‘Yellowstone’ Season 4 Raises the Stakes as the Dutton Family Face Real Peril

Yellowstone” wastes no time in riding into season four with all guns ablaze. There’s a breathless quality to the style of this TV Western. Its images are dynamic, the dialogue drips with rugged melodrama, and it never fears blatantly presenting allegories about American greed. How quickly it has now reached the fourth season mark, when lesser shows start to show some rust. The secret to this one is that it never stops feeling like something more aged and classic. Episodes have a sweeping and grand quality mixed with all of the modern thriller elements. What this new round does skillfully is raise the stakes, taking the plot somewhere new and more intense, without choosing any ridiculously bad avenues.

Fittingly, two episodes open the season in grand fashion. “Half the Money” and “Phantom Pain” find the mighty Dutton clan enduring a furious assault. A clandestine militia has carried out an attack on multiple fronts. Yellowstone ranch patriarch John Dutton (Kevin Costner) is shot and dumped on the side of a road, only to be saved by Rip (Cole Hauser). Beth (Kelly Reilly) just barely survives a bombing that leaves her back scarred. Kayce (Luke Grimes) comes under fire from masked gunmen and fires his way out of the ambush. Even Monica (Kelsey Asbille) survives an assault by a masked assassin at a Yellowstone bunkhouse before son Tate (Brecken Merrill) blows him away. When the smoke clears Dutton is in the hospital and Rip returns to the ranch, finding that his home has been burned down. Jimmy (Jefferson White) is left in bad shape after a horse knocked him off during a scuffle. Nothing takes John Dutton down and as he pulls himself out of the hospital bed, he plans to find out who did this and crush them. There are multiple suspects, from corporate interests that want the Dutton land, to angry Native Americans, to Beth’s top suspect, sibling Jamie (Wes Bentley), who left the family business for politics.

Turning up the heat in the plot has a lot of risks in a show like “Yellowstone.” If you go too over the top the entire story can go off the rails. Still running the series is Taylor Sheridan, the successful screenwriter who has an obvious, keen understanding of what makes a good melodrama and Western. After fully establishing the Duttons as a horse-riding version of “Succession,” Sheridan and co-showrunner John Linson now use an old but efficient plot tool of shaking up the protagonists’ world. The last three seasons opened with the Yellowstone clan fighting but secure. Now their safety is threatened. “Half the Money” is a riveting opener with slick action sequences and a feeling of sheer peril. We’re so used to seeing Kevin Costner as the regal patriarch, his gaze always surveying the land, that it’s a shocker to find him dumped on a road, bleeding. 

What Sheridan and Linson do wisely is not make all of the season premiere about violence. After the shootings and burnings, it all settles down into reflective drama mixed with cryptic clues. Jamie swears his innocence to Beth. He’s too busy wanting to start buying his own large swath of land and break away from the Yellowstone shadow. Over at the local casino, Chief Thomas Rainwater (Gil Birmingham) is obviously not involved in the hit on the Duttons. After a loudmouth brags about supposedly being one of the shooters while playing at the casino, Rainwater tells Mo (Mo Brings Plenty) to get some answers. He warns that whoever wants the Duttons’ land will come after Native American territory next. The show then plants the seeds for a wider, historical arc as it goes back in time to the 1880s and a scene plays out where a Dutton ancestor, played by country star Tim McGraw , riding with two young boys, allows a local indigenous tribe to bury one of their dead and camp on the land. How this develops later into the narrative remains to be seen, and it could also connect to Sheridan’s upcoming prequel series, “1883,” premiering next month on Paramount Plus. 

Beth has the most intriguing emotional development as a character in the first two episodes of the season. While visiting Dutton at the hospital, she happens to meet a 14-year-old boy named Carter (Finn Little), whose father is dying inside from drug use. An ensuing scene proves this series is capable of real, raw drama when Beth tells Carter to express what he truly feels to his dying father and the boy lets out an angry, honest torrent, sending him to hell. Carter also signals a new chapter for Rip when Carter gets arrested for shoplifting and claims Beth is his guardian. When cops drop him off at the Dutton ranch, Beth instantly wants to take the boy in while Rip throws a temper tantrum. Yet beneath the rough exterior is a boy who was taken in by John Dutton years ago, so Rip gives Carter a chance with a job offer to clean the stables. This is all recognizable TV cheese, but a welcome departure for a few minutes from all the blood and vendettas. We are used to seeing Beth as the ruthless operator who is proud of her femininity and is as tough as any man. But taking in Carter also reveals a tender side Kelly Reilly doesn’t overplay. She does have some required Beth moments, like telling her former corporate partners she will destroy them and warning Jamie she will kill him. There are plenty of Rip moments as well, including killing an interloper with a rattlesnake attack. You also can’t have a “Yellowstone” season without a scene of Rip and Beth exchanging dramatic lines in bed, before making love in a scene Louis L’Amour could have written. John Dutton also provides a meditative subplot by refusing to be confined to bed, insisting he can heal best by riding, dipping into a hot spring and staying mobile. “When you stop moving, it’s over,” is what he warns Kayce.

Coursing beneath the story are also Sheridan’s trademark references to modern America. The Duttons are an old-school landowning family suddenly thrust into a gentrifying world. Even Thomas Rainwater faces a major offer from corporate villains Market Equities, to fund the building of his new casino and resort, if he agrees they are designed to cater to specific, non-local demographics you can charge $1,000 a night for a room. It is such interests that were probably behind the big attack on the Dutton family. The patriarch decides to turn his estate into a brand as well, but in his own way, using a hot shot rodeo star to build a team so when people think of horse riding, they will think of Yellowstone. It all makes for a deliriously entertaining expansion of the show’s world. “Yellowstone” has not lost its stride going into its fourth season, still driven by the awareness that greed is as dangerous today as in the Old West.

Yellowstone” season four premieres Nov. 7 and airs Sundays at 8 p.m. ET on Paramount.