In Yellowstone, There’s a Good Reason to Be Meaner than Evil

In Yellowstone, There’s a Good Reason to Be Meaner than Evil

Jamey Heit

The world of Yellowstone is not for the faint of heart. Amidst the backdrop of nature’s grandeur, viewers encounter power plays, schemes, and betrayals as the Dutton family pushes back against forces that want their land. The family’s relationships are cutthroat and Beth stands as an exemplar of what it takes to survive. She fearlessly confronts those who would destroy her family.

In the penultimate episode of Season Three, “Meaner than Evil,” Beth finds John sitting outside. The family feels the pressure of its fight with Market Equities. John won’t take an offer of half a billion dollars for his ranch, but the ranch can’t sustain itself against rising costs. It seems that the ranch is doomed despite the efforts to protect its legacy. Beth bristles with energy. John sits stoically as he looks out of the view. He explains his outwardly peaceful mindset in the face of the increasing pace of his ranch’s demise. He tells Beth, “You can’t reason with evil.  Evil wants what it wants and won’t stop until it’s won or you kill it.” For John, this isn’t about market forces. This is an explicitly moral fight. Market Equities represents the modern world. It is the evil force out to destroy what is good.

With that framework in place, John then offers Beth crucial insight into how he considers his role as protector of the ranch. Evil will not stop stalking the ranch. The only option, then, is to kill those evil forces. The Duttons would seem to be at an insurmountable disadvantage against those evil forces, but John has hope. He tells Beth: “The way to kill it is to be meaner than evil.” On the surface, it seems John is advocating for a race to the moral bottom. If evil is relentless, then the only way to win is to be even more sinister. However, John’s shift in language is crucial. The key is not to outdo evil. It’s to outsmart evil at its own game. Being mean is not the same as being evil. John emphasizes this point as he concludes his advice to Beth: “And the trick? It’s figuring out how to do that but still love your family and enjoy a sunrise.” They cannot lose their ability to love one another as a family. They have to retain their appreciation of the natural beauty they are fighting for. The paradox of being meaner than evil is that he, and by extension Beth, must retain things our culture aligns with goodness.

Yellowstone rejects a two-dimensional understanding of morality. Beth does a lot of things that a black-and-white understanding of morality would critique as wrong. Instead, Beth embodies an understanding of morality that places her interests at the center of her moral actions. John’s advice hints at why this is not just a case of Beth being supercharged in her egoism.

John’s advice introduces a moral throughline that Beth explains in more detail in the final episode of Season Three. Rip comes in from a long night of work. Beth acknowledges he is tired and Rip says, “Thank you, sweetie.” This seems like a typical exchange between a couple. Beth’s next question, however, immediately ups the stakes: “Who’d you kill?” With the same expression and tone he used to say thanks, Rip responds: “Don’t ask me that, Beth.” Beth repeats: “Who’d you kill?”

From here, the scene takes on a specifically moral dimension. The exchange between Beth and Rip echoes John’s advice on moral orientation:

 Beth: We don’t get to do that anymore.

Rip: What’s that?

Beth: Secrets. We don’t get those.

Rip: There’s things I do, and then there’s things I got to get done.

Beth: You don’t want to know them.

Rip: It’s not a secret, darling. It’s a favor.

Beth reminds Rip that he has become part of her family and, as such, he is bound by different moral obligations. Secrets cannot exist. He has to share what he does even though his actions are violent and immoral from a certain perspective. Implicitly, she conveys that the goodness of his actions is not in question. The issue is his obligation to be honest with her. Rip pushes back and labels his desire to keep information from her as a favor. He is going a good thing because of the morally questionable actions he is hiding.

 We can watch this scene as Rip’s struggle to find a moral middle ground between his duty to fight for the ranch and his desire not to involve Beth in that violence. Beth shifts the focus of the exchange following this remark to push on the extent of that violence:

Beth: How many?

Rip: Enough.

Beth: How many?

Rip: It’s a big ranch, Beth.

Beth: And our enemies don’t fight fair, you know that. How many?

