With one spin-off underway and another in the queue, Taylor Sheridan’s compelling contemporary Western drama “Yellowstone” is showing no signs of slowing down when it comes to keeping viewers coming back — or tuning in for the first time — week after week. Without a doubt, a major component of the series’ appeal is its most rugged anti-hero, Rip Wheeler (Cole Hauser), whose devotion to John Dutton (Kevin Costner) and the Yellowstone Ranch appears to know no bounds.
And yet, there are bounds when it comes to what audiences are willing to accept with regard to the often criminal, inevitably violent actions Rip feels he must take in order to defend the Duttons and their ranch. Throughout Season 4, another beloved character, Forrie J. Smith’s Lloyd Pierce, has butted heads with one of the other ranch hands, an unwilling captive of a cowboy named Walker (Ryan Bingham). Walker unwittingly “stole” Lloyd’s girlfriend (because that’s how sentient female humans work), and the latter has been unable to keep his jealousy and anger at bay ever since.
After Lloyd breaks the “no fighting in the bunkhouse” rule in Episode 4, Rip and John ultimately decide the two should work their issues out by pounding the crap out of one another until “it’s finished,” and John tells Rip to “make an example out of the last man standing.” If that all sounds exquisitely melodramatic and unnecessary, it’s because it is, and the violence Rip demonstrated when he “had” to make an example out of Lloyd was difficult for many fans to swallow.
Rip physically destroying Lloyd felt unjustified
Rip not only pummels Lloyd repeatedly in Episode 4 after the latter’s initial fight with Walker, but he also beats him down aggressively in Episode 6, then graphically smashes Lloyd’s hand with his boot. Lloyd’s second beating, importantly, isn’t Rip’s way of reiterating his “if you want to fight someone, you fight me” rule. When Rip destroys his best friend’s (very necessary) hand, it’s because he refuses to back down from a fight that John Dutton ordered Rip to have Lloyd and Walker undertake until they could “work out” their issues. By the time Rip “nobly” shoulders the burden of taking Lloyd down for good, Lloyd’s been continually fist fighting with Walker for well over an hour. To put this lengthy fistfight into perspective, it’s worth noting that even UFC fights are broken down into three or five five-minute rounds.
Prior to the premiere of Season 4, fans began to speculate about Rip and Lloyd’s fight from the trailers and had some pretty distinct opinions about what they felt it would take to justify such a thing. As one fan wrote on the series’ subreddit, Lloyd would have to “commit a cardinal sin for Rip to beat him up. With their history, Lloyd always having Rip’s back, Rip asking Lloyd to be his best man, I can’t imagine Lloyd doing anything to get himself on the wrong side of Rip’s fist.” Lloyd’s “cardinal sin,” on the surface, was fighting in the bunkhouse. Scratch below that surface, however, and it becomes clear that his real sin was putting his own personal grudge against Walker over the safety of the ranch — or so we’re told. If that’s truly what happened, it would be easier to watch as Rip crushes his best ranch hand’s (literal) hand under the sole of his boot. Unfortunately, that’s not what happened. At least, not really.
Rip’s actions were ultimately Rip’s fault
As viewers will recall, Kayce (Luke Grimes) was supposed to take Walker “to the train station” (aka kill him) in Season 2, after the singer saw Rip help Jamie cover up a murder. Kayce, however, couldn’t bring himself to kill Walker — whose only crime, to be clear, was being rational enough to get upset when Rip made him an accessory to murder against his will — a misstep Rip and Lloyd discover in Season 3, Episode 9. But Walker doesn’t actually return to The Yellowstone Ranch on his own. Walker shows up in Dillon — a location that is, at minimum, two-and-a-half hours away from the ranch, which supposedly borders the edge of Yellowstone National Park in Montana (via Google Maps). Had Lloyd and Rip simply walked away from the bar and pretended they never saw Walker, they wouldn’t be obliged to keep him under the thumb of the ranch at all, (much less at all costs), since he clearly wasn’t interested in reporting anything he saw to the authorities. As an ex-con himself, Walker has little interest in incriminating himself, which is exactly what he’d be doing if he went to the police.
Thus, the better part of the situation that leads to Rip “being forced” to beat down on Lloyd (twice) is a situation largely of his own making, and subsequently difficult to chalk up to just another instance of “cowboy justice.” Add to that the fact that Walker and Lloyd’s entire conflict does little, if anything, to further the plot of the series, (besides maybe injecting it with caricaturistic levels of toxic masculinity that the series might, fingers crossed, attempt to explore at some point) and you have the makings of a scene that simply crosses one bridge too many, including one of the most important.
Rip beating Lloyd to a pulp broke an important rule, but some fans have a theory
When it comes to anti-heroes, made men, and vigilantes like Rip, audiences can accept otherwise unacceptable levels of violence (including murder) since they’re tethered to the narrative and its in-world construct of justice. These acts would be appalling to our sense of right and wrong in the real world, but, within the fictitious universe, they’re completely justifiable. It’s only when that violence spills outside the bounds of that justification — either because we’ve gained too much sympathy for the individual on the receiving end, or, because it’s doesn’t come off as a legitimately necessary action — that our willful suspension of real-world morality begins to break down.
In the case of Rip’s attack on Lloyd, both of these bubble-bursting elements are at play.”I don’t understand why rip is being so hard on (Lloyd) this season,” wrote u/thenaturalwitch on the show’s subreddit, while u/SmoothBlueberry7 said Rip was “being an a*****e,” and said they were “starting not to like his character for how he is treating Lloyd.”
Viewers not only have enormous amounts of sympathy for Lloyd, (a sympathy the character has built up over three-and-a-half seasons) but, it’s also difficult to understand the thinking that went into throwing two ranch hands and integral employees into a Gladiator-style fight to the finish, only to then punish one of those individuals for doing exactly what he was told. It’s so difficult to understand, in fact, that several viewers on one Reddit thread theorized that the scene only really existed, as u/MajorMJO put it, because “the show is setting up a situation for Rip to take Lloyd for granted, and then realize he was wrong.” Considering the irrational line of reasoning behind the melodramatic subplot, it’s a theory that’s not, one hopes, without merit.