Yellowstone Daybreak Review
Paramount Network‘s Yellowstone: Season 1, Episode 1: Daybreak is the strongest pilot episode that I have seen since ABC’s Last Resort. Daybreak is gripping from beginning to end, thanks in large part to Kevin Costner‘s performance. The Montana atmosphere and Dutton family mystique (branding would be loyalists, fishing on horseback, etc.) is put together in a painstaking way. The creators of Yellowstone, Taylor Sheridan and John Linson, wanted to bring a small piece of Montana into the viewer’s living room and they succeed.
At Yellowstone‘s core is the same struggle present in Sons of Anarchy: the old and status quo versus progress and modernization.
John Dutton (Kevin Costner) and his family represent the status quo in Montana (John is anti-“transplants”, anti-gentrification) and he wants to keep everything as it is (e.g. blowing up part of a hillside river to stop land development). John has weaved himself into the power structure of his town. Everyone seems to want to keep him happy and protect his family, especially from themselves and their actions.
Daybreak is a set-up episode. It does an excellent job of showing the viewer what makes certain characters tick by placing them in specific situations so the viewer can see how these characters handle themselves and how they react.
The accident scene at the beginning of Daybreak shows the viewer the type of man that John Dutton is in very few words. When Dutton sees something that needs to be done, he does it in the moment, unflinchingly. As Daybreak progresses, the viewer sees that this mindset applies to everything that John Dutton does.
Chief Thomas Rainwater (Gil Birmingham) is introduced in Daybreak as a person that strides between ancestry, the present, and his vision for the future. The viewer gets the opportunity to understand Chief Rainwater’s perspective through his scenes in Daybreak but that perspective is skewed from scarring caused by his people’s past. Rainwater, the newly elected chief, seeks to create an enemy in John Dutton where one does not exist. The chief does not dislike John Dutton, he dislikes the symbol that John Dutton represents – the rich and the white, the ancient enemy and destroyer of his people. Whether that is a rational assessment or not, that is what the chief sees. The chief sees that symbol as a fulcrum, a means to aggrandize himself. Through intelligence gathering, Chief Rainwater knows that he only has to poke-the-bear (John Dutton) to give him cause to act in exactly the way he has already planned to act.
Beth Dutton (Kelly Reilly)’s first scene in Daybreak is Beth Dutton’s standout out moment in the episode. Beth is no wallflower, eye-candy, or token character. Beth is a corporate killer, a shark, capable of destroying the will-power of an opponent at the snap of a manicured finger. Watching her batter a helpless business man with the ugly truth about his financial situation shows her intelligence, gasp of business mechanics, and that compassion does not deter her when she has a floundering target in her sights.
Beth Dutton’s bar scene is one of Yellowstone‘s few ‘humorous’ moments as Beth sees right through a would-be lover, easily sizing him up, and snapping the neck of his burgeoning fantasy with both hands.
Of all of John Dutton’s children, Beth Dutton is the one that inherited his intelligence and fortitude when it comes to dealing with other people, personality traits that some of his other children lack.
Felix Long (Rudy Ramos)’s advice to Kayce Dutton (Luke Grimes) in Daybreak before the cattle reclamation shows why the old chief was and is a leader. The wisdom that he speaks with to Kayce is precise and prophetic. Human nature lies underneath most of the decisions made on Yellowstone but it walks hand-and-hand with the deleterious ones. Kayca is slapped in the face with this truth but he is still defiant, as is his contrary nature born of his father’s domineerance. Kayca is both an optimist (he believes the Native Americans on the reservation will eventually accept him) and a realist (“There is no heaven.”)
Daybreak shows the viewer that Yellowstone contains the same duality.
In the third act of Daybreak, a moment that the episode builds towards, the reclaiming of John Dutton’s cattle, plays out in unexpected and tragic ways (thus making the scene that much more impactful and significant). The Duttons use guns and gunfire to scare and distract. It is a show of force never intended to kill. Monica Dutton (Kelsey Asbille)’s brother Robert Long (Jeremiah Bitsui) has no qualms, because of his hatred and his battlefield experience, in turning the cattle reclaiming into a life and death engagement.
All of Long’s pent-up animosity spills out as he happily shoots his rifle at the Duttons and their retainers. It is a moment for Long to shoot at his enemy with immunity and anonymity and he takes it. One of the failures of the way this character is written in Daybreak is that the viewer is never given a reason as to why he hates Kayce Dutton and the other Duttons so much, to the point where he is willing to murder them. The viewer can guess, can fill in the blank spots with their own imagination (perhaps the goal of his writers) but it would have rounded out his character if his motivation was at least hinted at besides racial animus and past crimes against Native Americans.
The purposeful shooting of Lee Dutton (Dave Annable) in Daybreak, the bullet positioned just so, illustrates Long’s killer intent but it is also a moment where Kayce Dutton is fully exposed to the viewer. There are hints all throughout Daybreak about Kayce’s military service but it is not until that moment that the viewer is given a glimpse of what the military taught him and how desensitized he is when it comes to killing another human being (in self-defense or not).
One of the best scenes in Daybreak and the scene that gave three-dimensionality to John Dutton follows the death of Lee Dutton, the son destined and groomed to take over the Yellowstone Dutton Ranch when John Dutton steps down. John realizes, as he takes his dead son to a particular spot on his ranch, that this is the last time when he is going to be able to hold his son and be in his presence. As John seizes this moment, taking the dead body down from the horse, hauling the body to a nearby tree, and wrapping his arms around it as if nothing is wrong, the viewer sees the tough guy veneer vanish and the caring father and parent emerge.
The crying in the barn following Lee’s funeral further shows the inter-workings of John’s mind, that beneath the steely persona, something else recognizable in any human being, exists.
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