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Season 4 of ‘Yellowstone’ Ends on a Simmer

Things on the ranch remained relatively sweet—an engagement AND a marriage?!—as the wildest show on TV presumably loads up for more fireworks down the dirt road

Paramount Network/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Season 4 of Yellowstone probably wasn’t what many expected it to be. But in retrospect, there was no way these 10 episodes could live up to the final minutes of Season 3, a finale that tore across our screens with no fewer than four “Wow, did this super-beloved character really just die?” cliff-hangers. When John, Kayce, Beth, and Jimmy were all confirmed alive within the first 10 minutes of Season 4, a sinking feeling of being toyed with began to set in. Are the Duttons (and by extension their servant, Jimmy) superheroes? Immortal? Too big to fail? Will this world ever demand consequences for anyone that matters? Does it not have the requisite will to go for the jugular? And leaving aside my bloodlust, the finale of the previous season seemed to work toward a massive reordering of the chessboard: Roarke and Market Equities, the Broken Rock Reservation (at the urging of Angela Blue Thunder), and Jamie’s newly revealed biological father, Garrett Randall, were now all in the hideous mix, leaving the Duttons in the face of multiple existential threats.

These dire, multipronged showdowns seemed primed to take the series’ goofy ethos (which made it a super enjoyable and audacious ride, even to tenderfoot Californians like me) to an epic breaking point, but ultimately, the end result was underwhelming. The Broken Rock Reservation hardly played a part in Season 4, save for just sort of helping out from time to time with this or that. Mo Brings Plenty, one of the most intriguing characters on the show up to this point, was reduced to being the wise Native who explains to Kayce the importance of vision quests and wolves. Thomas Rainwater, the formidable and respected adversary to the Dutton Crime Family, has been a ghost all season.

What did we actually get? More B-roll of cows and horse tricks than usual. Tim McGraw cameos. A guitar being smashed. A wisecracking orphan with a heart of gold subplot nobody asked for. Sure, Roarke got bit by an angry snake and Garrett Randall will no longer be around to say chilling things at the breakfast table, but everything sort of feels … exactly the same. The wildness of the show, its verve and zest, was put on a simmer setting this season. Except in regards to Beth, of course. Beth was turned up to 11. If you love you some Beth Dutton, Season 4 of Yellowstone was probably the best thing you’ve ever seen.

Without further ado, the final numbers …

<1: Days Since John Implied Beth Should Find a New Place to Live

Rip finds Beth packing in the middle of the night, still extremely bummed out due to the revelation that her dad is finally disappointed in her, the proximate cause being Beth’s amoral (and unrepentant) manipulation of Summer (and probably other things). Rip deploys an even-keeled pep talk that forces Beth to reconsider bouncing from the ranch in the dead of night. She chooses to confront her father (who had been sleeping, which, come on, Beth, that’s just rude).

Beth, in her own way, apologizes. That is to say, she says sorry without ever saying she was in the wrong. John Dutton, who never seemed to care what his famously ruthless daughter did, is suddenly very preoccupied with waging war the right way, with an emphasis on reducing collateral damage (in this case, a woman he recently got down with). Beth promises to do it his way from now on. John tells her that the ranch is her home, which is interesting, because roughly five minutes before, he essentially told her to get the hell out.

10: Episodes It Took for Carter to Call Beth “Mom”

Beth is walking through the stables in the morning and Carter, doing his horse-related chores, cheerfully says, “Morning, Mama.” Beth responds “Hey, baby.” And you know, after that she could have kept walking and not ruined Carter’s entire day, but Beth is a proponent of the doctrine of “a man must have a code” and her code is to be the Bethest Beth she can be at any given moment. A look of anguish flashes across her face as she realizes what she’s about to do. It isn’t that she doesn’t care for Carter. And it’s not that she is a pedant. It’s that she can’t have this child thinking of her as “Mom” because she isn’t and won’t ever be a mother. Beth hasn’t been able to move past her hysterectomy trauma. Considering that, and all the guilt she feels due to her part in her own mother’s death, you are better off not saying the “M” word around Beth for the next 50 or 60 years. Poor Carter, though. He didn’t know about all that. All he knows is Beth will never consider him a son.

“Crying doesn’t help,” Beth says to him, as he cries.

Oh, then she asks Walker how to sneak a weapon into prison so she can kill a guy. Classic Beth.

MQ7-L366: Jimmy’s License Plate Number

Jimmy triumphantly returns to the Yellowstone, finding his old compatriots in the Bunkhouse in the midst of a contentious but nonetheless very giggly game of poker. Jimmy happens to show up just as his former flame Mia (with whom he has somewhat unfinished business) impressively wins the last hand. That victory is Mia’s only victory of the episode, and perhaps of the season, and perhaps of the series. Mia has been set up to fail. Still, she seems genuinely excited to see her former beau, until Jimmy introduces Emily to the Bunkhouse as his new fiancée (!!!) and the vibe mutates into Golden Age Jerry Springer.

