‘Yellowstone’ Season 2: Kevin Costner Still Commands the Land While Vendettas Fester

Paramount’s “Yellowstone” returns for a second season where the scope of a western combines with the red-blooded feelings of American melodrama. Drama in the way family feuds, rugged characters and greed swirl at the center of its storylines. Kevin Costner has mastered the look of a frontier power player, rarely breaking his intense stare, even when he needs urgent medical attention. While other rich patriarchs on TV scheme in fancy suits, Costner’s is just as ruthless in a Stetson. Back on production writing duty is Taylor Sheridan, who in his film and television work knows how to keep the classic sensibilities of a western while updating them.

John Dutton (Costner) has held off his enemies for now and still runs Dutton Ranch, still the biggest one in Montana, bordering, you know it, Yellowstone National Park. While arch nemesis Dan Jenkins (Danny Huston) is laying low, while vowing to still one day take Yellowstone, for now Dutton can focus on other basic matters like rounding up a herd of cattle worth $100,000. A stranger calling himself Cowboy (Steven Williams) arrives, asking for work while trekking for Arizona. Back in the city estranged Dutton Jamie (Wes Bentley) is still shacked up with his hipster girlfriend while planning to go for state Attorney General. But Dutton and daughter Beth (Kelly Reilly) have other plans, like finding a pretty blonde to run against Jamie. Beth is also concocting a real estate scheme to provide added financial protection to Yellowstone. Kayce (Luke Grimes) is still loyal to the clan, even if he gets rebellious with big ranch hand Rip Wheeler (Cole Hauser). Meanwhile his ex, Monica (Kelsey Asbille) has decided she might take up the local university’s offer to teach a Native American Studies course. Speaking about Native Americans, Thomas Rainwater (Gil Birmingham) is still trying push an ambitious casino plan on the tribal council, whereby the casino is built miles away in land the tribe can then annex. But the greed raises more suspicion than support.

Most season premieres function as recaps instead of major plot developers, but “Yellowstone” slightly breaks with tradition. The second season’s first chapter, “A Thundering,” spends most of its time catching up with everyone without lingering too much on the events of the last round. This hour likes to spend time on the ranch, with the new guy, Cowboy, and the other ranch hands as they drink, throw chummy insults and dare each other to do outdoorsman things. Cowboy particularly likes to rile everyone up by boasting about his experience and big cojones. These scenes are pure western chic, pumped with testosterone as Rip warns Cowboy about who he should try to fight. It all culminates in two entertainingly rowdy scenes. One where the guys play “cowboy poker,” meaning they sit around a table in the middle of a stable as a bull is let loose. Avery (Tanaya Beatty) turns out to be the toughest of the gang, which doesn’t escape Rip’s attention after he kicks everyone out. But when the weekend revelry moves to a bar a brawl erupts after a guy interrupts what was turning into a meaningful conversation between Avery and Jimmy (Jefferson White). You don’t touch Dutton’s people so Rip makes his way to the bar with backup to bash faces and take names, while letting the previously mentioned bull loose into the establishment. Kayce even opines he might burn the place down next time. Does this sort of thing really happen out in rural Montana? Who cares? It makes for great TV.

When the cowboys aren’t trading blows the other story developments have a more engagingly human touch. Monica decides to take the university job, but when the dean tells her the spot won’t be available for another semester she agrees to teach a history course for now, as long as she’s allowed to discuss Columbus honestly (as the person who introduced genocide to the Americas). She still seems to have feelings for Kayce, but remains afraid of him turning into his father. An early scene with Jamie has visual symbolism in how he goes to a city coffee shop, orders coffee and shocks the cashier by drinking it boiling hot. You can’t take the ranch out of the man. Much of what’s essential in terms of plot is kept low key but with an air of danger. Beth describes a shady real estate plot to a potential rich backer over drinks, using seductive language like a weapon. Later Dutton will share a booth with Jenkins, both men threatening each other with the courtesy of older men and old foes, nothing more is needed than a sip of the cup and Costner exiting the room to give the scene real tension. Costner continues to play Dutton with the ease of a man so used to his authority that he doesn’t need to flaunt it.

It’s in the final minutes that everything turns into a bloody twist as Dutton collapses at the ranch, spitting blood. He’s hauled into a medical room where a ranch doctor reveals he has a ruptured ulcer. She has no choice but to cauterize the wound, and of course there’s no anesthetic (for humans anyway), but Dutton just takes the pain as they slice him open and deal with the problem before a helicopter takes him to a hospital. Like the great ending to a novel’s chapter, “A Thundering” closes on this bloody note, promising a season worth weekly devotion.

When it premiered last year “Yellowstone” joined the new batch of shows fascinated by powerful patriarchs lording over wealthy families. But because it’s overseen by Sheridan, a skilled writer of great western-like films like “Hell or High Water” and “Sicario,” “Yellowstone” also has a classic scope to its style. It’s as grand as Montana’s wide and open plains, and as entertaining as any good old campfire tale.

Yellowstone” season two premieres June 19 and airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET on Paramount.