Yellowstone Recap: Survival of the Unfittest


Yellowstone Recap: Survival of the Unfittest

And just like that, the momentum is lost. After last week, I hoped season five was off to the races, finally escalating the stagnant Jamie-Beth war and developing Sarah Atwood, the new corporate shark tasked with taking down the Duttons on behalf of Market Equities. But besides a brief scene showing that Sarah’s seduction of Jamie is continuing with barely any resistance, “Watch ‘Em Ride Away” takes a step back from the major conflicts of the season.

To its credit, at least it’s a relatively focused episode, bookended by two scenes that take place decades apart but share a setting: an early morning on the ranch, as John and the ranch hands prepare to leave for the spring gathering of cattle. Still, you get the feeling that this is just the first part of a two- or three-episode arc, delaying the actual branding we’ve been teased for weeks now. This is primarily a setup episode, meant to gather most of the Dutton family at the ranch for the final leg of this half-season.

It does that competently enough, building up the branding as a long-held tradition at the ranch and showing what being present means to all the characters. For John, it’s a way of getting away from the constant politicking and overthinking that comes with being governor, a way of reminding himself where his true home is. But it also does serve a political purpose; not only will he get to knock out a bunch of meetings in one afternoon, but he’ll be exposing the state to the lifestyle he and his family are working hard to keep alive. “No one knows what the hell we do anymore,” John tells Rip, another man deeply passionate about preserving the only way of life he’s known.

There’s a more personal meaning for Kayce, Monica, and Tate, who treat a week at the ranch as a break from the monotony of their recent suffering, a way to begin moving on. Beth, on the other hand, has always been excluded from these traditions, which motivates her to tag along in the present. I always like seeing Beth be more integrated into the ranch drama — I enjoyed her excursion to Bozeman with the ranch hands a couple weeks back — so this is all promising for next week, though I couldn’t help wishing this one would cut to the chase.

But where we really run into problems is with Summer Higgins, who sort of becomes the main character of this episode. There’s no better way to say this: Summer just isn’t a good character. She wasn’t last year, but she’s especially not this year. She’s basically just a parody of out-of-touch city-dwelling progressives: a vegan who talks nonstop about being vegan and thinks any form of animal hunting is unethical, a woman who openly expresses contempt for the very people taking her in. It’s not Piper Perabo’s fault that Summer’s dialogue sounds calculated to be as annoying as possible; it’s the writing that makes her the most relentlessly irritating character I’ve seen on TV since Che Diaz in And Just Like That. Just look at her interaction with Carter, in which she smarmily tells the kid that it’s nature that puts out fires, not God. Who does that?

What’s frustrating about Summer’s presence is that she’s supposed to be here to teach John something about stepping outside his myopic way of thinking, or at least to teach him how to think like his enemies. But we haven’t seen that at all yet. I’m not expecting Summer to flip John blue or anything, but narratively speaking, she should offer him something besides sex in exchange for commuting her sentence. Instead, all we’ve seen is John teaching Summer how to be more open-minded.

That’s been the case since her first trip to the ranch in season four, but it reaches its peak here as Summer witnesses the family’s oldest traditions in action. Offered a spot in the spring gathering, she snaps, “Do I want to sit on the back of an animal you broke into submission, to gather animals you plan to harass and imprison before you mutilate their bodies?” It prompts a lesson from John about how brutality is necessary to keep people safe and improve life, like in circumcisions(?). So for the second time of the episode — but certainly not the last — Summer learns a lesson about her own naiveté. (The scene really isn’t much different from their first scene together, when John pointed out her “hypocrisy” over caring about cows but not mice or worms.)

At a supremely awkward family dinner, Summer repeatedly reacts with shock and outrage at the various meats Gator brings out for dinner, triggering an amusing fit of laughter from the normally dour Monica. It ends the only way this could’ve ended: with Beth taking her outside to beat the shit out of her. (Even Summer’s jujitsu training becomes another source of ridicule, as if Beth’s natural skills are more “real” because she got them from fighting her brothers.) They each get in some good licks, and Rip plays good referee, suggesting they trade punches until one of them yields. As predicted, Summer backs down after a few brutal hits — and oddly enough, it seems like Beth actually develops a morsel of affection for her.

It’s a decent ending, I suppose, putting a (probably temporary) end to Beth’s long crusade to fuck Summer over. But Taylor Sheridan goes overboard, as he always does with Summer: not only does she entertain another explanation from Beth about how human bodies are designed to eat meat, but she says “fuck it” and eats potatoes with real butter, violating her sacred vegan vows. And based on the end of the episode, the de-Portlandification of Summer Higgins will probably continue in the coming weeks; Summer’s going to be mostly alone at the lodge, so Beth suggests she take a long walk in order to understand them better.

I’m not against Summer learning to appreciate ranch living, especially if it means she becomes less of a caricature. (That’s probably necessary if she’s going to remain a fixture of this show.) But I also think it’s disappointing that she’s repeatedly asked to compromise her own values (as hollow as the script makes them) while John carries on doing whatever he wants. John is a fairly static character, all things considered, and I’ve been used to that since season one. But it’s frustrating when a new story line teases a new path for him without committing to it — and when a character who should really shake up the show instead just becomes its ultimate straw man.

The Last Round-Up

• Carter Corner: If Carter had spent more time with Summer growing up, you know she wouldn’t have let him believe in Santa Claus for a second.

• I don’t really get why Beth is still so fixated on her past with Rip specifically, going back to her odd, weepy apology to him in the premiere. Is the character of Rowdy significant in some way? Why do we keep seeing him in flashbacks?