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  • Dane Bundy

Yellowstone and The Godfather on Horseback

I remember the first time I heard of The Godfather (1972). I was in grade school and someone asked my friend what his favorite movie was. "The Godfather," he responded. Interesting choice for an 11 or 12 year-old, but he did have Sicilian roots.

It wasn't until after college that I finally sat down and watched the epic film. In terms of craftsmanship -- directing, writing, acting -- it's simply remarkable. Who can deny it? The American Film Institute ranks the original The Godfather (1972) as the third greatest film in the last 100 years. But, as you know, The Godfather and its subsequent installments follow a bent storyline.

As a reminder, a bent story is one in which good is not distinct from evil.

In stories like this, we often find ourselves sympathetic to those operating outside the bounds of the law and biblical morality. In this case, the Corleone family.

I'm going to pivot briefly, because there's a fascinating story behind the production of Training Day (2001). This violent, gruesome, and (dare I say) fascinating film is about a crooked, but winsome cop (played Denzel Washington) who takes an idealistic rookie under his wing (played by Ethan Hawke). In the original script, Denzel Washington's character, Alonzo Harris, gets away with his crimes in the end, making this film truly bent. But supposedly after reading the script, Denzel wrote across it "The wages of sin is death" and then returned it. The script was subsequently re-written so that Alonzo Harris dies in a way that offers justice. That change, if it really took place, transformed the movie from bent to whole. It's one of the reasons why the film is so powerful.

Similar threads run through The Godfather and Training Day. Are there redemptive elements in The Godfather (1972)? I recently went back and re-watched the film, thinking there's a whisper of "the wages of sin is death" woven throughout it. I was hoping for a takeaway that those who live by violence die by it and that mob-life is not all glamour and glory. Well, I didn't see it. It's a high-quality film, but as it concluded, I thought: Do I want Michael to fall to the other mob families or do I want to see him consolidate his empire like a Roman ruler? Yeah, it was the latter. And that's a hallmark trait of a bent film. The next step would be for me to watch part 2 and 3 and ask similar questions. Perhaps you have some insight here.


This leads me to the popular television show "Yellowstone" (2018 - ). Over the last year or so, multiple people mentioned the show, so I decided to look into it before I invested many hours. While reading some of the reviews, one viewer mentioned that "Yellowstone" is The Godfather on Horseback. What a clever description. (If you saw the title of this article, laughed, thought Dane Bundy is brilliant, and are now reading it, I need to clarify: "The Godfather on Horseback" phrasing is not mine.)

And, spoiler alert, after watching three seasons of "Yellowstone," The Godfather on Horseback is an accurate description in terms of plot.

The main reason I decided to watch the show is because of its co-creator, Taylor Sheridan. He wrote the film Sicario (2015) starring Emily Blunt. And he wrote Hell or Highwater (2016) with Chris Pine and Jeff Bridges.

Both films are crime dramas, though from different perspectives. I'd like to spend a little bit of time walking through them. Warning: I'm going to spoil their storylines.


Sicario is my first choice of the two. A key reason is that it has a clearer moral backbone than Hell or Highwater. Sicario is a violent and difficult film to watch at times, but what's most interesting about it is how the filmmaker gets us to experience the story: through the eyes of the young, naive, quixotic FBI-agent, Kate Mercer (Blunt).

About 5 or 6 six minutes into the film, Kate is drawn into a morally dubious government operation that brings her face-to-face with the terrifying effects of the drug cartels and those supposedly trying to fight against them. In an important scene, Alejandro, played by Benicio Del Toro, tells Kate:

You should move to a small town where the rule of law still exists. You will not survive here. You are not a wolf. And this is the land of wolves now.

The unsettling and frightening power of this film is that we see these wolves and their land through the eyes of a sheep. She never feels in control and, therefore, neither do we. Manufacturing dramatic tension is undoubtedly one of Taylor Sheridan's strengths as a writer.

Good and evil are distinct from one another in this film and our sympathies naturally lie with Kate, who still understands right and wrong. The corrupt men who trick Kate into their plot are intriguing characters, but I was on team Kate the whole time, hoping she would escape unscathed. The film is certainly a broken one, which means that when the credits roll, the ending weighs down on us emotionally, for evil has won. The wolves roam free and they've devoured our sheep.

The sequel to the film, Sicario: The Day of the Soldado (2018), is quite a departure from the original. The plot follows the wicked men from the last film and doesn't include a relatable sheep-like character. Thus, I didn't connect with the film emotionally, and I wasn't a fan of how it drug us through two-full hours of gratuitous bent muck. But that's just my opinion.

[NOTE: I don't recommend Sicario or its sequel for children, or even young teens. If you're considering watching it as a family, read this Plugged In review by the Focus on the Family staff.]


Let's turn to Hell or Highwater (2016). I don't think this is as good of a film as Sicario, but it's a film that I've returned to a number of times.

