Horses in Heaven
That’s how it goes. After a slow start to season five, it feels like “Horses in Heaven.” productive. There is a plot that happens in a few different corners of the story. And one of the show’s most important relationships — one that’s been caught in a holding pattern for perhaps the entire series — begins to change.
I mean, of course, Beth and Jamie. It was always hard to tell who Yellowstone he wants us to support them in their struggles. On the one hand, Jamie’s killing of a reporter in season two earns him the distinction of “worse person”; season three seems to confirm that, with the revelation that he unknowingly took Beth to be sterilized as a teenager. On the other hand, Jamie’s biggest mistakes usually come from his weakness and cowardice, not actual malice. Despite the show’s occasional missteps, he has a vulnerability that makes him tolerable. Plus, there’s always been confusion about how much we should blame Jamie for what we did to Beth; they were both children, he thought he was helping her and it’s a very rare circumstance that she could have a procedure without even talking to a doctor or knowing what was being done to her.
Beth has probably done fewer irredeemable things than Jamie, but her character’s surface-level “resilience” has become jarring and repetitive in recent years, making her hard to root for (though the multiple lives she’s ruined don’t it helps). In countless scenes, she walks into Jamie’s office, dresses him down for no real reason, and leaves to take out her endless reserves of anger on someone else, usually a tourist or developer or otherwise non-Montanan. It makes you naturally want Jamie to fight back, to get the upper hand for once.
Fortunately, we get to see some of that in “Horses in Heaven,” which really changes their dynamic for the first time…ever? It begins with Beth in jail and Jamie tasked with convincing his victim not to press charges. (Beth says it’s “not her problem,” but she literally is.) The legal argument she uses is this: technically there are no victims in a bar fight, so if Hailey files charges, she exposes herself to criminal prosecution. She was the instigator, he tells her during her visit to the police station, so she’s putting herself at risk.
Jamie’s plan works, although Beth will still have to pick up trash for her disorderly conduct charge. (Should be a fun picture next week.) But when he takes her and she spots the baby seat in the back of his car, any small hope of gratitude from her is quickly extinguished. “Did God give you a boy?” she says, almost hysterical. “You cut my womb out of me and God gave you a boy?” It escalates into a roadside confrontation where Jamie emotionally reminds her that taking her to the clinic was the biggest regret of his life – though that was never enough for Beth to forgive him. She vows to take Jamie’s paternity away, telling him, “Next time you see him, you can kiss him goodbye because he’s as good as gone.”
If you had hoped Yellowstone would soften Beth a bit or make her more likable, not a great moment. But it seems like the right move to escalate the war between Beth and Jamie now, rather than keeping it at a dull simmer forever. And her menace feels legitimately dangerous; you think she is capable of doing something to Jamie’s son in the service of Jamie’s destruction. That makes it all the more thrilling when he gets back in the car, screams, and drives towards Beth, nearly running her over.
It’s nice to see Beth shaken up for once, though she’s quickly back on the offensive, following Jamie on his date with Sarah Atwood and taking a photo of her driver’s license while she and Jamie are mid-fornication . But the episode still ends with Beth in a more vulnerable place than usual, once again forced to share a home with the scumbag who fucks her husband.
I’m curious to see what Summer’s reintroduction means to the series; I thought she was a done character, but John gets supervised release in exchange for her helping him learn about environmental activism. (Nice juxtaposition with John’s questions about his powers of pardon; we’re led to believe he’ll forgive Beth.) Now, to be clear, I have no idea how Taylor Sheridan is going to handle all of this. Last season, Summer’s liberal beliefs were more often than not a source of derision, framed as a byproduct of well-intentioned naivety. But if Sheridan intends to let John learn something about people different from him for once, this is a good start.
I would definitely like to see it Yellowstone puts John through more legitimate challenges. So far, season five has portrayed his ambivalence about the Governor as an endearing quality. His charming simplicity makes him a refreshing leader, even as he throws off everyone in the capital. In “Horses in Heaven”, he cancels a luncheon for educators because there are no actual teachers; refuses to schedule lunch, but suggests people stop by his office when they need something; and he fires his team of political advisers after a bit of silly rhetorical play, pointing out the hypocrisy of suspending natural gas leases to protect sagebrush while still clearing land for solar panels.
In almost every case, Sheridan describes the current way of doing things as outdated, with rogue advisers making too much money for doing too little. And sure, that’s often the case. But while it’s fun to see John subvert tradition, it feels a bit like the show reveres him without ever becoming critical. It is not that John is uniquely honest and genuine in his politics; there are probably a lot of people in Helena who want to make Montana a better state, including some of these aldermen. But it’s hard, almost impossible, to work in politics and stay completely true to your morals. I’d like to see John struggle with this more – besides, it’s not that much fun to spend so much time just watching the protagonist own the libraries.
But John gets a real act of kindness at Kayce and Monica’s son’s funeral, comforting Monica with an anecdote about his little brother dying 18 hours later. “All he saw of this planet was you, and all he knew was that you loved him,” he says, perhaps one of the most insightful pieces of wisdom on this show. “That boy lived a perfect life, Monica. We’re the only ones who know it was short.”
With the sheer amount of tragedy in Kayce and Monica’s lives, I struggled to really emotionally engage with this latest cycle of grieving. But that scene between John and Monica is thoughtful and emotional in a way this show rarely is. I’d love to see more moments like this, moments that push John out of his comfort zone even as it shows how he became the surprisingly lovable force of nature that he is today. Let’s hope his time as governor offers more.
• Our only glimpse of the farm hands in this episode is when they help another farm with some livestock brands. It makes for a nice little break from the drama, though it feels a little arbitrarily placed.
• John plans to meet with Chief Rainwater on the reservation, so we should see that next week.
• John learns from Fish and Wildlife about the latest collared wolf, who warn him that the NGO that pays for wolf research is coming after him.
• I have to say that using the word “hillbilly” applied to Montana’s most powerful family is starting to get a little ridiculous. So are the constant references to California or New York, bad states full of snooty rich people who visit Montana on vacation but take it for granted. I usually find it easy to ignore the murky politics on this show, but the “us vs. them” vibes are getting a little higher.
• According to Beth, “Sarah Atwood” must not be her real name. But aside from Beth’s stupidity, Googling a common name and clicking only two links before giving up, shouldn’t Sarah still show up in search engines? After all, she is an established corporate shark that Caroline Warner uses regularly.
• Honestly, I didn’t need Summer to start sleeping with John again, especially so soon after she told him she wouldn’t. There’s something particularly odd about her referring to it as “hard work” and rubbing it in Beth’s face.
• Did anyone else get deja vu from Beth suggesting John find a woman last episode, then change his mind when Summer comes into the picture? It’s basically what happened last season.