“That’s gonna go over like a fart in church,” Jake (I finally learned this particular cowboy’s name, please clap) muses before Mia and Emily start battering the hell out of each other. Well, first Mia punches Jimmy, which, fair—he just blindsided her in front of all their mutuals. But this quickly morphs into a “Who loves Jimmy more?” fistfight—not the scenario most longtime viewers of the show would have predicted.

Jimmy objects to these two women he cares about beating the shit out of each other, but he’s pretty slow to actually do anything about it. He finally drags Mia out of the Bunkhouse, at which point Emily endears herself to all of Mia’s friends in about 20 seconds by helping herself to whiskey and potato chips and just being generally unflappable. Though I am admittedly Team Emily, it’s kind of a sad end for Mia, who never got to enjoy this fully formed, confident version of Jimmy.

75: Years Until Jimmy Can Get Married to Emily

This horrible confrontation is immediately followed by Jimmy showing John Dutton the stallion the 6666 delivered to him, Metallic Cat. We see again that Jimmy’s mannerisms are so clearly different. The gangly well-meaning dork is dead and gone, and a new (albeit still gangly) cowboy has taken his place. He calls people “sir” and “ma’am” and nods meaningfully. He’s been through the crucible (again, largely off-screen!) and transformed into someone others no longer consider a joke. Also, despite the fact that he’s been in Texas for less than an entire season of television, he’s already a Texas chili snob, loudly telling one and all that if you put beans in chili, it is, by definition, no longer chili. I love when food takes trickle down to the Yellowstone.

Anyway, Jimmy assures John Dutton he’ll stay with him until he works off his debt, and then he’ll get married. John jokes about the wedding being in 75 years, because apparently Jimmy’s debt has accrued interest. But in keeping with John Dutton’s post-getting-blasted-by-militia-guns magnanimity, he cancels that debt. He tells Jimmy to go or to stay, to do whatever he wants, but that he no longer owes him anything. From what I can tell, this is entirely due to Jimmy seeming like someone who has it together, but whatever, it works. Run, Jimmy! Run to a place that won’t literally scar you for life!

1st: Born Son

Oh boy, here we go. Deep cut. Kayce is shivering and going through hell on his harrowing vision quest, and who should appear in his mind’s eye but his eldest brother, Lee Dutton, who was killed all the way back in the waning moments of the very first episode of the show. Lee is wearing the Livestock Agent bulletproof vest he died in. Kayce’s smile is vast. He misses big bro. Lee was the simple Dutton child. Just the guy doing his job. Not Kayce, the war criminal. Not Jamie, the ambitious dissembler. Not Beth, the pitiless whirlwind.

But of course, this is a vision and Lee is not Lee! “Lee” insistently attempts to penetrate Kayce’s prayer circle. Kayce refuses. Shadow Lee starts screaming un-chill stuff and bleeding from the mouth, revealing himself to be the sort of trickster (the Coyote) that Mo Brings Plenty warned Kayce about. Soon after, a manifestation of Avery soothes Kayce by spirit-smooching him, and then disappearing.

Then he sees a young Native American woman who might also be the Wolf (his spirit guide/protector) and follows her to a fork in the ol’ destiny road. He’s overwhelmed.

Later, he is back at home with Monica, who asks, “What did you see?”

“I saw the end of us,” Kayce responds, darkly. The end of you two or the end of us? Clarify, Kayce!

10: Dollars per Conjugal Visit

Beth is studying up on the rules and bylaws of conjugal visits in prison when her Market Equities boss, Caroline Warner (Jacki Weaver), storms in to give her a piece of her mind.

“I gave you enough rope to hang yourself,” she informs Beth in an exasperated huff. Caroline promises her that all of Beth’s tricky machinations have earned her an enemy for life (Caroline, obv), and that she will devote millions and millions of dollars to destroying her. She makes it personal, promising her that she will build a public restroom where Beth’s house is. It’s all very funny because, well, we all have just one question for Caroline Warner, the badass business genius: Why’d you hire BETH DUTTON in the first place?

15: Years on a Suspended Sentence

John Dutton pays a visit to the presiding judge of Summer’s case. It’s clear they’re old buddies. But the Honorable Mitch Davis (Pat Skipper) is a fellow who takes jurisprudence very seriously, to the detriment of compassion or common sense or optics. John tries to appeal to the man’s empathy, admitting that yes, Summer is a bit of a knucklehead, but still a good person with noble intentions whose crime in this situation ultimately amounted to shoving an adult man who happened to be a cop. This old-school judge seems determined to punish her not just for her most recent crime, but also for past misdeeds.

