Predictable Plotlines

Spoiler alert: This post will discuss events occurring on episode 5 and earlier episodes of 1883.

We’ve been enjoying 1883, the prequel (by about 140 years or so) to Yellowstone. The most recent episode, however, had one of those plotline developments that you could see coming from a mile away.

1883 follows the story of the Dutton clan. The show begins as they arrive in Texas, ready to head north to Oregon territory. The Dutton family includes flinty-eyed, hard-as-nails father James Dutton, equally tough mother Margaret Dutton, young son John, and daughter Elsa Dutton, shown above upon her arrival, who is ready to take it all in. The Duttons join a ragtag band of hapless German and Eastern European settlers who will form the wagon train, led by Sam Elliott and his faithful lieutenant LaMonica Garrett, that heads north for Oregon and into danger.

Young Elsa narrates the show–a device that I personally find annoying, frankly–and displays more naive, wide-eyed wonder than you might expect from a young woman or that era. She gets to experience the personal freedom of the old West, ditches her dress for pants and becomes a kind of cowhand who helps to move the herd accompanying the settlers, is dazzled by the land, develops a love interest in cowpoke Ennis, goes on and on about her first kisses with him, and finally can resist the primal urges no longer and has her first intimate encounter with Ennis at the edge of the camp.

At that point, we knew poor Ennis was dead meat. And sure enough, only a few scenes later and thanks to the handy arrival of bandits, poor Ennis gets shot and killed, Elsa’s heart is broken, and she presumably will lose her rose-colored narration forever.

1883 is one of those shows, like Lonesome Dove, that hits you over the head with incident after incident that shows that the old West was a violent, deadly place. Already we’ve seen multiple shootings, smallpox deaths, an attempted rape, dysentery, theft, bandit attacks, a suicide, drownings in river crossings, and clueless German settlers bitten on the butt by rattlers as they’ve answered the call of nature –and we know an Indian attack is coming, too. But none of those prior events really dented Elsa’s doe-eyed sense of innocent wonder about the world, and the viewer knows that if she’s going to make it she needs to become a tough and worldly as her parents. And that’s why poor Ennis, who was a very likeable character, clearly had to go, and why viewers like us could see it coming.

Predictability in storylines isn’t necessarily a bad thing. When you get readers, or viewers, interested enough to be thinking about what’s going to happen you can be pretty sure that you’ve got them hooked. Now that Elsa has had her brutal firsthand experience with the terrible realities of life, she’ll be changed forever. We can only hope that we get a little bit less of the voiceover narration in the bargain.

Redefining Sniveling

Kish and I finished watching season 4 of Yellowstone earlier this week. It was an interesting season, full of curious twists and turns. And once again we got to see that Wyoming, just across the border from Montana, is a convenient dumping ground for the human debris created by the outsized antics of the Dutton clan.

I won’t discuss the plot developments, so as not to spoil surprises for those who haven’t yet caught up on the season, but I do want to comment on the development of the characters. Beth Dutton continues to push the envelope of unbelievably risky and outrageous behavior far beyond the breaking point. Rip Wheeler showed more hints of an actual human being underneath his hardest of the hard asses veneer. Kayce seems adrift, and John Dutton is always full of surprises.

But the character whose development has been the most striking is Jamie Dutton. At the start of the first season, Jamie was the tough, high-powered lawyer who could use the law to crush the family’s opponents. By the end of season four, Jamie has become one of the most sniveling, craven, and contemptible characters in the history of television, easily manipulated by everyone he talks to and bereft of any personal courage or integrity. He’s kind of like Frank Burns from M*A*S*H transplanted to the mountains of Montana, with a constant pathetic and frequently befuddled expression on his face, his chin quivering and looking as if he is ready to burst into tears at any moment. Just as Beth Dutton is plowing new ground in outrageousness, Jamie is marking out new territory in abject spinelessness.

As a lawyer myself, I hate to see a fictional lawyer reduced to a trembling tower of jello–but as a viewer I have to admit I find Jamie’s pusillanimous descent makes for interesting TV. Kudos to the writers and actor Wes Bentley for presenting this fascinating cowardly lion in full flower.

Yellowstone

We just finished the three seasons of Yellowstone, a drama about the grossly dysfunctional Dutton clan. The Duttons fight with each other and everybody else who is trying to take away or break apart their beautiful and enormous ranch, Yellowstone, located close to the national park of the same name. Kevin Costner plays John Dutton, the tough, gravel-voiced head of the family who is both hated and revered and who always seems to have a plan to hold the ranch together.

This is a show that seemed to take a while to find its legs, but eventually it sank its teeth into us at some point in season two. The Dutton family back story is filled with death and horror, and all of the members — father John, kids Cayce, Beth, and Jamie, and head hand Rip Wheeler and his cowboy crew — have a terrible dark side. They look good riding horses, wearing cowboy hats, and standing in front of some of the most stunning countryside you’re likely to find in America, but they’re also ready to ruin you or kill you at the drop of a Stetson. If watching people get shot or hung bothers you, this is not the show for you.

In fact, after a few episodes you’ll wonder just how many dead bodies are buried in those magnificent meadows and mountainsides, and whether every person in Montana is a soulless killer. And nobody seems all that troubled by casual murders, either, including normal law enforcement and the livestock police that the Dutton clan controls. Add in the fact that some members of the family hate each other with a withering contempt, a neighboring Native American community would love to take the Yellowstone ranch and return it to the way it was before the Duttons took it 150 years ago, and greedy developers and fellow ranchers who don’t mind pushing the legal envelope themselves want desperately to turn that gorgeous countryside into Casino McMansionland, and you’ve got a pretty combustible mix.

Kevin Costner is good as the formidable head of the family — you might call him Don Vito Dutton — who shows his tender side in his interaction with his grandson Tate but won’t hesitate to do what is necessary to preserve the family legacy. Other characters also show their tender sides from time to time, but don’t let that fool you — the next death is only moments away. Our favorite characters are the ever-wide-eyed Tate, played by Brecken Merrill, who is the only true innocent in the whole show, and Beth, played by Kelly Reilly, the outrageous, insult-ready, tough-as-nails daughter who will stop at nothing to protect her Dad, but who is wrestling with her own set of demons.

We’re looking forward to season four and more exposure to that beautiful Montana scenery. Yellowstone makes us want to get back to Big Sky Country in person, but if we go we’ll be bringing along our own bulletproof vests–and we’re not going to be stopping on any dusty roads, either.