NOTE: this post contains spoilers for 1923 episode 1.
While we as TV viewers are getting 1923 less than a year after the finale of the previous Yellowstone prequel 1883, it's been 40 years in the world of the Duttons and a lot has changed, and not just in terms of the 1923 cast. Thankfully, a familiar presence welcomes us into this new chapter, as Elsa Dutton (Isabel May) is back as narrator from beyond the grave.
As we see Cara Dutton (Helen Mirren) chase down and kill a man who was tried to kill her — possibly a flash forward — and Spencer Dutton (Brendan Sklenar) hunt and kill a lion in Africa, Elsa says violence has always haunted her family. But even when it's not following them, they often seek it out, like Spencer, who does not get a strong endorsement for lasting the season when Elsa says only one of James' children lives to see their children grow.
Elsa also provides us with a quick breakdown of what's happened in the intervening 40 years. After James died (shown in a Yellowstone season 4 flashback), Margaret begged Jacob Dutton (Harrison Ford to come to Montana and help them. He and Cara got there a year later, but Margaret had died and the boys, John and Spencer, nearly died themselves. Jacob and Cara raised the boys as their own and built the ranch into an empire. "Then," Elsa forewarns, "the empire crumbled."
The scene then picks up with Jacob and a grown-up John (James Badge Dale) riding into Boseman, a growing city in the 1920s, complete with streetside boxing matches and women protesting to enforce prohibition. Jacob is Livestock commissioner and meets with the sheriff ahead of a town hall to deal with issues between sheep herders and cattleman.
At the meeting, Banner Creighton (Jerome Flynn), tries to make his case that he can't help that his sheep were grazing on someone else's land. But Jacob holds firm that he has to obey the law and respect other people's land. Banner confronts Jacob after the meeting and they nearly come to blows.
The lack of grass (due to an invasion of locusts) isn't just impacting sheep herders, but cattleman like the Duttons. Jacob comes up with a plan for all of them to work together, driving their cattle up the mountain where there is grass.
After we quickly meet Jack Dutton (Darren Mann), one week before his wedding, and ranch foreman Zane (Brian Geraghty), the scene jumps to a reform school run by nuns and priests to convert indigenous children into christians. One such child is Teonna Rainwater (Aminah Nieves), who is beaten for every small mistake she makes by Sister Mary (Jennifer Ehle) until she can't take it anymore and fights back.
Brought before the head priest, he shows his power and cruelty when he first punishes Sister Mary, beating her as she beat Teonna, but then also punishing Teonna, leaving her legs bloody with cuts. Later, Sister Mary says she and Teonna now have an understanding — neither of them want to cross the head priest again.
That night, while Teonna's friend tries to comfort her by saying they only have one year left in the school, Teonna is determined to leave much sooner than that.
When the men arrive back at the Yellowstone ranch and Jack hears the plan to drive the cattle conflicts with his wedding, he assures Jacob and John his bride-to-be, Elizabeth Strafford (Michelle Randolph), will understand they need to postpone the wedding a couple of weeks. Predictably, she does not take it well. Fortunately, Cara figures as much and saves the day, telling Elizabeth she is not just marrying Jack, she is marrying the rancher life, and while difficult it is freer than most others. Elizabeth says she loves Jack more than anything and is willing to learn the life.
Banner and his fellow sheep herders are driving their flock at night when they run into one of the Dutton's fences. Banner isn't going to let a fence mean the death of his sheep and cuts it, figuring they're far enough away from the cattle's grazing area. Unfortunately, he was not in the loop on Jacob's plan.
The next day, as the cattleman are driving the cows up the mountain, Jack rides ahead. Reaching a ridge, he sees thousands of sheep grazing on their land, but also a man on a horse who takes a shot at him. We don't see the result of that shot in this episode.
Back in Africa, Spencer, asleep on a train, has nightmares about his time in World War I. When a train employee stirs him, Spencer jolts up and holds a gun to him. Thankfully he stops himself and apologizes. When the employee says he has arrived at his destination, Spencer says he has no destination, this is just the next stop.
He's at this stop because he was hired to hunt a leopard that has been attacking a camp of British tourists. As we see Spencer set up for the hunt, we hear the words of a letter Cara writes him. She says they miss him terribly, but believes the reason he hasn't come home is because he lost a part of himself in the war, which she prays he finds so he can comes back to them.
At the camp, when a woman steps out of her tent to relieve herself, she is attacked by a leopard. Spencer kills the leopard, but not in time to save her. However, there is a second leopard, who attacks Spencer as the episode credits roll.
While 1883 was a more focused story of the Duttons heading west, 1923 is laying out multiple storylines. Even with more to balance and a scope this franchise hasn’t seen before, this opening episode is a good start and leaves plenty to be excited about moving forward.
1923 streams exclusively on Paramount Plus.
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Michael Balderston is a DC-based entertainment and assistant managing editor for What to Watch, who has previously written about the TV and movies with TV Technology, Awards Circuit and regional publications. Spending most of his time watching new movies at the theater or classics on TCM, some of Michael's favorite movies include Casablanca, Moulin Rouge!, Silence of the Lambs, Children of Men, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest and Star Wars. On the TV side he enjoys Peaky Blinders, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Saturday Night Live, Only Murders in the Building and is always up for a Seinfeld rerun. Follow on Letterboxd (opens in new tab).
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