'Yellowstone' episode 8 review: 'The Unravelling Part 1' is awfully undercooked

'Yellowstone' season 1's penultimate episode is bare, leaving one to wonder whether there's even the semblance of a conclusion in store for audiences in the finale

                            'Yellowstone' episode 8 review: 'The Unravelling Part 1' is awfully undercooked

Recap: Episode 7, 'A Monster is Among Us'

As 'Yellowstone' barrels towards its season finale, the series is beginning to pick up the pace. Episode 6, 'The Remembering,' worked towards answering some of the questions that have plagued audiences since the premiere and the 'A Monster is Among Us' did one better: it laid bare the plot that could ostensibly bring about the downfall of John Dutton (Kevin Costner). The revelation came via a completely unexpected avenue as well — through the encroachment of a few brown bears into the ranch and John's cancer acting up once again.

Elsewhere, Rip Wheeler (Cole Hauser) found himself in a sort of ethical dilemma. Confronted with two Chinese tourists who are inexplicably hanging off a cliff side, Rip offers them the chance to save one for the sacrifice of the other. Both slip and fall 20-odd feet to their deaths, but not before the big brown bear Rip had been hunting all this while makes a surprise appearance and is dealt the death blow courtesy of two bullets to the head. It appeared as though Dan Jenkins' (Danny Huston) and Thomas Rainwater's (Gil Birmingham) plan to have federal authorities look into the ranch's breaching of the river course — the alteration had disturbed the area's endangered bear population — had inadvertently been set off by one of his most trusted men.

'A Monster is Among Us' answered several pending questions (Source: IMDb)
'A Monster is Among Us' answered several pending questions (Source: IMDb)

Elsewhere, Jamie (Wes Bentley) had finally kicked off his quest to run for Montana's Attorney General. Aided by new love interest?/campaign manager Christina (Katherine Cunningham), he sets up an office from where he can focus his efforts. But trouble was already brewing in paradise, with Christina's repeated rejection of John's calls at a desperate time unlikely to bode well.

As I'd mentioned in my previous review, Sheridan has this unique knack for taking seemingly inconsequential elements and evolving them into significant subplots — the bear and John's cancer served to reinforce that argument — and the introduction of investigative journalist Sarah Nguyen (Michaela Conlin) into the mix in appeared to point towards another impending disaster for the Dutton ranch. She made her bow in episode 6, nosing around about the cattle shootout and the coverups that followed, and in episode 7, she would infiltrate Jamie's campaign with the aim of digging up more dirt.

Sheridan also gave audiences further insight into Beth's (Kelly Reilly) character, utilizing a flashback to delve further into her dysfunctional relationship with her mother. And in his attempt to portray her softer side, he may very well have compromised all the previous build up. The episode did, however, pay homage to its roots, with certain segments — Monica's (Kelsey Asbille) grandfather using sage in the hospital and John's speech at the cattlemen's association dinner — marking a return to the exploration of the power and property, as well as tradition and modernization dynamic. 

Review: Episode 8, 'The Unravelling Pt. 1'

'The Unraveling Pt. 1' kicks off with a flashback to 1997 (Source: IMDb)
'The Unraveling Pt. 1' kicks off with a flashback to 1997 (Source: IMDb)

It is a little late in the season to still be revealing backstories, but Sheridan continues to chisel away at a foundation for a series he presumably hopes becomes a history-maker at Paramount. This episode, it was Rip's turn. Through the season, he has remained one of the ranch's more mysterious characters. Loyal to a fault and willing to kill to prove his undying allegiance to John, his appearances were almost always accompanied with him getting into a confrontation of some sort — be it his cajoling of Jimmy (Jefferson White) into joining the ranch, his murder of the pathologist, or his bizarre confrontation with Kayce (Luke Grimes).

There was also the romantic angle between him and Beth that seems to have all but been abandoned. The quintessential machismo cowboy who wears his ego on his sleeve, his standing in the story has always been intriguing, and as it turns out, so is his backstory. 

'The Unraveling Pt. 1' kicks off with a flashback to 1997. A terrified and bloodied teenager is lying on the ground, casing his trashed house. In front of him, his brother's neck is at an angle it should not be in, and in the near distance, the repeated thwacks of fist on flesh reverberate. Left with little option, he picks up a frying pan and goes to town on his old man, but not in time to save his mother.

A short while later, as he's confronted by John and his cowboys while hiding away in a Dutton ranch barn, he reveals his name: Rip. When asked about the murder, he fiercely replies: "I should have killed that m****rf****r sooner,' thereby almost immediately endearing himself to John, who flashes a subtle smile to the response. He later accepts John's offer to work on the ranch, thereby becoming a sort of second son and loyal servant to the Dutton patriarch.  

