Despite the sprawling TV empire, the most direct analogy for Taylor Sheridan’s work is not Shonda Rhimes or Dick Wolf. Sheridan is not the white Tyler Perry, either. The closest comparison point for Sheridan is West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin. In both of their conceptions, personal events are meant to illustrate relationships to institutions.
Sheridan’s shows’ desire to subvert institutions is as strong as Sorkin’s desire to reinforce them: In Yellowstone, the Duttons see government offices, the law, and the state as dials to manipulate in service of keeping the ranch; in Sorkin’s shows, pious West Wing thaw The Newsroom, Sorkin writes impassioned arguments for the state, for the media, for the Constitution itself. Sheridan seeks ambivalence, while Sorkin is after reverence. Both use the same instrument to play radically different tunes.
Yellowstone‘s fourth season ends with John Dutton issuing what can be understood as a thesis statement for the show. When a powerful corporation seeks to put an airport in the middle of his country, John responds by running for the governor’s office. In his announcement speech, he stoically announces that “there is a war being waged against our way of life. That is progress in today’s world.” Then, a warning: “If it’s progress you want, then don’t vote for me. I am the opposite of progress. I am the wall it bashes against. And I will not be the one who breaks.”
By the time the fifth season premieres, we see that the message has worked: Dutton is indeed the new governor. Deeply unconcerned by the way a traditional politician is supposed to operate, John issues a number of edicts meant to punish the people who see Montana as a second home or a vacation rental. When his eldest son, Jamie, objects by saying some of his dad’s policies will set the state back by 30 years, Beth retorts, “That’s a good start, the plan is to set it back a hundred.”
Sheridan has scoffed at the conception of Yellowstone as a “red state Succession,” and he’s right to do so. If Yellowstone is conservative, its conservatism is not a modern-day conservatism: Republicans are obsessed with identity politics and the free market. Yellowstone is explicitly anti-capitalist — the Duttons regularly turn down unfathomable sums of money and opportunities to become even richer. The show has a solid environmentalist bent, even if it occasionally condescends to the environmental movement (one subplot makes fun of animal welfare protesters for not understanding the intimate relationship between ranchers and animal welfare).
Yellowstone also does not shy away from supporting its Native characters in their goals of self-liberation. Kayce’s wife, Monica, takes an active role in baiting the white men preying on Native women; Chief Thomas Rainwater (Gil Birmingham) wants the land back, and is willing to do what he needs to get it. The show has been praised for its three-dimensional representations of Native Americans in story (if not necessarily in casting). There’s plenty of room in the Dutton version of Montana for Black cowboys and both good and evil Native Americans. Racial diversity is not a threat in the Montana of Yellowstone.
Whether Yellowstone is a “conservative” show or not isn’t a particularly interesting question. The push and pull over who owns land and who is trying to take it away, and what the land is for, is as urgent today as it was 200 years ago, and Yellowstone explores that deftly.
The real threats are the outsiders who want to change the country. In the show’s pilot, on a routine visit to an ice cream shop, Kayce tells his son that the transplants “sure can make ice cream.” When the child asks what a transplant is, Kayce grimly replies, “It’s a person who moves to a place, and then they try to make that place just like the place they left.” For the young boy, this doesn’t compute. “That doesn’t make sense,” he replies. “Not one bit,” Kayce affirms.