It seems like there's no stopping Taylor Sheridan. Since writing "Sicario" and making his directorial debut with the seriously underappreciated "Hell or High Water" in 2016, Sheridan has found his home at Paramount, creating "Yellowstone," an enormous success for the company, and one of television's biggest success stories. With "Yellowstone" now into season 5 with no signs of slowing down, the world of the Dutton family is expanding with a second(!) spin-off series, "1923."
Having never seen an episode of Paramount's biggest hit "Yellowstone," I was curious if "1923" would feel too inaccessible, relying so much on the lore of the first series that any spin-off would feel inaccessible. To add another layer of potential confusion, "1923" is the sequel to another "Yellowstone" spin-off series, "1883," but this new series is also a prequel to "Yellowstone." Now that you've taken some time to digest this surprisingly complicated information, I was pleased to discover that there aren't any barriers to following what's going on in "1923," though I was plagued by the sneaking suspicion that I was missing some subtle (and not-so-subtle) nods to the other shows in the "Yellowstone" universe.
For those like me who have no familiarity with "Yellowstone" or "1883," the appeal of watching Taylor Sherdian's newest series is two-fold: screen legends Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren star in "1923." (A third reason is former James Bond Timothy Dalton playing a major antagonist, but sadly he doesn't appear in the first episode).
A Bitter Battle Brews In Montana
Harrison Ford plays Jacob Dutton (a name I've learned carries quite a bit of weight in this franchise), family patriarch and livestock commissioner. There's a lot being thrown at Jacob in this first episode. There are rising tensions in Montana, with the rough, ruthless landscape going through a lengthy drought that's led to a grass shortage. That might not sound like a big deal now, but considering the community depends on livestock — which eats that very grass to survive — and you've got a heck of a problem on your hands. There's also a rise in locust, an oncoming economic depression, and just about every other problem you can fathom. Most important is the drought, which has led to sky-high tensions between the cowboys and sheepherders.
The sheepherders are led by Banner Creighton (Jerome Flynn), who is furious over the sudden lack of resources while also harboring a vendetta against Jacob and his entire family, particularly in regard to how much land they have. Jacob has no time for Banner's complaints, which leads to a quick, furious scene in a courthouse. It sets up the conflict between Banner and Jacob quickly, but the worldbuilding here feels too rushed and doesn't let us understand why Jacob and Banner have what feels like a heated rivalry.
The scene establishes that Jacob's family has the largest plot of land in the region, while sheepherders like Banner are suffering. That's an interesting dynamic, but it's all too familiar and gets to violence in a few seconds — and it feels like a missed opportunity to really establish something special. Thankfully, Ford is thrilling, effectively channeling a lifetime of fury and frustration into this no-nonsense patriarch. He's not one to shy away from violence, and it's clear this is a man that will do absolutely anything in his power, and maybe more, to keep what's his. A lifetime of difficulty has led to this toughness — "I've been here since 1894, Clive, I do not remember an easy year," he tells a co-worker. It's admittedly a bit one note in the first episode, but "1923" has an entire season to give Jacob some nuance.
Then there's Helen Mirren, who plays Dutton family matriarch Cara. If you had concerns that Cara would be little more than a doting wife, you can toss those worries away: It takes less than a minute into the first episode for Cara to blow away a foe with a shotgun. It's clear Cara is not one to be messed with, and Mirren feels very much in her element, feeling every bit as hardened as Ford, but with a sense of humanity that allows her to feel more grounded. Cara seems to be a person far more sensitive when talking to those she cares for, but if someone comes to threaten what her family has worked for, well … she's got a shotgun and she knows how to use it.
The Subplots Are Where The Excitement Lies
While the story of the Dutton family is intriguing, it feels a bit too familiar — though I've not seen "Yellowstone," I've seen plenty of Westerns, and the whole family fighting to keep their ranch is very well-worn ground. What is a lot more exciting are the two other storylines established in the first episode of "1923." The first involves Spencer Dutton (Brandon Sklenar) working throughout Africa as a sort of mercenary, taking down lions, leopards, and any other big-cat terrorizing civilians. Spencer is carrying some heavy trauma with him after fighting in World War I (known in 1923 as the Great War), which is explored in a lengthy, blood-spattered, hyper-violent flashback that also highlights "1923's" impressive budget and cinematic qualities.
The other, and most intriguing story, follows Teonna (Aminah Nieves), a young Indigenous woman introduced in a ruthless scene at a Parochial school that appears to be designed to assimilate Indigenous children into an English-speaking lifestyle no matter the cost. Teonna is being brutally attacked by her teacher, Sister Mary (the always brilliant Jennifer Ehle), in a brutal, unflinching moment that expresses the cruelty and mistreatment of Native peoples. Teonna has clearly undergone unimaginable torment in this school, and has little hope for the future — at night, one of her classmates tells her this will all be over soon. Teonna remarks that those who have left have promised they'd send letters, but how many letters have they received? It's a brutal question that requires no answer, and of all the stories brewing in the first episode of "1923," it's Teonna's that will keep me watching.
In its premiere, Sheridan's latest entry into the "Yellowstone" universe is packed with plenty of promise. While a lot of it feels familiar to fans of westerns and likely to devotees of "Yellowstone" and "1883," I can't deny that I was excited by all of it. The Montana landscape affords the show some impressive beauty, and this episode certainly suggests that "1923" has all the potential to be a thrilling epic, rife with revenge, violence, and petty squabbles. I wasn't sure if it would win me over, but by the episode's end, I found myself excited for what is to come.
Read this next: The 18 Best Crime Dramas In TV History
The post 1923 Review: Harrison Ford And Helen Mirren Shine In Taylor Sheridan's Latest Adventure appeared first on /Film.