddings,” he insists to Beth.)
As has been the case for most of this fourth Yellowstone season, this week’s “Winning Or Learning” is light on big twists and action sequences. The season premiere carried a lot of the dramatic load for season four so far: resolving the explosive “every Dutton is at death’s door” cliffhanger from last year’s finale (unsurprisingly, they all survived); setting Kayce, John and Rip on a path of bloody revenge against the people they believe were responsible for the multi-pronged attack; and introducing Carter, the headstrong orphan Beth wants to mother, over Rip’s strenuous objections.
Since then, the plot has inched along, with just a few big confrontations and murders in episodes two and three—and almost nothing here in episode four.
But honestly, the more laid-back Yellowstone is often the best version of this show, ditching the more abrupt and sometimes head-scratching story beats in favor of what Sheridan does best as a writer-producer: setting vivid scenes, populated by colorful characters, delivering flavorful dialogue.
The best example of this is the character played by Sheridan himself. Travis is pretty good company this week, as he schools Jimmy on what the rodeo life and the cowboy life should really be all about. Travis is one confident S.O.B., who looks super-impressive as he’s doing tight turns and stopping on a dime on his compact, regal show-horse. He makes fun of Jimmy when the kid says that rodeo was the only thing he’s ever been good at. (“You weren’t good at it,” Travis scoffs.) But he backs up his own boasts by winning money for the Yellowstone; and he gives Jimmy some sound advice by suggesting that the simplest, best way to do a good job in this business is to think about what the horse needs, and then take care of it.
Also good this week: the long scene between Beth and Market Equities’ new Montana problem-solver, Caroline Warner (played with just the right amount of steeliness by Jacki Weaver). They meet at one of the many bars where Beth long ago confirmed her poor impression of powerful men by seducing married billionaires into buying her drinks. But Caroline isn’t impressed by Beth’s standard shock-and-awe anecdotes, or her unwillingness to bend on any deal-point that might bother her father.
Caroline scoffs that “stubbornness is not a business strategy,” as she notes that as a woman on the corporate battlefield herself she stepped on a dozen Beths to get to her position. Finally, the two reach a tentative understanding: If Caroline will let Beth utterly destroy her ex-bosses at Schwartz & Meyer, then Beth will help Caroline turn the Montana mountains into another Aspen. (“This is a ‘name your price’ offer,” the Market Equities honcho says, ignoring the warnings from her underling that Beth is “a walking lawsuit.”)
Not everything in this episode has the pizazz of the Travis and Caroline scenes. The Carter subplot stays in the same weird place it landed last week, when the underprivileged boy’s not-all-that-egregious interest in buying a nice shirt prompted Beth to freak out in public. And Kayce’s wife Monica and son Tate are continuing to hide out from the rest of the family, refusing to talk about the recent assault on their lives and keeping that whole storyline is a frustrating limbo… until late in the episode that is, when Kayce decides to take them all back to Monica’s home on the reservation.
On the other hand, because Kayce is struggling with his immediate family right now, that frees him up to do some business for his dad, who has unearthed the rap sheet of one of the men responsible for the assassination attempts on the Duttons. John wants Kayce to ask Jamie to help unwind the conspiracy—in part because he suspects his adopted son might’ve been part of the plot. The scene between Kayce and Jamie is nice, because the two brothers do still share a bond; and no matter how peeved Jamie is with the Duttons (and Beth especially), he stills feel an obligation to defend the family that raised him.
(That said, while pursuing the info Kayce leaves with him, Jamie discovers his ex-con biological father Garrett Randall was one of the murder-for-hire ringmaster’s cellmates. This will surely test his loyalties going forward.)
As for Rip, even though it doesn’t make much sense that he and Beth are so mad at Carter, it will never not be entertaining to see Cole Hauser go full Force Of Nature in this role. It doesn’t take much to pull the trigger on this self-loathing hired gun; and it’s been fascinating to see Rip trying to pass his profound psychological problems along to Carter.
But it’s not just the boy who feels Rip’s wrath this week. When some of the cattle get pinkeye—and the lately disgruntled Lloyd tries to bring them back to the corral because it’ll be easier to treat them there—Rip flips out, because taking the lazy way could endanger the whole herd. The rest of the ranch hands are excited to do some real cowboy stuff, roping the livestock to treat them. But Rip—like John and Travis—knows that taking care of animals isn’t some “timed event.” It’s a way of life. And whenever it’s easy, something’s wrong.
- When Beth sees that the show-horse investment is already paying off in big prize-money checks, she admits she may have been wrong when she said her dad was squandering her inheritance. This does raise a nagging question, though: If Beth is such a peerless corporate raider, why should she ever have to worry about money?
- Travis tells Jimmy that Road House is the best movie ever made and that he wants to grow up to be Sam Elliott. Like the 6666 ranch cameo, this is a roundabout promotion for another Yellowstone spinoff: 1883, a Dutton family history that features Elliott as a veteran frontiersman who helps the Duttons make their way to Montana.
- This is a drop-in Yellowstone review; The A.V. Club is not currently planning to recap the show weekly. I will however return after the season finale with a review and a larger look at the season and series as a whole.