Western Gothic

My parents have been binge-watching the Paramount show Yellowstone, which is not about the infamous National Park but rather is a kind of cowboy Game of Thrones in the modern American West. I can’t stomach it, but the snippets I catch are morbidly fascinating.

I can’t stomach it for the same reason I couldn’t stomach the BBC show Unforgotten, despite that I’m a big fan of mysteries. (I write them.)

But in fact, the two shows are just about polar opposites.

The main characters of Unforgotten, a woman and an Indian man, are so steeped in sensitivity that they leave puddles of it when they walk. They speak softly and regularly repeat key phrases from their sensitivity training. Always patient, never threatening (let alone armed), they are nevertheless dogged in their pursuit of truth — not so much for justice as to bring closure to the victims’ families, whom they counsel like therapists.

The pair lead a team of dedicated investigators who, when they make a mistake, admit it and are forgiven. Behind them all is a benevolent state that almost never interferes in their good work. (The lead detective’s boss rarely makes an appearance except to praise her like a loving parent.) The team apparently has an unlimited budget and spares no expense to solve 70-year-old crimes. Not all of the villains on the show are politically conservative, but all of the conservatives that appear end up villains.

Yellowstone, on the other hand, is an orgy of parochial self-reliance. The state is at least ineffectual if not an outright villain. The same is true of outsiders, who all exhibit Eco’s paradox. On one hand, they’re an existential threat to the cowboy way of life. On the other, they’re all uptight pussies.

In one telling scene, the California land developer trying to build a subdivision on the border of the ranch (heresy!) suffers an unexpected evening out with his adversaries, who really know how to party. When he gets home, his wife tells him he’s never been that much fun. She then pulls off her dress and lays back on the couch, crudely begging him to fuck her, which of course he can’t do, being so cowed by cowboy swagger. (All that scene was missing was a loudly revving engine: a motorcycle or monster truck or something.)

The main character, a wealthy rancher and land owner played by Kevin Costner, is also the state’s livestock commissioner. You would think, being in a position of power, he could be the one state official to uphold the rule of law. But the law, like the state and the courts, is only a hindrance, something to be got round, and the only time his agents do any good is when they break it (and then cover up the infraction).

Early in the show, several hundred of the rancher’s cattle wander onto an Indian reservation — easy to do when your ranch is the size of Rhode Island. Rather than return the cattle, the Indians reverse-appropriate them, leading to a legal battle proctored by the governor.

In the civilized world, such wranglings and political compromises are how people who are very different from each other nevertheless live together peacefully. But since law is corrupt, peace is for pussies. Rather than sully himself with negotiation (or build a fence, apparently), Costner gathers an armed force and tries to take the cattle by incursion onto Indian land. A shootout results in a revenge killing.

Since the shooter is Costner’s war-veteran son, he must be protected, which means evidence of the execution must be destroyed. They do this by burning the medical examiner’s office with the body inside — and the medical examiner.

But it’s okay. They break his neck first so he doesn’t suffer. And that’s okay, too, because he’s an outsider and a pussy. He’s from Chicago, fleeing the loss of his job due to drug addiction. At night, he soaks cigars in embalming fluid and smokes them to numb himself.

In the civilized world, such a man needs help. In the world of Yellowstone, addiction is weakness and the weak are put down, like a lame horse. “I’m not going to negotiate with a junkie!” Costner yells at his lieutenant, who makes it look like the scrawny doctor killed himself.

(The uptight pussy outsiders — “transplants” the son calls them — are always scrawny and sniveling. Seriously, the show has nothing on war-era propaganda for its visual depiction of stereotypes.)

Costner’s actions are constantly offensive, but they’re justified as defensive, either of his family or his land. The California developer can’t be allowed to legally develop his own land lest that encourage more outsiders to come. (So much for property rights.) He’s hung from a tree at the end of the first season.

Costner can take from others in this way, and yet, when a group of Chinese tourists trespass on the ranch — again, the size of Rhode Island — to do nothing other than sight-see, Costner chases them away with a rifle, since they’re too stupid not to take selfies with a bear. (Later, the bear also gets killed.)

There are only three female characters with any agency, including the governor, but all three are in sexual relationships with Costner or one of his sons or ranch hands. No women work with men until an ex-stripper is hired as a ranch hand. She is ogled constantly.

Society is hierarchical, and everyone is in constant competition. No one likes each other as equals. No woman is comfortable with herself and no man is either except for those who regularly (and literally) beat down other men.

The show takes regular breaks from the plot to depict the ranch hands in some new contest, for no other reason than to ritually reiterate the hierarchy, where the same scrawny wrangler, Jimmy, is constantly hazed and verbally abused. He never learns, for that’s his place.

Contrast all of that with something like The Mandalorian, which is also a Western. (It just takes place in outer space.) There, the state is also ineffectual: the Empire has collapsed, so there is no law to enforce, and violence is rampant.

Like the cowboys of Yellowstone, Mando also lives by a code that supersedes the law, which he makes patent with the oft-repeated phrase, “This is the Way.” But rather than a reification of pack-animal behavior, where status is mediated by ritualized violence, the code of the Mandalorians is cooperative and merit-based. Your status derives from your accomplishments in the world, profits from which are always partially reinvested in the community. Mando earns his armor — an outward symbol as well as a defense — but he also gives some of his winnings to feed the younglings, who live precariously in this lawless land.

This is a completely different myth, and one much closer to the classic Westerns of yore, where the violent actions of the hero (the sheriff or noble gunslinger) are justified not because there is too much law but too little.

The classic Western hero was trying to “tame” the frontier, to break its lawlessness and introduce civilization: cooperation, peace, the rule of law, schools, roads, and a chance for a better life.

Yellowstone breaks that for something much more Middle Eastern: clan-based tribal fealties, an end to the state monopoly on violence, contests of strength in place of courts, and so on, where the protagonist is not a scrappy underdog but a ruthless prince, born wealthy.

Costner’s character is the anti-Batman. Rather than using his power to fight the corruptions of modern society, he uses it to crush his rivals and take more for himself — the perfect hero for the Trump era, the new Gilded Age.

There is another genre that has many of the same hallmarks, where the local landed bully squeezes as much as he can from the community to fund his status-squabbles with his neighbors: the Southern Gothic. Yellowstone, then, is a Western Gothic.

Just as the culture of the South in the era of the Southern Gothic novel was declining amid industrialization, so, too, I suspect the emergence of Western Gothic signals the final decrepitude of the parochial way of life.