Hell or Highwater is about Toby Howard (played by Chris Pine), an out-of-work father, who is struggling to keep his home, because Texas Midland Bank is on the verge of foreclosing his property. When Toby's brother, Tanner Howard (played by Ben Foster), exits prison, he convinces Toby to do whatever it takes to keep the home, and they resort to robbing various branches of Texas Midland to repay the loan. Quickly, Texas Ranger, Marcus Hamilton (played by Jeff Bridges), is on their pursuit.

I must say, this film is very-well written with strong acting, humor, and superb dramatic tension.

But this film is different than Taylor Sheridan's previous work, Sicario; it doesn't just highlight bent characters, it shows us the film through their eyes.

From the beginning of Hell or Highwater, we sympathize with Toby Howard. He is handsome, kind, and honorably-intentioned: all he wants to do is leave his home and land to his sons. An understanding viewer might argue that he has no choice but to take back what is rightfully his.

The villains are clearly laid out for us. Texas Midland Bank is a predatory institution, basically deserving the wrath of this hurting father. The Texas Ranger, representing the law, is a crusty, foul-mouthed, alcoholic, racist. Pretty quickly, we dislike him. With that said, Hamilton's partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), a man of Native American Indian descendant, is more of an upstanding character.

I won't detail the ending for you, but I will spoil it.

The father, Toby Howard, gets what he wants in the end, though certainly not without great sacrifice. Texas Midland Bank and the law lose. The movie leads us to see that these "villains" get what they deserve. The final credits show us a dusty Robin Hood looking out on the rough and barren Texas landscape. Justice served.

Despite the bent nature of the film, I think it's a solid movie in the crime thriller genre and one worth viewing and discussing.

[NOTE: Again, I don't recommend this film for children, or young teens, as there is some heavy violence and sexual content.]

So, with these two films in mind, I had good reason to look into "Yellowstone."


On Christmas break, I decided to give Taylor Sheridan a chance. And it was quite the sacrifice. The first episode of "Yellowstone" is available on Peacock (NBC Universal) for free, but to watch the rest of season 1 (as well as 2 and 3), you have to upgrade your plan. So, I entered the digits to my credit card and wired over my $6.

To be transparent, I've only watched seasons 1-3. But there's much to reflect on already. . . So, here we go!

"Yellowstone" brings together themes and images from The Godfather as well as Sicario and Hell and Highwater.

The show centers around the Dutton family and their sixth generation Yellowstone ranch in Montana. John Dutton (Kevin Costner) is the patriarch of the family, and he's desperate to keep his ranch in the family and fend off land developers and an Indian reservation willing to do whatever it takes to strip the ranch from him.

If John doesn't have enough battles from outside the ranch, he's plagued with plenty within it. His children are broken, dysfunctional, and desperate. Having lived through the tragic death of their mother, they have a co-dependent relationship with their father. Each of them have tried, at various times and in various ways, to go their own way, but something draws them back to the Yellowstone empire.

It's an empire that's reminiscent of the Corleone family. The Dutton family runs like a mob, using every attainable means to control and keep what is theirs. They have their sway in politics, business, and the law. When the land developers look to take from them, the Dutton family doesn't hesitate to use violence.

Let's now dive into the craft, content, and impact of the show.


One of the best parts of the show is the scenery. "Yellowstone" takes place in Montana and, oh, how incredibly beautiful it is. It makes me want to pack my bags, buy a horse and a cabin, and visit this incredible state.

Umm...except that the show was filmed in Utah. Bummer.

But, I've been to Montana and Utah, and I thought I was watching Montana. So, maybe you won't notice the difference either. I'll keep my bags packed just in case.

In terms of the acting, I was pleased. I like Kevin Costner as an actor and think he did fine in the show. The other actors did admirably as well.

The writing. . . well, in certain episodes (like the finales) , I thought it was strong. But now that I've finished three seasons, I can't help but think the show has too much salt in its system and is bloated. A couple plot lines felt like I was watching a soap opera. And towards the end of season 2 and 3, I decided to skip sections of episodes. I know. . . but I paid $6 for this!

The deeper into the show I went, the more I sensed this would make a better two hour (or two and a half hour) long movie. Taylor Sheridan has already proven that he can craft a superb feature-length film.


The content of the show is another reason I handed over my $6. The Godfather on Horseback!? Uh, yes! I expected going in that there would be violence. . . and, oh, there is. I expected some language. . . and, indeed, the plot isn't the only salty thing in the show. I even expected that there would be some sexual content. And there was. I skipped as much of this as I could.

I know that sometimes a writer and director needs to show us wickedness as a central part of the story. It reminds us we're watching a story that takes place in our world, a place stained with sin. Without brokenness, redemption wouldn't take place.

The key difference here, though, is that there's a point where I ask myself: is this sexual content, offensive language, and violence gratuitous? Or does it further the storyline. . . and maybe even lead to redemption? I realize the line of what's gratuitous and what's not looks different for different people. But for Dane Bundy, this show wades pretty deep in the waters of gratuitousness. So, I do not recommend this show for children or young teens. . . or, honestly, even adults.