Taking into account his origin, it only seems apt that violence and death follow Rip wherever he goes, and this episode was no exception. As he leads a federal officer to the scene of the crime, her horse spooks as its bitten by a horsefly and chaotically bucks out of frame. As the camera pans to the carnage, the audience is greeted with the horse tangled in barbed wire and the officer with a three-foot steel pole wedged through her abdomen.

But Sheridan doesn't stop here. He insists on putting it across to audiences that this particular nobody officer is tough as nails via another equally unnecessary scene (I don't have the heart to describe it, so I'll let you watch for yourself).

At this point, one can't help but wonder whether Sheridan takes some kind of perverse pleasure in peppering each episode with these random bursts of stomach-churning barbarity or whether people like me have been woefully misinformed and these events are indeed commonplace at a cattle ranch. Maybe I could understand his reasoning if any of them added up to something noteworthy, but each is quickly forgotten and immaterial to the story. 

What is curious, however, about that entire shindig is that it exposes Sheridan's leanings towards conservative philosophies, which has been apparent in his previous works, but is even more so in 'Yellowstone.' Wildlife preservation has been a hot potato topic in the country in the past decade, and efforts to save species has often come at the expense of land that had previously been in families for generations.

In portraying the Duttons as a victim to the government's overzealousness — when it comes to a life or death situation as it was for Rip, even the most staunch advocate would concede that killing the bear remained the only option — he cleverly subverts the other side's arguments that conservation must come at any cost.

This perspective that a multi-millionaire ranch owner can be a victim, while odd, is fitting and poignant for the show considering that after all, at its center is this assertion that land, property, and power are intrinsically linked to one another: lose one, and you're almost certain to lose the others. The politicking and scheming between Jenkins and Rainwater to prise the land that has been in John's family for 132 years is nothing new. It's a tussle that repeats itself every generation and is as old as the country itself, and Sheridan makes little effort to hide which side of the fence he finds himself on. 

He also takes an increasingly rare segway into life on the ranch but refuses to let go of his assertion that Yellowstone is this cult of brotherhood. Senseless killings and violence aside, Rip brushes away Walker's (Ryan Bingham) concerns that he would have to involve himself in something illegal, telling him he should have thought about that before he got branded and that he can't leave now. While I understand the sentiment, it's questionable how the brand is now depicted as this legally binding contract.

If Walker were to up and leave, it's not like the ranchers will hunt him down to the corners of the country, despite the 'secrets' he's learned on the job. But if this is, somehow, what Sheridan is hinting at, then it's quite frankly ridiculous. Though I will admit, it would be hilarious to see cowboys hunting Walker down on horseback in the streets of New York City. 

Beth — brought on by John to be 'evil' and throw a wrench in his conspirators' plans but who spends almost all of the season getting wasted and s***faced — is finally putting in motion a master plan to screw over Jenkins, but not before she convinces his wife to cheat on him, of course. It's a fitting encapsulation of her character's modus operandi: first, break the spirit, then break the person. Surprisingly, her presence was tolerable, but that probably had to do with the fact that she was given all of five minutes on screen. 

And that brings us to Christina, who while smart enough to catch Sarah snooping around is still oddly painted as emotional and attached around Jamie, despite having known Jamie for all of one week. As Jamie sullenly stalks back into his campaign office after an altercation with John — he's told to drop his ambitions for A.G or face the prospect of running up against a candidate backed by his father — who's there but Christina to provide an empathetic ear and a shoulder to cry on?

Cue a dramatic monologue about selfishness that concludes with her seducing Jamie by telling him: "Be selfish with me." Corny doesn't even begin to cut it. On another note, Sarah's appearance all but confirm my previous notions that she will have a role to play as the season closes out.

What is noticeable is that there is a disconnect between the episodes. For one, Kayce, who had been diligently taking care of Monica at the hospital after her injury, is now told that their relationship cannot be sustained anymore. There were umpteen opportunities to forward their dynamic in previous episodes, so to pick an occasion where Monica is suffering short-term memory loss feels a bit contrived. The other is Dutton's cancer. He was shown hurling blood just two episodes ago, and now he's healthy and fit enough to beat up Jamie?

Maybe the best possible summary for 'The Unraveling Pt. 1' is that so much happened — as evidenced by me endlessly rambling on about all the events — but at the same time, nothing did. There was little to indicate that it was the season's penultimate episode, leaving me to wonder whether there is even the semblance of a conclusion in store with 'The Unraveling Pt. 2.'