And that’s exactly what he does, after some theatrical yapping about the erosion of the rule of law or whatever, performatively handing down a crushing sentence of roughly 40 years. Summer is understandably confused and shell-shocked, watching her life get snatched from her by a guy who clearly got dumped by a vegan at some point in his life.

6: The Room in Which Riggins Was Supposed to Get His Conjugal Visit

Riggins, the burly convict that Garrett Randall hired to obliterate the Duttons in a hail of bullets and explosions, is led to a room by prison guards telling him he’s on his way to a conjugal visit. Riggins is like, “huh whaaaa?” Doesn’t it seem weird that someone would be allowed to arrange a conjugal visit without the actual inmate having any knowledge of it?

In any case, he meets Beth, who’s there to seduce and then murder him. But it isn’t long before Riggins’s confused vibe leads Beth to pursue other avenues, and it isn’t long before Beth figures out that her least favorite brother (person) Jamie had already spoken to Riggins. So instead, Beth proceeds to drop a fire verse about how Riggins is a bad person who will hopefully suffer for a long time and die alone in prison. Honestly, he probably already knew that?

1: Kidnapped Priest

Beth and Rip throw a surprise wedding, and all it takes to make it legal is one kidnapped priest (Jim True-Frost, also known as Mr. Prezbo from The Wire). It’s a small affair, and aside from the happy couple, only John (father of the bride), Lloyd (best man), and Carter (stall cleaner) are present. Still, this union has been a long time coming. Rip finally gets to slip the ring he pulled off his mother’s excavated corpse onto Beth’s finger. I love love.

3: Options Beth Gives to Jamie

Beth confronts Jamie at his office. This scene is a much-needed reminder of something we forget only 1 percent of the time: Man, Beth hates Jamie.

She wriggles out that Jamie knew his “real” dad was behind the multiple hits against their family. And holding all the dang cards, Beth gives Jamie three options:

  1. Beth will tell John Dutton about all this (certain death for Jamie).
  2. Beth will tell Rip what Garrett did to the family and what Jamie did to her back in the day (super certain death for Jamie). Or …
  3. Well, dang, what could it be???

60: Years of Hell Garrett Randall Endured

After that horrible, emasculating encounter with Beth, Jamie returns to his new home and finds his “real” dad, Garrett Randall, relaxing, staring at a creek and considering his future. It sounds like he has plans to wander the Earth and get into various adventures. As always, and who knows if this is more emotional manipulation or if he’s genuinely an overly sentimental guy, Garrett tells Jamie that 60 of his 61 years were spent in hell. Only this last year, the year he and Jamie became pals, was worth a damn. He tells his son, in his signature laconic drawl, that he loves him. Jamie then reciprocates that exact sentiment and uh oh, shoots him in the head. Yeah, Jamie just shot and killed his biological father with no warning. We’ve all been there!

To say this arc felt unsatisfying is an understatement. Jamie being torn between two immovable and/or unstoppable forces was the meat of the entire season—or rather, it should have been the meat. Garrett Randall was responsible for the attempted assassination of the entire Dutton clan, an event that should’ve reverberated longer than the first two episodes of Season 4. This was Jamie’s moment to take center stage, and make a choice. Instead, Jamie shoots his father merely to save his own skin. Speaking as someone who wants Jamie to succeed, there is probably some justification for John Dutton’s assessment of Jamie in this episode: “He is a disappointment and my greatest failure.”

The emotional heft of Jamie’s entire arc—more so after the introduction of his biological father—was his one chance to chart his own destiny; to determine which Bad Dad he’d grant his fealty to: the creepy, evil one who says nice things to him or the emotionally neglectful dickhead who never respected him. This is dramatic stuff! Not Shakespeare, but maybe Marlowe?

But, in the end, it was just Beth giving Jamie no options, which abruptly unraveled this season-long thread. The extent to which Jamie goes full Reek is the last unanswered question in Jamie’s story line.

A Yellowstone Postscript

Every great (or cool, at least) show has a “worst” season. I’m not prepared to say this was the worst season of Yellowstone. I just hope it is! The narrative ambition and pluck are still there, shyly waiting in the wings. Most of the characters are solid and worth supporting, or at least following. But this season felt like a missed opportunity. Then again, it could be all part of the grand design, an intentional sedate interregnum before the story goes hog wild again. This could just be the backdoor pilot of Taylor Sheridan’s next installment in his extended TV universe—a half-hour black comedy about a sad guy reviewing Yellowstone by the numbers.

Alex Siquig lives in Baltimore, drinks MD 20/20, and writes about things like Game of Thrones, the Willennium, and the life of Doug Funnie.