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The ending of Yellowstone season 3 explained

Contains major spoilers for Yellowstone season 3

Well — that escalated quickly.

Season 3 of Paramount Network's hit neo-Western has, alas, reached its conclusion with a grim finale that left fans to wring their hands and wait a year or more to learn about the fate of their favorite characters. In many ways, season 3 of Yellowstone was a bit of a slow burn. Bozeman received a new big bad in the form of Roarke Morris (Josh Holloway), whose financial firm makes Dan Jenkins' (Danny Huston) little real estate venture look like a mom-and-pop boutique. Though Holloway's Morris certainly made a splashy entrance, he remained mostly on the sidelines for the first seven episodes of season 3, calling in stock trades from his laptop and trying to plug a little fly fishing time into his busy calendar. This civilized Morris might have been intended to lull us into a false sense of security all along, because everything shifted in the back half of the season.

Actress Kelly Reilly, who plays Beth Dutton on the show, certainly thinks so. She described Morris to Entertainment Weekly as the, "most formidable enemy" the Duttons have yet to face. After watching that season 3 finale, this description rings with a certain prescience. The final episode, entitled "The World is Purple," didn't offer any resolution to the boiling land dispute between John Dutton (Kevin Costner), Chairman Rainwater (Gil Birmingham), and Morris' firm, but it did escalate the conflict into a new, deadly phase, and it may have marked the end of the line for some of the series' most important characters.

The last five minutes of "The World is Purple" were some of the most eventful in Yellowstone history, and they've officially set the stage for the series to enter its next act. Here's a breakdown of everything that did happen, everything that didn't, and where we might be headed in Yellowstone season 4.

Roarke Morris won the battle on the Yellowstone finale, but the war has just begun

It's no secret what Morris' hedge fund is after. After John Dutton rebuffed their attempts to buy him out to the tune of $500 million, they're playing for keeps. They hope to beat the Duttons into submission so that they can have the Governor of Montana condemn Dutton's land using eminent domain law. Then they can swoop in and build a new international airport to service their planned ski developments in the area. For most of the season, it seemed like this war would be fought in suits and ties across municipal desks, but that's never the way things end up on Yellowstone.

In episode 8, Morris fired the first shot by sending goons to trample Colby (Denim Richards) and Teeter (Jen Landon). Rip (Cole Hauser) and the boys in the Yellowstone bunkhouse responded by riding down those same goons and executing them Wild West style. For a moment, there was hope that Rip's willingness to go all the way might scare Morris off. The fight moved back inside, culminating in an episode 10 meeting of the minds in Governor Perry's (Wendy Moniz-Grillo) office. 

During the climactic meeting, Morris and his attorney lay their cards out on the table. Their too-big-to-fail hedge fund is moving forward with their land grab armed with Governor Perry's support. Jamie (Wes Bentley) is powerless to help even if he wanted to — which he most certainly doesn't. In his capacity as state attorney general, he is forced to recuse himself because of his family connection to the Yellowstone Ranch.

Chairman Rainwater offers a little momentary relief with a legal delay tactic. His tribe plans to use the resources of the Sierra Club and other environmental interest groups to press an environmental assessment of Morris' plans. This could theoretically delay the state's condemnation of the land, and thus the development plans, though Morris doesn't seem scared of a little legal fight. Chairman Rainwater urges the Duttons to join in his lawsuit, but it appears that John has other plans. He delivers an ominous warning to Morris before exiting the meeting with Beth in tow: Roarke Morris doesn't even know the rules of the game that they're playing, and John Dutton is going to teach them to him.

About that last bloody sequence in the finale of Yellowstone season 3

Apparently, John Dutton isn't the only gangster in southern Montana. Despite John's warning, Morris clearly does understand the rules of the game — not to mention their deadly stakes. As John Dutton pulls off to the side of a lonely Montana highway to help a stranded Californian change a flat tire, Morris executes a coordinated attack on the Dutton principals.

We cut between John, Beth, and Kayce (Luke Grimes), as each one weathers an attack we should assume came directly from Morris. A van pulls up beside John as he's working on the tire, and guns him down in cold blood. Kayce is attacked in similar fashion inside the office of the Bureau of Land Management, which he currently runs. Beth receives a mysterious package containing a bomb, which her new assistant stupidly opens. The coordinated execution all goes off without a hitch.

While season 3 comes nowhere near resolving the land war at the center of this violent conflict, we are certainly left to grapple with some casualties. Nothing in those last few minutes confirms the fate of the Duttons, but here's what we suspect. The Dutton children will survive their brush with death — all of them. There's just too much unexploded tension lurking there, and their backstories remain to be explored. While Beth is certainly in the most danger, we suspect she's going to crawl away from the wreckage of that explosion with an epic grudge worthy of her character's temperament. Rip's morbid, emotional scene telling his mother's corpse about his plans to marry Beth was likely a red herring meant to lead viewers down the path of suspicion that Beth might bite it just to motivate Rip. We don't buy it. Death by mail bomb isn't a satisfying end to Beth's arc.

The Dutton patriarch is another matter entirely. John Dutton took several machine gun rounds to the chest. Hard to imagine an old man with health issues walking away from that. John's death would also serve a necessary story function. By removing the father, the children are forced to stand on their own and forge a new path. This kind of generational passing of the story torch is a classic device that seems in line with the Shakespearean form of Yellowstone. Of course, John could survive, as well. Anything can be explained away by a medical miracle in TV world. It would be a shame to see Kevin Costner go, after all. But we're putting his odds of survival at the lowest of the low.

Which brings us to Jamie. The black sheep of the Dutton clan not only learned that he's adopted this season, but also delivered the most chilling declaration of the finale. After turning his back on the family during their meeting at the governor's office with Morris, Jamie even left Governor Perry herself unsettled by confirming that — from now on — he's only out for himself. If the generational torch is truly passed in season 4, this shift sets Jamie up as a primary antagonist to his siblings. That seems like the kind of dynamic that creators John Linson and Taylor Sheridan might like to explore.

Time to begin speculating about the who, what, and when of season 4. Happy hiatus.