John Dutton (Kevin Costner) fights for his family’s ranch and legacy in Yellowstone.
Posted on January 22, 2022
Originally published in Pipeline Observer January 2021
Kevin Costner stars in a Scorsese-style western soap with property rights and other themes every landowner will relate to…
By CAEPLA Staff
Yellowstone might be one of the best westerns you’ve ever seen.
A modern-day cowboy plot serialized for streaming services and cable, the series is currently three seasons in, just in time for this COVID-lockdown, binge-watching era.
Yellowstone is a Kevin Costner-led take on soaps like Dallas, with a Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino twist — in other words, the violence and body count can be a little over the top at times.
That said, the series has been a ratings smash. The plot revolves around a landowner and patriarch confronted by almost every imaginable threat to his ranch and family legacy.
The Yellowstone Dutton Ranch is a large ranch in Montana, U.S. — one of the largest contiguous properties of its kind in all of America. It is a seventh-generation family-owned operation and John Dutton (played by Costner doing his best Clint Eastwood), the patriarch, intends to keep it that way. John fiercely protects his property for his family, with the goal that his son can take over from him and have something to leave to his grandson in turn. The ranch is his family legacy.
The constant conflict and struggle to survive can be explained by the series’ unspoken elephant in the room: inadequate respect and protection for property rights.
Viewed through the lens of property rights, Yellowstone dramatizes how a property rights regime really is the key to peace and prosperity.
Because government sure isn’t.
The show depicts Dutton’s enemies leveraging government interventions like environmental regulations and corrupt cops to dispossess him at every opportunity.
Everyone wants the land the Dutton family has worked and protected for generations. As John Dutton says in the second season:
“It’s the one constant in life — if you build something worth having, someone’s going to try and take it.”
And to take it, they try!
The first episode starts with one of the Dutton sons, Jamie, the family lawyer, in court, defending against eminent domain (expropriation). And it only gets worse from there, with groups from all sides fighting for the property.
The leader of the neighbouring Native reservation puts plans into motion to get his people’s traditional lands back, so that it can be returned to be the way it was before settlers set foot on it.
A California land developer wants it to build his own piece of heaven there for many people to enjoy. He believes he has “the right” to be there and if it involves “taking by force or underhanded means,” then so be it. He is not giving up.
The parties already involved lead to some local good ol’ boys seeking to protect their own interests from both the developer and the reservation, who are also planning to build a casino off reservation land that will be in direct competition with their operation.
As threat after threat gets either thwarted or turned back on them, the assorted landgrabbers are amazed that Dutton won’t give in. Their experience teaches that “nobody ever fights back” — which is what expropriating bullies literally bank on.
As the series goes on, some of the attackers become even more formidable, with developers who have state government with powers of eminent domain (expropriation) on their side.
The stakes with these bullies grow even greater. An offer for a large part of the Yellowstone ranch comes with the threat that if it’s turned down, they will take it through expropriation.
Most CAEPLA landowners will understand the lowball, take-it-or-leave-it offer scenario. But is the money worth giving up your land when it is not for sale? Will Dutton be “bought off” or will he fight for his principles, even if he stands to lose the ranch and his family’s 150-year-old legacy?
Not all landowners will identify with the ruthless, “badass” Dutton. Ultimately, he is an antihero. Forced to join the “war of each against all” that an absence of property rights creates, Dutton gives as good as he gets, and often worse: if you ever find yourself in Montana and on his bad side, never accept a ride to “the train station.”
Pipeline landowners will relate to Dutton’s most heartfelt desire — to be left alone to ranch and look after his family. But as CAEPLA has heard from landowners so many times over the decades, that simply isn’t possible without property rights.
As so many frustrated farmers and ranchers have told us, dealing with those that want to take your land can be a full-time job, which is a pretty good explanation for why thousands of pipeline landowners rely on CAEPLA to do the heavy lifting for them.
This series is an over-the-top drama with lots of violence, nudity and bad language. Like most great fiction, it really does require you to suspend your disbelief, but it’s what makes cinema like this so much fun.
Yellowstone is categorically not a show for the whole family — we would rate it R. It nonetheless features great production values, writing, directing and performances by the cast, all with a backdrop of breathtaking scenery even most Albertans and British Columbians would envy.
Above all, in the middle of all the great entertainment, it will make you think.
Yellowstone stars Kevin Costner, Wes Bentley, Kelly Reilly, Luke Grimes, Cole Hauser and Gil Birmingham. A Paramount Network production, it’s currently streaming on Amazon Prime and the fourth season will air this summer.