Rip: I don’t know. Honestly.

Beth: Don’t pretend like you don’t know how we fight.

Rip: Oh, I know how you fight…

Beth: I subscribe to Nietzsche’s thoughts on right and wrong.

Rip: Hmm?

Beth: He was a German philosopher who died of syphilis after he cornholed some prostitute, so not exactly a life to model yours after, but his thoughts on right and wrong, good and evil.

Rip: Which were: there’s no such thing.

Beth: That, I believe. I believe in loving with your whole soul and destroying anything that wants to kill what you love.

Rip: That’s it.

Beth: That’s all there is.

As she probes, Beth locates the conversation with Rip in the same moral framework that John has explained to her previously. The ranch’s enemies, which John summarized as the evil they confront, do not fight fair, so the violence Rip wants to shield her from is acceptable. The notion that his actions are wrong can be set aside because the conflict at hand requires the Duttons, including Rip, to be meaner than evil.

Beth justifies this moral nuance by aligning her belief with Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil. Her mindset is not just parroting John’s perspective. She draws on a significant voice in moral philosophy. Nietzsche explains that our culture views concepts like good and evil as givens (he calls them “synthetic judgments a priori”). We assume their merit and applicability to our lives. They are, according to Nietzsche, “indispensable for us” yet we accept “the fictions of logic, without measuring reality against the purely invented world” that the moral construct of good and evil implies. These unexamined assumptions do not hold up to the moral realities of the world we actually live in. John recognizes this and Beth acts on it. On the Yellowstone ranch, the evil forces that would claim the Dutton’s land and legacy by force require a moral reconfiguration.

In pointing to Nietzsche, then, Beth recognizes the false narrative that Rip uses to avoid answering her question. She calls him out for the simplicity Nietzsche identifies in clean moral distinctions. Figures like Kant, whose categorical imperative anchors the cultural idea of definitive moral rules, mirror the distinctions Rip tries to make. Nietzsche explains that those who espouse such moral systems “are not honest enough in their work, although they all make a lot of virtuous noise when the problem of truthfulness is touched even remotely.” Beth challenges Rip directly after John has explained the moral messiness that drives his decisions. The reality is that evil will not fight fair, so the notion of fairness must be overcome.

Beth, then, defines her moral identify in terms that can confront the challenges her family faces. It would be easy to label her actions as immoral. However, in referencing Nietzsche she highlights that such criticisms rely on the simplicity that Nietzsche rejects. Importantly, she does not lack a moral center. That center just doesn’t reflect a simple dichotomy of good and evil. She understands she must be meaner than evil but still love her family and fight for the ranch. For Nietzsche, this is a sign of moral strength. The person who can define her/his moral values in terms that accomplish what Beth does – and what John says is necessary – is a person who  “discharges strength” in Nietzsche’s conception. Beth demonstrates a will to power.

Her decisions reflect the absence of a priori moral rules in favor of the decision to act in a way that demonstrates she is not bound by those rules. She avoids the “moral prejudice” that comes with fear. The consequences that come with accepting someone else’s moral framework underwrite this fear. Beth, however, learned to reject fear as a motivation for her actions. During Episode 5 of Season 3 (“Cowboys and Dreamers”), Beth explains that she understands what fear can do to a person. “I’ve made two decisions in my life based on fear. And they cost me everything.” Recognizing the limitations of fear allow Beth to let go of the moral world that Rip relies on. Beth’s mindset allows her “to sail right over morality.” There is no good and evil for her. All that matters if her love for Rip, John, and the ranch. And she loves those things with her whole soul. That allows her to be meaner than evil in order to protect them.

Dr. Jamey Heit is the CEO of Ecree, an automated assessment technology company and the Department Chair of Learning and Development of the International School of Management in Paris. His research interests stretch from learning theory to the ethical themes that surface in television and film. In his spare time, he is working on a television script for a historical miniseries and figuring out how to buy a ranch in Montana.

Works Cited

Nietzsche, F. (1966). Beyond Good & Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future (W. Kaufmann, Trans.). Vintage Books (Original work published 1886).

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