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Here's What It Means To Be Branded On Yellowstone

Spoilers for Yellowstone season 3 below.

The Paramount Network's Yellowstone is famously unsentimental about the West, and so when the show talks about branding, know that it's not a metaphor.

Branding on Yellowstone includes an actual branding iron in the shape of the Dutton Ranch logo heated over a flame and pressed into the skin of a devoted ranch hand. It's a big deal, and a not-so-subtle clue as to how unsparing life on the Yellowstone Ranch can be. If that's how the Duttons treat their friends, imagine what they do to their enemies? 

The way it's been used throughout the show's three seasons has been a source of some confusion, with some fans asking questions about the ranch's brutal initiation, and who exactly qualifies for the brand. 

"I thought branding was basically 'You messed up so badly, you take this brand and we own you forever," writes u/ChaserNeverRests on Reddit, "get the brand or we kill you/leave you to die/leave you to the cops'. If that's the case, then why the heck were Colby and Teeter branded?" It's a fair question, since nothing about the Yellowstone brand is entirely straightforward. 

Which characters have received the brand on Yellowstone?

The first character branded on the show is Jimmy Hurdstrom (Jefferson White), and it happens in the show's first episode. Jimmy's grandfather Dirk asks John Dutton (Kevin Costner) to give him a chance working on the ranch despite the fact that Jimmy has a record, and soon after the ranch's foreman and chief enforcer Rip Wheeler (Cole Hauser) shows up at Jimmy's trailer at night and threatens him with being turned in to the sheriff if he doesn't take the brand and come to work on the ranch. It's presented as an initiation, something required of him to show he's willing to sacrifice and endure for the sake of the job.

But not every hand gets the brand, at least not immediately. Colby (Denim Richards) has been around since season 1 and Teeter (Jennifer Landon) since early in season 3, but they don't receive their brands until the ninth episode of the third season. It happens after the pair are attacked by Wade Morrow (Boots Sunderland) and his son Clint (Brent Walker). The ranch enacts Dutton's revenge on the pair, which leaves the Morrows dead and the brand Wade once received cut off his chest by Rip. In this instance, branding Colby and Teeter is the ranch's way of sealing the deal and ensuring its secrets are kept.

In mafia terms, the Yellowstone brand marks a made guy (or gal)

"It is both a mark of being 'beyond redemption' to society, but also a badge of honor on the ranch itself," writes u/thehackneyedcarriage in response to the original post. "It signals you removing yourself from regular society, and those who've been through the same will defend you with their lives, unless you betray them."

As Richards put it in an interview with TV Insider, the brand is a way of showing that the laid-back Colby has come to understand he can't stay out of the fight. "It was not only that rite of passage," Richards said, "which is very ceremonial, but also this way of, you know we're also getting branded because there's a big fight that's going to end up happening and you need to have all hands on deck."

If the cliffhanger at the end of season 3 is any indication, then the big fight is just getting started. Viewers can see more of how the brand changes Colby and Teeter when Yellowstone season 4 debuts in June of 2021.