All for Nothing
Photo: Paramount Networks
“The cattle all have brucellosis/ We’ll get through somehow.” —Warren Zevon
For Warren Zevon fans like myself, these past two weeks of Yellowstone have been pretty damned delightful, because not once but twice someone has asked a shifty old buffalo-herder whether or not his stock has brucellosis. For those of us who don’t have a lot of experience with riding the range or tending to cattle, likely our only previous encounter with the disease sometimes known as “undulant fever” comes from Zevon’s song “Play It All Night Long.” And now here are some real cowboys, tossing around the term “brucellosis” so casually that I keep waiting for these leathery ranch hands to slip into one of the song’s other memorable lines: “There ain’t much to country living/ Sweat, piss, jizz, and blood.”
Look, sometimes with Yellowstone you have to take your pleasures wherever you find them. Because like most of this season so far, this week’s episode “All for Nothing” is a pretty mixed bag, with the same characters as always (Kayce, Rip, Chief Rainwater, Roarke, and Beth) dominating the best scenes, and the same characters as always (John, Jamie, and Beth again) dominating the worst ones.
Let’s start with Kayce, who’s been coming back into the storyline in a major way ever since he was named Livestock Commissioner. (Which raises the question: Why did the show’s creator/writer Taylor Sheridan keep Kayce away from the job in the first place? Did we need three episodes with Jamie as commish? But I digress …)
It’s Kayce who finally gets the cranky, Dutton-hating, buffalo-herding bastard to produce the papers he refused to show in the previous episode: the ones that show his cattle don’t have brucellosis. (Everybody sing: “Sweet home Alabama/ Play that dead band’s song …”) Still, the old coot does keep refusing to keep his buffalo from roaming close to the Yellowstone ranch, saying that according to the law it’s the Duttons’ and the livestock agents’ job to keep them out. Kayce nods at that, but warns, “You’re gonna hate the way I do it.”
Kayce also has a dramatic role to play in this episode’s main subplot. “All for Nothing” begins with a family on the reservation realizing their eldest daughter Sila is missing. Chief Rainwater asks Kayce for help with the search, and Kayce does two smart and sensitive things. First, he calls in every available livestock agent, and tells them to leave their weapons behind. (“We ain’t enforcing no laws today,” he says.) Second, he gets Monica to bring along everyone she can contact on the rez. It’s a true community operation, and indicative of the kind of strength and compassion Kayce can bring to this job.
Alas, the search doesn’t come to a good end. But even this failure fires up the chief, who tells Monica that he needs her to use her connections and position at the university to help with a council he’s forming, and to raise awareness about his plans to protect their land. They commiserate about what’s always been expected of them — “We’re supposed to learn to be white and live in cities.” — and they vow to use all the resources they have to “build lives they can’t take away.”
Standing in the way of this goal? Those wicked real-estate developers, backed by Roarke Morris’s Market Equities and its CEO Willa Hayes, played by Karen Pittman. Ms. Hayes visits Montana this week, somewhat irritated that the Duttons have been blocking her deal. (“Shoulda been” simple, Roarke sighs, to which Willa says, “‘Should’ is a useless word … almost as useless as ‘hope.’”) She complains directly to Jamie Dutton that it’s a conflict of interest for him to be serving as attorney general in an office that can approve or disapprove of seizing his family’s land. But she quickly finds out that he may be more amenable to their plans than any other Dutton.
Sure, Jamie huffs and puffs about the flaw in Providence Hospitality Group’s pitch for more jobs in Montana. He notes that if their ski resort plan goes the way these things usually do, then all the high-paying jobs will be filled with folks from out of state, while all the low-wage local workers won’t be able to afford housing. But then Willa quotes a price of half a billion dollars for the Duttons’ holdings, and Jamie gulps. Suddenly, he’s listening.
It doesn’t help that by the end of this episode Jamie’s on the outs with his family again. And I mean “doesn’t help” in two ways: in both the reality of the show itself, and in the experience of watching it.
Speaking strictly in terms of the narrative, here’s what happens in “All for Nothing:” Jamie gets his offer from Market Equities, right around the time Beth decides to tell her dad about how Jamie helped her procure an intentional abortion and an unintentional hysterectomy. It seems she can’t stand that John’s started to trust his son again, and can’t stand that Jamie’s never had to reckon with “the carnage” he leaves behind. (“You are evil,” she says to Jamie. “You know that. You have to know that.”) John, predictably — too predictably — flips out.
So it seems we’re back where we were when this series began, with the John/Jamie/Beth dynamic. The only difference is that Jamie now has the political power to strike back at his family if he so chooses. (My prediction: He so chooses.)
Frankly, this is frustrating to watch, for a variety of reasons — not least of which is that Wes Bentley’s acting skills aren’t really up to the challenge of playing the perpetually tortured, soul-sick son of a stubborn string-puller. Bentley’s good at low-key charm and sneaky machinations, not yelling and melancholy. He’s never convincing as the Duttons’ dark prince.
But as I mentioned last week, the bigger problem is that all the psychological motivations here are so simplistic and pat: the barren woman who can’t forgive; the aging patriarch with no clear legacy; and so on. It lacks imagination, and it lacks development. It all keeps leading back to the same place, season after season.
There’s still so much to enjoy about Yellowstone — like all the old-fashioned western hoop-de-doo — that it’s a shame the show’s more sour elements keep bubbling back up. They’re like a parasitic bacterial infection: chronic and incurable.
• Chief Rainwater speaks for all of us when he calls up Kayce and marvels that the words “Commissioner Dutton” can mean three different people in three different weeks.
• I remain resolutely uninterested in whatever nonsense is going on with the ranch hands, whose bunkhouse is now absolutely infested with barrel racers. (Even Lloyd is now smitten with one of these gals.) But I did love that the gang is now obsessed with “Guy on a Buffalo,” the now almost ten-year-old viral video sensation by the band The Possum Posse, where they put their songs behind footage from the godawful 1976 action-adventure docudrama Buffalo Rider.
• I’ve nitpicked enough, so here’s a nod toward a genuinely well-considered visual grace note in this episode: the “Committed to Those Who Serve … Always” military family T-shirt flapping on the clothesline outside the house of Sila’s mom. It’s never really remarked upon, but it’s a reminder of the imbalance of expectations, in a culture where the non-wealthy are counted on to give everything … to a country that feels little obligation to reciprocate.