Harrison Ford & Helen Mirren Light Up Taylor Sheridan’s Otherwise Familiar ‘Yellowstone’ Spin-Off
Dec 20, 2022
“Violence has always haunted this family,” Elsa Dutton (Isabel May), from “1883,” says at the beginning of “1923,” the new “Yellowstone” spin-off from creator/writer Taylor Sheridan, a familiar if still watchable show thanks to its cast. “Where [violence] doesn’t follow, we hunt it down, we seek it,” she adds for good measure. And well, you get the gist of the heavy-handed metaphors. Trying to connect the dots of all his shows, Sheridan tells the literal and figurative next chapter in the Dutton story through Elsa.
Narrating from beyond the grave (spoiler alert for those that didn’t watch “1883”), Elsa tells the story of where her family tree went after her limited series ended. In short, as “1923” unveils the newly updated landscape, 40 years later, Elsa conveys— in her patented overcooked breathy narration— that her parents (played by Tim McGraw and Faith Hill on the series) fell on hard times. The only one of her siblings that survived was her little brother John (now grown up and played by James Badge Dale).
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Called in for the rescue maybe some thirty-odd years ago to save the day was Jacob Dutton (Harrison Ford), James Dutton’s (McGraw) brother, who looked over John and saved the land and ranch they owned in Montana (“Father’s dream, turned it into an empire, and then empire crumbled,” Elsa adds).
Concurrently as Elsa tells her story, we’re introduced to Cara Dutton (Helen Mirren), the Irish wife of Jacob, injured, who shoots down a man who has done her harm in cold blood. Where not sure exactly, what merited this act of furious retribution, but given the hostile conditions, it can’t be good. It’s a striking opening to a show that seems like it’ll carry on the “Yellowstone” tradition of breaking little new ground but remain mostly entertaining nonetheless (it’s hard to tell, all Paramount+ offered was two episodes for review).
In this new 1923 setting, various hardships have hit this Western frontier. Western Expansion is an issue, and so is Prohibition and, of course, the Great Depression, which hit Montana about a decade earlier than the rest of the country. So, in the opening of “1923,” a locust infestation has ravaged the land, and the Duttons are looking over a field of dead cattle. But everyone is suffering austerity, including Banner Creighton (Jerome Flynn, from “Game Of Thrones”), an Irish sheepherder with nowhere to graze his flock after the pestilence.
Like “Yellowstone,” however, the Duttons have privilege and power in their back pocket. They try not to abuse it but are happy to flex when someone is being an unreasonable asshole (like Creighton). Jacob has been deputized by the Sheriff (Robert Patrick) as a law enforcement state agent. So, when the townsfolk and Creighton start to get outraged about their suffering, Jacob has to shut it down aggressively. However, in the “Yellowstone” tradition of hard-asses who are also not without compassion, he ultimately helps squash the local dispute between cattle ranchers and sheepherders by offering up parts of his private land.
One of the stranger elements of the series—which feels like an entirely different series—is the adventures of Spencer Dutton (Brandon Sklenar), John Dutton Sr.’s brother, abroad. Having witnessed the horrors of World War I and suffering PTSD, Spencer is introduced in Africa hunting wild game and protecting locals from lions and jaguars—no, really (and with some pretty unconvincing animal CGI too). While there’s more action here, there’s no Harrison Ford or Helen Mirren, and no one really captivates in this needless non-starter narrative detour that feels like filler or sequences baked into the show so Ford could take his daily production nap.
Dutifully shot by cinematographer turned director and in-house Taylor Sheridan filmmaker Ben Richardson, “1923” looks rugged and pretty, much like the other shows, and Sheridan surely knows how to write some great melodramatic dialogue about those that “survived every hell the 20th century hurled at them.” Or Harrison Ford railing about local hypocrisy and the “bullies whining about the consequences of the rules they broke” (which honestly sounds a lot like a modern-day dig at Republicans for everyone who calls Sheridan a conservative).
But there’s always a bit of baggy slack—like the off-piste Spencer Dutton storyline—that always makes these tales feel like they’re as half as good as they could be if Sheridan weren’t writing and overseeing ten other facets to his Paramount empire (and yes, while he doesn’t direct so far, he’s got sole credit on this series so far).
Still, those lines and dramatic settings have some good bits. “I have compassion, but I have no mercy,” says Father Renaud (Sebastian Roché), headmaster of the school for American Indians, as he beats on one of his nuns, Sister Mary (Jennifer Ehle), ironically trying to teach her a lesson about being too cruel to one of her students (Teonna, played by Aminah Nieves). It’s unclear how this subplot will tie into the main storyline. Still, it’s intriguing, especially the idea of nasty white nuns trying to educate the Native children their ancestors helped slaughter.
On the fringes of it, but seemingly important characters to the story are Jack Dutton (Darren Mann from “Animal Kingdom”), John Dutton Sr.’s son, who is about to marry the feisty and capable Elizabeth Strafford (Michelle Randolph), the loyal ranch hands Zane (Brian Geraghty) and Emma Dutton (Marley Shelton), John Dutton Sr’s wife (Mann and Randolph, much like Isabel May already feel like stars in the making, so Sheridan knows how to pick ‘em).
That all said, narratively, “1923” is kind of muddled and confusing, Sheridan perhaps takes for granted that we may not be as invested in the thorny Dutton family tree as he is, but one supposes the viewer at least gets by.
Yet, perhaps credit Sheridan with writing a show that does feel like a big traditional “Yellowstone” ensemble, a story about a great family dynasty, and not a show just built around Ford and Mirren. They’re in it, of course, but Sheridan isn’t afraid to veer off into Africa, tell the story of local nuns and their Native boarding school, or tell tales about younger Duttons we don’t really know yet. It’s a big tapestry like “Yellowstone,” and Sheridan isn’t about to change his writing style for two big A-list stars. The show frankly seems to suffer when they’re not onscreen, but you still have to tip your 10-gallon brim to its creator for doing his own thing regardless. [C+/B-]
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