Cole Hauser as Rip Wheeler, Luke Grimes as Kayce Dutton, Kevin Costner as John Dutton, Kelly Reilly as Beth Dutton, Wes Bentley as Jamie Dutton in the Yellowstone series premiere
Kevin Lynch/Paramount

5 Years On, the 'Yellowstone' Series Premiere Remains One of the Boldest TV Pilots Ever

Looking back on the gutsy debut of 'Yellowstone' before the series reaches the finish line.

The end is nigh for Yellowstone, with Season 5, Part 2 closing this particular chapter of the Dutton saga. It will continue with a Matthew McConaughey spinoff and countless prequel series — each of which will no doubt add more branches to the Dutton family tree. But before we go lamenting or predicting the end of Yellowstone as we know it, it's worth going back to the show's beginning. The 2018 Yellowstone series premiere, "Daybreak," is as long as a feature film and just as energetic.

Written and directed by series creator Taylor Sheridan, it flits from a car crash to a cattle dispute and onto the death of a cowboy. Beyond the memorable set pieces, though, Yellowstone's debut is bigger, bolder and more prophetic than you might remember. It's also the key to understanding the Dutton family's fate.

Kevin Costner's John Dutton will go down as one of TV's most powerful patriarchs, but we first meet him on the back foot. After an attempt on his life, he's left bleeding and alone on the side of the road (not for the last time, mind you). The image of an 18-wheeler with a bright yellow "Oversize Load" banner tipped over on the highway, set to Brian Tyler's sweeping score, is such an aesthetic clash it's almost funny. But it's also a brilliant entrée into the contradictory world of Yellowstone. Here's a man who owns the largest contiguous ranch in the U.S., battered by a greedy land developer and a combative new Reservation Chief. How can he hold onto an empire when he can't even keep his house in order? 

Dave Annable and Kevin Costner in Yellowstone Season 1 Episode 1

Emerson Miller/Paramount

Later seasons of Yellowstone have leaned into the soapier aspects of the family drama, as almost all serialized storytelling inevitably must. But the series premiere swings for the fences, setting up an operatic story of dynastic downfall. It's there in the narrative: The death of the firstborn son (RIP to Dave Annable's Lee Dutton), Beth (Kelly Reilly) occupying the tragic childless woman trope, Jamie (Wes Bentley) as the groveling son whose hunger for power and approval will turn dangerous, Rip (Cole Hauser) as the low-born pauper courting the princess and Kayce (Luke Grimes), the new heir, aligned with the enemy. These are big, old archetypes. To place them in a universe as specific as Yellowstone's—and in a genre as well-defined as the Western—is a feat. 

He may have spent basically the entirety of Season 4 relegated to a vision quest, but Kayce was always the key to understanding Yellowstone, its politics and the problem of John Dutton. The pilot pays most attention to John, sure. But it's most interested in Kayce's plight. He's living close to poverty on the Reservation, with Monica's (Kelsey Asbille) teaching salary keeping them afloat. The episode doesn't explain John and Kayce's falling-out, but it's clear that the Dutton patriarch has despotic tendencies.

Yellowstone performs a magic trick in this episode when Jimmy's concerned kin, Duke, tells John fawningly, "I remember when your way was the only way, and the world was better for it." At first, it sounds like a bit of rah-rah for property owners defending their keep. But by the end of the episode, the line sticks in the craw. Was the world better for it? Kayce certainly wasn't. 

Brecken Merrill as Tate Dutton and Luke Grimes as Kayce Dutton in 'Yellowstone' Season 1, Episode 1

Emerson Miller/Paramount

The series is, in large part, a procedural. There's a lot of political chess and legal jargon, even here in the pilot. That butts up against the grandeur of the imagery. Kayce carries his dead brother on horseback to the family seat, his father riding up the hill to meet him. You'd see that in any swords-and-sandals epic. 

Then there's the show's surprising commitment to seriously dark stuff. The series opens with a horse being put out of its misery. Before the usually soft-spoken Kayce kills his brother-in-law, he tells him, quite inexplicably, "In case you don't already know, there's no such thing as heaven." Then you have John Dutton cradling Lee, who's been dead for hours. Not to mention Beth, who's at once a firebrand and a child. She wields her trauma like an axe in the boardroom but calls her father "daddy" in her middle age. He calls her "sweetheart."

Later seasons of Yellowstone spin comedy out of this stuff, but we ought not forget how deeply, deeply weird the Duttons really are. Difficult characters, all. Maybe Wes Bentley was right when he predicted that the Duttons would meet their end one of two ways: Either they all die or, worse, only one of them survives. Like that other, dragon-riding TV dynasty, a Dutton alone in the world is a terrible thing. But it might just be their lot.

Yellowstone Seasons 1-4, along with Part 1 of Season 5, is now streaming on Peacock.

READ MORE: 16 Shows 'Yellowstone' Fans Will Love While They Wait for the Finale