Yellowstone Prequel 1923 Sets the Duttons Against a Changing American WestPhoto Courtesy of Paramount+ TV Reviews 1923
Although Taylor Sheridan’s television empire was founded on the contemporary series Yellowstone, the two prequels that the show has spawned thus far are both period pieces: 1883, which chronicles the history of the franchise’s central Dutton family on their journey to settle Montana, and its brand new sequel 1923, which promises to tell the story of the subsequent generation and their struggles to make a success out of the land their forefathers claimed. It’s an interesting choice, given American television’s general disinterest in historical stories that aren’t about Tudor or Regency England, as well as its longtime aversion to looking too closely at either the dark underpinnings of the American experiment or the uncomfortable truths that hold up our collective cultural mythmaking.
But if anyone is going to make American period dramas a thing again, it’s Sheridan, who is admittedly much less interested in history as a tool to explore the specific failures of the past or to impart necessary lessons for the future than he is in mining its soapiest and most dramatic elements. This isn’t exactly a new thing—in fact, it’s the same engine that has long made British shows like Downton Abbey so popular, which are more interested in messy relationships than the historical truth of the time period in which it takes place. And, you know what? It mostly works. Granted, this is never going to be a show with the narrative heft of a Hell on Wheels or a Deadwood, but as a messy family drama? It’s got potential.
Unfortunately, critics only received the first episode of 1923 for review (out of a total of eight), so it’s hard to really judge whether the show will satisfyingly bring its seemingly disparate plot points together over the course of the rest of the season. I mean… it might! But it definitely has some work to do on this score, if only because a good third of the show initially feels completely disconnected from the rest of it. However, the scope of the world the series builds from its first moments onscreen is intriguing in its tension and contradictions. This is an America struggling to re-establish its identity in the wake of both a devastating global pandemic (the Spanish flu) and the first world war, and as a result, the West remains in a seemingly constant state of flux, as more immigrants arrive, more ranchers squabble over grazing rights, and more native peoples continue to be forced off their land. Cars exist alongside horse-drawn buggies, prohibition has turned “soda shops” into secret liquor dens, and government-funded boarding schools are abusing the same indigenous students they morally claim to be helping.
It’s a volatile time, and perhaps that’s meant to excuse the rise of hard and volatile people, but it’s clear from the series’s opening scene (in which Helen Mirren hunts down and shoots a man with a rifle in the woods, and what I am saying is I absolutely want more of that!) that these aren’t necessarily going to be particularly likable characters. “The herd comes first” is a phrase we hear at least half a dozen times over the course of the premiere, an adage that’s apparently meant to excuse everything from missing major life events like the birth of a child and postponing a long-planned wedding to essentially shrugging at the existential struggles of their neighbors.
1923 primarily follows the story of Jacob Dutton (Harrison Ford), elder brother to 1883’s James (Tim McGraw) and great-great-granduncle of Yellowstone’s John (Kevin Costner). He and his wife Cara (Helen Mirren) are now the heads of the family, having taken over Yellowstone Ranch and essentially raised James’ children as their own. Struggling with drought, diminishing grass on which to feed their livestock, and a downturn in the market for beef after the end of the war, the Duttons are also trying to adjust to a more modern world, one in which an influx of immigrants and the expansion of access to inventions like trains and cars are rapidly impacting the family’s way of life.
Admittedly, most of us—particularly those that aren’t already Yellowstone devotees— are only likely curious about this show because of its A-list leading actors, and I’m here to confirm that Ford and Mirren are excellent together. So much so that it’s almost annoying when the two aren’t sharing a screen with one another; their connection is easily the most compelling and interesting thing about the show. Jacob and Cara’s relationship is something of an oddity for the time period—and something the show would be well served to delve into as much as possible in future installments. They are childless, yet clear partners in every sense of the word, who turn to one another for both comfort and clarity of purpose. Admittedly, Ford’s gruff cowboy is basically exactly what you likely expect, right down to his battered hat and his willingness to get violent for the sake of his family. Instead, it’s Mirren’s Cara who seems to contain multitudes, full of a take-no-bullshit forthrightness, a quiet spine of steel, and a genuine appreciation for the specific kind of empowered freedom ranch life provides.
Elsewhere, we’re also introduced to a young Native woman named Teonna Rainwater (Aminah Nieves), who has apparently been forced into a local boarding school where a cadre of Catholic priests and nuns are attempting to “civilize” her. (This involves alternately humiliating her and then committing vile acts of abuse against her if she dares talk back, and it’s deeply uncomfortable to watch.). While 1923 deserves credit for the unflinching way it presents this shameful nugget of American history, there’s little sense of how Teonna’s story will tie back into the world of the Duttons as yet. And then there’s Spencer (Brandon Sklenar), the youngest child of 1883’s James Dutton, who at least shares a blood bond with the show’s primary family, but seems to exist on a totally different show that looks like nothing so much as Taylor Swift’s Wildest Dreams video.
He went to Europe to fight in the war and clearly suffers from shell shock and a lot of tortured memories as a result. But rather than return to Montana, he’s gone to Africa, where he appears to have become a big game hunter of sorts—though it’s not clear whether he’s got a death wish or simply needs the rush of violence just to feel something anymore. Unfortunately, whatever’s going on with Spencer’s African safari isn’t terribly interesting and his scenes thus far do little more than make you wish you were watching other characters. It’s certainly a fixable problem, but like so much else with this series, we’re going to have to wait and see how it all shakes out.
1923 premieres Sunday, December 18 on Paramount+
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.
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