1923 Episode 1 Review: Yellowstone Prequel Starts Strong
In the premiere story of this next generation of the Dutton family, we see the seeds being sown of a young ranch, young love, and a young empire.
This 1923 review contains spoilers.
1923 Episode 1
When audiences met the first generation of American-born Duttons in last year’s beautiful and bounteous 1883, their struggle would come to define the stubbornness, ferocity, and strength of the characters of Yellowstone. When the family ventured across America to carve out their chunk of Montana, almost nothing but tragedy followed them, and when they finally arrived at the land they called home, the land was not yet satiated. Creator Taylor Sheridan made it clear that this family would forever have the shadow of violence looming behind them.
The continued story of 1923, not completely surprisingly, is a familiar one. The new limited series even uses the haunting voice of Elsa Dutton (Isabel May) much like 1883 did, narrating the short history of the decades that have passed from the time of her death, to this new American frontier. Following the death of James Dutton (Tim McGraw), his wife Margaret (Faith Hill) sent a letter to James’ brother, Jacob (Harrison Ford) to come and join the family in Montana, and to help the family to flourish.
The family was already on its last legs, as tragically, Margaret had also passed when Jacob arrived. Jacob and his wife Cara (Helen Mirren) then inherited the two Dutton boys, Spencer (Brandon Sklenar) and John (James Badge Dale), the ranch, and the lifestyle James once dreamed of.
In reality, we learn quickly that this family’s struggle hasn’t changed much for the almost century and a half they’ve been on the land. Sheridan, as he did when 1883 was on the air, has done well to reinforce key themes throughout Yellowstone this season that are rippled and reflected across time in the proverbial Dutton pond. Season 5 of Yellowstone has been about almost nothing but how the cowboy way of life is dying, what it means to work the land until your fingers bleed, and how important it is to preserve what little piece of that existence is left.
One of the more lighthearted subplots in the 1923 premiere is meeting young Jack Dutton (Darren Mann), a sprout of a man as passionate and energetic as his aunt Elsa was in her youth. Jack gets himself into hot water quickly as he has to postpone his wedding to the neighboring beauty Elizabeth (Michelle Randolph) to drive his family’s herd. Elizabeth doesn’t understand Jack’s sense of duty to the ranch instead of her, and so the two young lovers are quickly at odds.
If not for the wisdom of Aunt Cara, the wedding may have been off, but Cara is as steadfast, intelligent and in control as the actor who portrays her. Make no mistake, this premiere belongs to Dame Helen Mirren. Fans have come to appreciate and perhaps even love the strength of Dutton women throughout the generations we’ve seen on our television, but Cara’s is not a singular strength. She is a provider and mother to her nephews, she is a loving and equal partner to Jacob, and most importantly, she will always get what she wants, by means of a kind materteral whisper in your ear, or a shotgun pointed at your chest.
Cara is perhaps the most interesting and noteworthy character to come out of the Yellowstone universe in the five years these shows have been airing, and the casting of Mirren to bring her own wisdom wrapped in an Irish-lilt was perhaps one of the best bits of casting, as well. Sheridan, through his writing, has seemingly endeared himself to a mass of Hollywood legends, who are springing to be a part of his projects in droves, but you can see how much Mirren especially believes in the words and the character he has written for her.
Sheridan also wrote what was certainly the most powerful 10-15 minutes within the storied history of this universe. In the subplot of Teonna (Aminah Nieves), we see how the young Native American woman is held in one of the barbaric Residential schools that were sadly all too prominent in North American history. As we know, Sheridan does not write weak-willed female characters, and we see perhaps the most ferocity in any of them when Teonna must stand up for herself against the abuse within the school. The severity of the savagery that is shown towards Teonna in the name of white-washing homogenization is only a taste of the real life tragedy that befell so many First Nations’ children, and it cannot be stressed enough how important and powerful a storyline this is. It remains topical and poignant and the hope is, it is explored throughout the season. The young Neives should be applauded for bearing the weight of this plot, and having shown so much range in a relatively short amount of time.
The small bits of variety 1923 offers will undoubtedly be one of the show’s greatest gifts as well. For the first time, Sheridan has taken the audience on a bit of a globetrotting adventure, as Spencer Dutton brings his family’s shadow of violence to the savannahs of Africa. Sheridan traded just a small piece of the mountainous Montana meadows for foreign sun-kissed grasslands. This storyline is quite intriguing – having a Dutton man bring his darkness to the colonial darkness of the continent is an interesting shift, but Spencer’s past is already the best developed this early in the show. Spencer served in WWI, and having survived the atrocities of that brutal war, he now tries to slay his own proverbial demons by hunting literal monsters, as he is a hired hunter, paid to kill man-killing lions and jaguars. Sklenar does extremely well to convey the inescapable gloom within all Duttons, yet the poetic irony that as far as the character may go, he remains an eternal companion to death is one a superbly written thematic device used by Sheridan.
However, not all characters have had a chance to shine just yet, and while curiosity will certainly be piqued, some audience members will have to be patient with other characters it would seem. While Mirren shines, Ford is relegated to an all too-familiar and predictable role in the premiere. Jacob has established himself as Livestock Commissioner, which of course, is a major part of the Dutton legacy, as his descendents would clench that position in their fist for generations to come. But predictably, a Dutton man in a position of power is bound to ruffle a few feathers. Or in the case of 1923, ruffle some wool.
A neighboring sheep-herder, Banner Creighton (Jerome Flynn) voices his displeasure that the shepherds are not treated as equals to the cowmen, and that as Commissioner, Jacob must step in. But, like any red-blooded Dutton, Jacob is focussed on his code, and Creighton broke that code, ravaging the land of a neighboring rancher.
This is a thread that has been stretched to its absolute limits in the Yellowstone universe. Naturally, the show needs a rivalry. Naturally, it needs an opposing force to try and bring the Duttons down, only to be thwarted by our family of anti-heroes, but the subplot was extremely safe to say the least. The only intrigue sparked by this particular thread is merely to see more of the grizzled icon Ford and Game of Thrones fan-favorite Flynn face off against one another.
1923 did extremely well with its premiere. The episode introduces a new time, new characters, and sets up some intrigue in those characters that viewers won’t lose interest in just one episode. The hope is that Sheridan continues to journey into the new and exciting valleys of the story that can bring variation and diversity, and justify this new chapter in the Dutton legacy.