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What Yellowstone Could Look Like Without Kevin Costner

Sometimes as a television viewer you end up sitting with a cliffhanger for so long between seasons that you almost forget that everything you know about a show is still up in the air. 

It was only in late August of 2020 when fans of Paramount Network's Yellowstone watched Kevin Costner's John Dutton, family patriarch and owner of the Yellowstone Ranch, get shot multiple times by unknown assailants while stopped on the roadside to help a motorist in need. John's fate remains up in the air. When last seen, he was bullet-ridden but still moving, clinging to life. As far as fans are concerned, he's been there ever since, Schrödinger's Costner, caught somewhere between life and death, with no way for viewers to know whether or not he's headed gently into that good night.

That doesn't mean they haven't tried to open the proverbial box, however. Rumors abound as to whether Costner and his character will be coming back to the show. The actor gave an interview to Good Day New York in December in which he flat-out refused to answer the question of whether he was returning. There are signs that could be taken either way. He told Good Housekeeping while still working on season 3 that he was coming back for season 4, and Gossip Cop reported in December that he had returned but was growing frustrated at the show's new Montana shooting location and the difficulty of spending time with his family while adhering to COVID protocols, all of which was denied by a Costner spokesperson, who said the actor was happy with his work on the show. 

Who wins if John Dutton really is dead?

If Costner really is done, or very nearly so, then it raises a whole host of questions about what comes next for the show. First among them is who else might be joining him on the list of ex-cast members. The season 3 finale threw two other Duttons into danger right as John was being attacked, with Beth's (Kelly Reilly) assistant opening a package bomb in her presence and a group of gunmen storming into Kayce's (Luke Grimes) office. Suffice to say it was a bad day for the Duttons.

That would be an awful lot of characters to erase in one swoop, and would leave John's legacy, and his wishes for the ranch as expressed in season 3, unprotected. At the end of season 3, John was standing in opposition to the one living child of his who wasn't attacked, Jamie (Wes Bentley), who was moving to sell the ranch and its land. Jamie has never exactly fit into the family, and he learned during the course of season 3 that he was actually adopted by the Dutton family as a baby. That knowledge may have severed all his ties to the family except for the ones he can use for his own ends.

Family conflict on Yellowstone seems inevitable

Whether or not Jamie had a part in the coordinated attacks, the show's knocking off all the people who might be able to keep him from selling the Yellowstone Ranch in one swoop seems like it would maybe be a little too easy. There would remain the threat of ranch enforcer Rip Wheeler's (Cole Hauser) extrajudicial revenge, but Rip is unlikely to prevail in either a boardroom or a courtroom against Jamie or Chief Thomas Rainwater (Gil Birmingham) or shady hedge fund manager Roarke Morris (Josh Holloway). It seems likely at least one Dutton comes out alive to make a claim, and possibly more than that.

If one of them isn't John, then perhaps the show's about to pivot toward epic sibling rivalry a la Succession. Maybe the two Dutton survivors will pair up against Jamie. A little more internecine warfare might freshen things up, dynamically speaking. Maybe all three will end up wanting different things, and we'll get a battle royale. Or maybe, if Jamie wasn't involved in the attacks, the shock of the violence will flip him back to their side. There are enough moving pieces that have been established over the course of the show's three seasons — Roarke and the various land developers; Rainwater and his tribe's interests in the land; Jamie's political connections — to make any number of combinations of motives and conflicts possible.

Who's best positioned to take over for John Dutton?

All three Dutton children have complicated relationships with their father, but they would each bring different strengths to the family business — or to any attempt to dismantle it. 

Beth's interests appear most aligned with John's at the end of season 3. She does have plenty of experience in the sorts of formal negotiations it's going to take to keep the ranch in the family's hands, and if John is dead, she would presumably inherit the loyalty of Rip, her long-time lover. This would give her a leg up both in keeping the ranch running day-to-day and in executing the type of violence that has become routine around its margins. In theory, they would make a formidable pair.

Kayce can hold his own in a fight, and has been learning the nuances of authority and power in this corner of the country, but given his ambiguous history with the ranch, would he even want to take it over? Meanwhile, Jamie has made his position clear on the ranch, but he might not have stomach for the dirty work necessary to execute the transaction.

Does John Dutton have to die for Yellowstone to move forward?

John Dutton wouldn't even technically need to die for some of these scenarios to come to pass — at least not right away. Maybe his cell phone really did stop the most important bullet, like a modern-day Teddy Roosevelt. Will he be laid-up for a time, like Vito Corleone after he was shot, while his children (some of them) do their best to hold the line on the ranch? Will he come to have cause for regret over relinquishing his power to his children, like some Montanan King Lear?

Or maybe John's the only Dutton family member who survives the attacks, and the fourth season of Yellowstone becomes Kevin Costner's old-man action showcase. Is it unlikely? Yes, but if Costner's not going to tell us, then all we can do is speculate. 

The fourth season of Yellowstone is expected to premiere on the Paramount Network this summer.