1923 follows a new generation of Duttons. Jacob (Harrison Ford) quashes a dispute between cattle ranchers and sheepherders. Cara (Helen Mirren) informs Elizabeth (Michelle Randolph) of the sacrifices of marrying into the Dutton family. Meanwhile, another Dutton finds himself far from home.S1E01 Synopsis
Full Recap of Season 1, Episode 1, ‘1923’
Simply titled “1923,” the early 20th century Yellowstone prequel drops us right in the midst of a gunfight with Cara Dutton (Helen Mirren). Yet the real shock comes as Elsa Dutton (Isabel May) returns from beyond the grave to narrate the continuing legacy of her family:
“Violence has always haunted this family. It followed us from the Scottish Highlands to the slums of Dublin. It ravaged us upon the coffin ships of Ireland; stranded us on the beaches of New Jersey. Devoured us on the battlefields of Shiloh and Antietam. And it followed us here, lurking beneath the pines and rivers.
Where it doesn’t follow, we hunt it down. We seek it.”
Through Elsa’s narration, we meet the mysterious Spencer Dutton (Brandon Sklenar), who’s grown up to become a big game hunter in Africa. As Elsa continues, we learn what became of her and Spencer’s mother, Margaret Dutton (Faith Hill) after the events of 1883, and how Jacob Dutton (Harrison Ford) entered the Duttons’ Montana legacy:
“My father had three children. Only one would live to see their own children grow. Only one would carry the fate of this family through the Depression, and every other hell the twentieth century hurled at them.
Upon my father’s death, my mother wrote to my father’s brother, begging that he bring his family to these wild lands and save hers. A year later, he arrived to find my mother frozen in a snow drift; her two boys half-starved and barely able to speak. He raised them as his own, and took my father’s dream – and made it into an Empire.
Then the empire crumbled.”
Meet Jacob Dutton
“Bullies. Bullies whining about the consequences of the rules they broke.” This is how Jacob Dutton sums up his biggest problem in the premiere: sheepmen. Led by Banner Creighton (Jerome Flynn), these sheep herders have allowed their flocks to graze on rancher’s grass that’s needed for their cattle. And as the episode makes abundantly clear, the historic drought of 1920’s Montana is in full swing. There’s not enough grass to go around, let alone for entitled shepherds to be stealing from cattle ranchers.
In town, protesters are calling for prohibition in Montana. Boxing rings are set up in the street. And a mass commotion of sheepmen await Livestock Commissioner Jacob Dutton, who’s trying his hardest to “prevent a range war.”
Through it all, his nephew and right-hand-man, John Dutton Sr. (James Badge Dale, who looks and sounds eerily similar to Tim McGraw as his father, James, in 1883) is right beside him. But it’s clear from the get go that their Dutton family has their work cut out for them, as Banner and the sheepmen are playing dirty both in the streets and on the Montana lands leased to others.
To combat this, Jacob allows his colleagues to band their cattle together on his massive stake of land: The Yellowstone Dutton Ranch.
‘I’ve been here since 1894, Clive, and I do not remember an easy year’
On that very ranch, we meet 1923‘s answer to Rip Wheeler, Zane (Brian Geraghty), as he breaks in a horse with John Sr.’s son, Jack Dutton (Darren Mann). Jack is to be married soon, and he’s as excited as any young man could ever be.
This is but a fraction of 1923‘s America, however. The series delves deeply into the forced assimilation of Indigenous American children by Christian boarding schools, painting a brutally-truthful picture of how these schools were run, and how it tarnishes the American legacy.
At the center of this tragedy is Teonna (Aminah Nieves), a young woman who’s beaten into submission by ruthless Sister Mary (Jennifer Ehle). Our entire venture through the boarding school as they retaliate against one another is a violent, tough watch. But it is full of facts hardly – if ever – presented in American storytelling; facts that should never be forgotten.
Teonna later details how she, nor anyone in their school, ever hear from friends or family who have graduated. And she is determined to make it out of this hellish place alive.
The Life of a Rancher Rules ‘1923’
Back on the ranch, young Jack learns he’s got to postpone his wedding for the cattle drive. So he takes it upon himself to break the news to his bride-to-be, Elizabeth (Michelle Randolph). It goes as well as you’d expect. Thankfully, Jack’s aunt, Cara, isn’t far behind.
Cara, ever the stern and caring matriarch of Scottish descent, lays out the truth for Elizabeth. The young woman must understand what marrying a rancher like Jack means. And by the end of it, she does. These two are desperately in love with one another. It rings with the same energy as Elsa’s 1883 love stories, proving the Duttons love as fiercely as they fight.
As the Duttons prepare to move the community’s cattle up into grazeable land, trouble beats them to it. Banner Creighton and the sheepmen cut Dutton barbwire, letting their sheep onto the land to graze it first. And this drought is about to get a whole lot worse before it gets any better.
Across the Globe, Spencer Avoids Being a Dutton
On the other side of the planet, Spencer Dutton is asleep in his train car as it moves through the African savannah. Vicious flashbacks to his time as a World War I soldier haunt him, to put it lightly. And it’s through this we learn why he has chosen the life he has.
Spencer is a world-renowned big game hunter. For this trip, he’s been contracted to take down a massive leopard; one that’s acquired a taste for human flesh. So he sets himself and his compatriots up as the bait, and the game is on. But first, dinner is at six, and Spencer has to dine with the English patrons he’s protecting from sad “leopard the size of a sofa.”
Here, we meet a young lady who takes to Spencer immediately, Catherine (Alexandra Grossi). She is positively soaking Spencer in, which, ironically, seals her fate.
The Beginnings of ‘1923’s Range War
Back on the Yellowstone, Cara, Elisabeth, and Emma Dutton (Marley Shelton), wife to John Sr., hold down the homestead. Ranching is every bit the woman’s world as it is the man’s as they feed and tend livestock.
Every cowboy in their county is out driving cattle higher into their land through Jacob’s lead. Yet as soon as they reach their destination, young Jack is the first to spot flocks upon flocks of sheep.
But sadness of a different sort plagues Cara. Her “beloved Spencer,” a nephew she clearly loves as her own, remains in Africa. “I wonder why, why won’t you come home to us?” she writes to Spencer in a letter.
As we’ll see, Spencer is living a life entirely his own. He awaits the leopard out in the bush, placing himself a bait. But patron Catherine steps out for a midnight piss in the bush as part of her plan to find Spencer under the cover of night. And it’s the last thing she’ll ever do.
From out of the dark grass a massive leopard springs forth, it’s fangs clamping around her jugular. Spencer watches as the leopard takes Catherine’s body up into a tree, finishing her off. Spencer fires, hitting the beast, and Catherine’s body flops to the dirt. Yet the shouting continues.
“Spencer! There are two!” his comrades yell, and another leopard springs from the bush.