The Younger Brother

With that said, there's one storyline in the show that I found fascinating, that of Jamie Dutton (played by Wes Bently). He's one of the four Dutton children. The oldest is Lee Dutton who died in the past, but we don't know much about him.

Jamie comes next in age, then Kayce, and finally Beth.

Pictured above: Kayce, then Jamie, John, and Beth.

At first, I saw the three siblings as an interesting trinity: Kayce, the former Navy Seal, as representing the body; Beth, the banker, as the mind; and Jamie, the lawyer, as the heart. It may still work for the early seasons, but towards the end of season three, I thought this was too simplistic for the characters.

By far, Jamie captured my interest the most. Just about everyone discards him. Beth, with her razor sharp tongue and the ability to do evil without remorse (a virtue in her father's mind), treats Jamie like a homeless, dirty dog. She abuses him emotionally and verbally to a point in which I finally thought. . . "What's going on here?" It eventually comes out that it flows from a deep personal wound.

But, even John Dutton (Kevin Costner) treats Jamie like a second-rate child. From the beginning, it looks like Jamie is doing everything he can to keep Yellowstone together, utilizing his legal training to protect the family and empire, but John is ungrateful. Jamie wants to run for Attorney General, the family doesn't support him. Beth characterizes Jamie's ambition as personal, selfish ambition. She contrasts his ambition with her ambition: she's only concerned with supporting her father.

Although Jamie is not the youngest brother, he reminds me of what Madeliene L'Engle says in Walking on Water:

In the novels and stories which have always meant the most to me, and to which, as both child and adult, I return and return, I find the same thing: the unqualified younger son finishes the quest where the qualified elder brothers fail because they think they can do it themselves. (53)

Jamie is treated like he's unqualified and foolish, harkening back to the younger child in the Prodigal Son parable. So, pretty quickly, I thought: the writer are setting Jamie up for something big.

I'm usually terrible at guessing at what's going to happen next in a story, but I knew that the family was not only underestimating him, but provoking him to something.

As the story continues, we find out that Jamie's actually adopted and that the hatred in Beth's heart for him comes from a tragic incident in the past: Jamie took Beth as a teen, at her bidding, to get an abortion, but another step was also taken: the doctors performed a hysterectomy. Beth, of course, didn't know it at the time, and when she discovered this: all hatred was funneled toward him. Honestly, I can see why.

Jamie's ambition to serve as Attorney General eventually finds fruition, through a series of unexpected turns.

You know the cliches: you don't know a person's character until he either suffers or gains power. Jamie's elevation into the Attorney General role was one domino and the other was when he meets his biological father (played by Will Patton) who offers some Godfather-ish advice, surprisingly quickly after they meet:

The Yellowstone ain't a ranch. It's an empire. Empires you take. . . . The only way to take down an empire is to kill the king.


For a moment, I saw a glimpse of young Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), foreshadowing his future reign. Was I wrong? In the final moments of season three Kayce is attacked in his office by gunmen, a bomb is thrown into Beth's office, and John Dutton is shot on the side of the road. Was this Jamie taking the reins?

While I haven't watched past season three, the trailer for season 4 leads us to think Jamie was behind these attacks. Look at those faces?


"Yellowstone," clearly, is a bent show. Good and evil are sucked into a vortex and the distinction between the two is not clear. I've realized over the years that we shouldn't be surprised to encounter bent stories. Living in a fallen world means that not only is creation marked by sin, but we are too. No human being, but Christ, is wholly good. Even the most upstanding police officer, mayor, teacher, or pastor are but a mixture of good and evil. Villains, made in the image of God, are pitiable, still worth compassion. And, if done well, we should listen to their stories.

The problem, however, takes place when we tell the villain's story in a way that makes him look like the hero. Bent stories can subtly deconstruct our moral thinking so that we move from

(A) both hero and villain are mixtures of good and evil, let God rightly judge them


(B) good and evil are only social constructs, a matter of personal opinion or perspective. No one can judge heroes or villains.

You can see the problem with the latter option (B). While we, imperfect judges, may not always be able to discern good and evil within a person, that doesn't mean good and evil, right and wrong, don't exist. It also doesn't mean that we are unable to make moral judgements. We have Scripture that is without error. It provides the framework for us to see evil as evil; it reminds us that sin does give birth to violence and misery.

When stories show us lots of evil and none of the consequences, this isn't honest storytelling.

That's one of my chief concerns about shows like "Yellowstone": it goes beyond showing evil: it seems to revel in it.

Maybe you can hear that whisper in "Yellowstone" that the "wages of sin is death." If you can, then good! As each season progressed, though, I had more and more of a difficult of a time hearing it.

Perhaps, Madeleine L'Engle is right that Jamie, the unqualified brother, will finish the quest to discover that an unending empire mixed with unrelenting wickedness is the formula for death. Perhaps this will be a reminder that some need. But as much as I respect Taylor Sheridan's past work, season 3 is where I sign off.


Dane Bundy is President of Stage & Story and Director of Fine Arts at Regents School of Austin, a classical Christian school in Austin, TX.


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