When I’m explaining Yellowstone to people, I tell them it’s important to go in with tempered expectations about the narrative. Did one episode feature a human man nearly having emergency surgery in a roving veterinary ambulance? Sure. Has someone on this show died after a rattlesnake was taken out of a cooler and thrown in their face? Absolutely.
But every once in a while, amid the high camp that is Cowboy Drama™, there are poignant moments. And to Yellowstone’s credit, the series usually gets those moments more right than wrong. Creator Taylor Sheridan has (especially for the Western genre) dedicated a good chunk of plot to the violence and disappearances indigenous women have faced out West. One of his more powerful stories highlighted the history of forced sterilization of indigenous women upon receiving health care—in this case, abortion.
That plot point, first introduced in Season 3, came back up in Episode 4 of Season 5, “Horses in Heaven.” Last night’s episode follows the stories of two women. Monica Dutton (Kelsey Asbille), the indigenous wife of Kayce Dutton (Luke Grimes), finally buries her infant son, who died an hour after the car accident that forced her to give birth to him on the side of the road as her son called an ambulance. Meanwhile, her sister-in-law Beth Dutton (Kelly Reilly) is haunted by her past after she clocks the carseat her brother made ready in his car. Decades ago, Beth had an abortion, which this same brother had cosigned for. But he had withheld from her that the women’s clinic where she would get the abortion required she also get a full hysterectomy—a far-too-common practice at clinics that provided care for indigenous women until well into the 1970s. Realizing that her estranged brother had a baby, an option he had helped take from her, riles up all sorts of rage within Beth that she usually keeps reserved for unsuspecting businessmen or losers at the bar.
I’ve always said that the women of Yellowstone are far more interesting and dynamic than the men of the show. There’s really only so many ways you can say “save the land” with a mouthful of gravel, you know? But when Yellowstone attempts to tell a story about loss—particularly loss as it applies to abortion and childbirth—I get a touch wary, because there are a lot of potholes to fall into there. On one hand, you have Monica, who carried a child to term. This is a baby that she planned for and dreamed about, and in a cruel turn of events, the baby is taken from her. And then there’s Beth, who cannot plan and dream about such a thing. Their grief is complicated, illuminating the gray areas of loss when it comes to childbirth.
I’ve talked with a few fans of the series who have grown tired of Beth’s constant rage (I personally can’t relate, because it’s my love language). I think they forget that, all jokes aside, so much of this character’s vitriol is built around loss: not from the abortion she initially needed, but from the lack of agency that came after it. Beth never signed up for a hysterectomy but was greeted with it after her abortion procedure, like a punishment. And I know—as I read that sentence back, “lack of agency” doesn’t even begin to cover it, but in the most clinical sense, that’s what Beth is grieving. It’s not that she never wanted to be a mother. It’s that she wasn’t able to be a mother at that moment. It’s about how her options were so limited that she was forced into the position where she’d never be able to be a mother.
Monica is already a mother, struggling with the impossible grief of a child that barely was. Beth, unable to conceive, is left to struggle with the impossible grief of a child that will never be. Both, valid and complicated and unimaginable burdens in their own ways. But no one is going to look at a loss like Monica’s and count it as anything but cruel and unthinkable. In this microcosm of the American West, Monica’s sadness is the most familiar to viewers—the least “taboo,” if you will. What is it about Beth’s pain that doesn’t allow the same empathy?
I’ve gone back and forth on the narrative decision to have Beth—a blonde-haired white lady—be the face of this storyline. Shouldn’t it have been an indigenous character, considering that it was largely those women who suffered from sterilization policies? I’ll shoot you straight. In the world of Yellowstone and the audience that has been following this show since Season 1, what Beth faces is the conversation that makes Uncle Frank feel funny at the dinner table, if you get what I’m saying. That’s an inspired choice by the show’s writers. Her rage splits crowds down the middle, targeting narrow-minded people who might ask, what about that unborn baby’s life? It exposes those Yellowstone viewers who might not want to entertain any thoughts about a white woman’s bodily autonomy, let alone an indigenous woman’s. It’s the flip side of why representation matters. To like Beth and make her a supportable villain, as the show expertly did through the first three seasons, means you have to wrestle with her grief, too. And, bluntly, her grief comes as the result of lack of abortion access and deep prejudice.
No one wants to talk about that side of Yellowstone, of course, because, hey—people are getting snakes thrown in their faces! Show me that trauma. But on rare occasions, one of the most popular shows on television wades into the muck of very real conversations we’re having today and makes a statement about grief, the validity of that grief, and how we navigate it as viewers. And instead of doing the easy work of throwing that onus on an indigenous character (aside: Monica has had enough thrown at her character, anyway), it turns the tables.
From a holistic narrative standpoint, no one on Yellowstone is going to end up happy. I cannot stress this enough: People get blown up and have rattlesnakes thrown in their faces. It’s not fun to be a character on this ranch! But on the way to the inevitably sad ending, the people watching Yellowstone are being forced to reckon with its women characters’ grief. It may not be the most artistic or subtle approach, but it’s hard to argue it’s not impactful.
Justin Kirkland is a Brooklyn-based writer who covers culture, food, and the South. His work has appeared in NYLON, Esquire, and USA Today.