PLOT: In 1923, the Dutton family, which is now headed by Jacob (Harrison Ford) and his wife Cara (Helen Mirren), are faced with several challenges, including a crew of violent sheepmen led by the vicious Banner (Jerome Flynn), who will not stop grazing on their territory. Meanwhile, the family’s wayward son, Spenser (Brandon Sklenar), who hasn’t been home since WWI, makes a living hunting rogue lions in Africa but may need to return sooner rather than later.
REVIEW: Who would have thought Yellowstone would spawn such a strong franchise? While a long-time devotee of the show, I was wary of the prequel 1883 when it premiered on Paramount Plus last year, only to quickly become immersed in it. Functioning as a limited series, it told one of the best western tales I’ve seen in ages, and for his follow-up, 1923, showrunner Taylor Sheridan has widened his scope beyond anything we’ve seen in the franchise.
Despite the title, 1923 is designed to take place over a few years, with it being teased in the lead-up that the show would tackle prohibition and the Great Depression, which only began in 1929. The show will run two seasons, and indeed Sheridan is setting up an epic tale. While only the first episode was made available to the press, the show does a great job setting up three critical storylines that will likely be essential as the yarn continues.
The first and most hyped story relates to Helen Mirren and Harrison Ford’s Cara and Jacob. The latter is the brother of Tim McGraw’s character, James, in 1883 (Yellowstone fans will remember his death in the 1890s being featured in one episode). The two have taken over the ranch and are raising James’s kids as their own. They’re all grown now, with the oldest, John Dutton (James Badge Dale), having a wife (Marley Shelton’s Emma) and a now-grown son of his own, Jack (Darren Mann). Jack is set to marry a local girl (Michelle Randolph’s Elizabeth), only for ranch business to constantly interrupt things. Meanwhile, Jacob and John tangle with a sheepman (Jerome Flynn) who resents the amount of land the Duttons lay claim to.
The second storyline centers around Aminah Nieves’s Teonna, a Native American teen who’s at a residential school run by a sadistic nun (Jennifer Ehle’s Sister Mary) and a half-crazed priest, Sebastian Roché’s Father Renaud. While it’s too early to see exactly where this is going, the show notes that once girls at the school reach a certain age, they’re never heard from again, making escape her main concern, so it’s not hard to imagine that at some point she may end up crossing paths with the Duttons, or perhaps being an ancestor of Kelsey Asbille’s Monica or Gil Birmingham’s Thomas Rainwater on Yellowstone.
The third storyline is where Sheridan really tries something different, with us following one of James’ wayward sons, Spenser, as he makes a living as an adventurer in Africa. This part of the show feels like an Indiana Jones movie, with the actor, Brandon Sklenar, looking so much like a young Harrison Ford that, when he’s introduced, I thought I was watching a flashback. Sklenar seems like a big star just about to happen, and his storyline, where he hunts two rogue lions, seems inspired by the real-life tale behind The Ghost and the Darkness. Spenser, along with Teonna, is perhaps the most immediately compelling character, suffering from intense PTSD and avoiding home, despite his beloved Aunt Cara’s constant letters begging him to return.
In sixty minutes, Sheridan and director Ben Richardson do a great job setting up this epic chapter in the ongoing Yellowstone saga, with Sklenar and Nieves the early standouts. However, Helen Mirren and Harrison Ford get a lot to do as well, with Mirren, the kindly matriarch who, unable to have children on her own, loves the Dutton children. She’s never been so warm, although the series starts with a flash forward showing her executing a baddie with a trusty shotgun, so expect her to spend only some of her time at the ranch waiting for the boys to return. For his part, Ford plays perfectly to type, with him grouchy with everyone outside the Dutton clan but warm to his adopted sons and his beloved wife (his chemistry with Mirren is as strong as it was in The Mosquito Coast). He’s in the mould of Costner’s John and McGraw’s James, and he looks like a pretty imposing cowboy.
My only complaint with 1923 is that I wish Paramount Plus had sent more episodes along so that it would be easier to get a better feel for what the show will be like. Tons of seemingly important characters, like Brian Geraghty’s ranch boss Zane, along with Dale and Shelton, get very little screen time, even if they’re sure to emerge as main characters as the show goes on. I’m also eagerly awaiting Timothy Dalton’s debut as one of the bad guys, but I digress. As far as first episodes go, 1923 is a doozy, and I can’t wait to see more of what the Dutton family gets to in this very turbulent period.