The ‘1923’ Season Finale Can’t Hold Back the Modern

Taylor Sheridan’s endless ‘Yellowstone’ saga is really about history’s unstoppable epic march

The closing moments of the wrenching finale of 1923–the second prequel in Taylor Sheridan’s Yellowstone saga–show Cara Dutton walking alone towards the imposing stone and log luxury Montana home she shares with her husband, Jacob. Moments earlier, Cara, played by Helen Mirren, reread a letter she had wanted to send to her nephew, Spencer, a man she had raised as her own child after the death of Spencer’s parents (who were the focus of the first Yellowstone prequel, 1883). In her best Princess Leia-inspired prose, Cara writes, “I fear everything your parents fought so hard to build is being ripped from us. You are its only hope. You are our only hope.”  Except there is no R2-D2 around with hidden plans, no grizzled Obi Wan Kenobi to help guide her. Just the brisk cold and snow-peaked Big Sky mountains surrounding her as the walls seem to be closing in, as they always seem to do, on the Dutton way of life.

Cara’s plea for Spencer’s heroic return to save the Yellowstone Dutton Ranch brings together two of the three major themes of season one of 1923, a block of eight programs that has further solidified the Yellowstone multiverse as one of the most important digital properties of its era and has further positioned its creator, Taylor Sheridan, as one of the leading creative minds of his time. The finale concludes with several emotional cliffhangers waiting to be resolved during 1923’s Season 2, which Paramount has already given a green light. Sheridan has often celebrated the fact that he directs his shows like movies and never has that been more visible than during the 8-plus hours of the sometimes slow-moving, narrative-heavy content of 1923.

The 1923 finale comes at a truly bizarre time for the Yellowstone franchise as the fate of the mothership show that started it all. Yellowstone, set in modern-day Montana, remains a question mark as the agents and lawyers for its star, Kevin Costner, fight a strange battle in the entertainment press about how much time Costner is willing to commit to the franchise he helped build. There are even questions about the ultimate fate of the second half season of Yellowstone’s Season 5. Ironically, there are financial incentives for Paramount to end the show since it doesn’t own the streaming rights for Yellowstone soon after it airs; Peacock does. At a time when critics are finally recognizing the Yellowstone universe with numerous nominations and awards, what happens with 1923–along with other Yellowstone adjacent content that Paramount does own such as the upcoming Bass Reeves, 6666 and maybe something with Matthew McConaughey–is even more important to the Yellowstone franchise.

1923 is, ultimately, a show about three journeys.  The journey of the Dutton family, of course. Closely intertwined is the journey of the Yellowstone Dutton Ranch at a time of change in Montana and the United States. But 1923 is about much more than a family fighting to protect its way of life. It is also about the difficult journey of the indigenous population of the American West.  Somewhat subtly, yet quite importantly, 1923 is also about the journey of technological and industrial “progress” and the impact of these changes on the West and the country.

The final scene of Cara running to her home, presumably to discuss the future with her husband, Jacob, played by Harrison Ford, caps an emotional journey for the couple. In previous weeks, Jacob was nearly killed in a revenge gun battle with a band of sheep herders led by Banner Creighton, a Scot who Jacob had a dispute with over, you guessed it, where animals could graze. In the battle, John Dutton, Cara and Jacob’s nephew (and brother to Spencer) is killed and later buried on the Dutton Ranch next to his parents—James and Margaret— and sister, Elsa, who dies in Yellowstone’s first prequel, 1883. Later, John’s distraught wife, kills herself, leaving their son, Jack to fend for himself with his soon-to-be wife, Elizabeth. Initial hopes that Jack and Elizabeth would have the nepo baby that would be Costner’s John Dutton’s grandfather are scratched when Elizabeth has a miscarriage.

Meanwhile, In Africa

As Jacob and Jack realize they need more firepower to take on Creighton and his band of goons (which Jacob smartly guesses is being controlled and funded by a wealthier power) Cara reaches out to nephew Spencer, who is a heralded animal hunter in Africa after serving in World War I. Much of season one follows the efforts of Spencer and Alex, his wealthy British girlfriend-cum-wife, to return to Bozeman from Africa to help save his family’s ranch. They dodge elephants, lions, ghost ships, sharks and more—with subtle cinematic shoutouts to Jaws and Titanic, in their quest to find a way to the U.S.

It’s a classic hero’s journey trajectory for the couple with Spencer playing the role of reformed warrior with the right stuff ready to return home as all heroes must do. Yet things get dicey in the finale as Spencer and Alex are broken apart after Spencer fights Alex’s ex-fiance, Arthur, and then throws the overmatched wealthy nitwit over the side of an ocean liner when Alex whips out a gun in their duel. Arthur’s father, a powerful royal in Britain, takes revenge on his son’s death by removing Spencer from the boat, breaking up Spencer and Alex, at least for the time being. Prior the separation, Alex complains of being nauseous. Sea sickness? Or the Dutton spawn that connects to 1923 to Yellowstone? We will presumably find out in Season 2.  “BOZEMAN!” Alex screams out as Spencer is ferried away from the ship, perhaps hinting that the two will meet up again on Spencer’s family ranch someday.

Spencer and Alex aren’t the only ones on a personal journal. Interestingly, much of 1923’s first season focuses on Teonna Rainwater, a Native American girl who escapes from a brutal and deadly Church-run boarding school. Before escaping, Teonna gets revenge on the nuns who torture native children like herself by killing two of them. She then takes off from her North Dakota school where she meets up with other Indians who try to protect her before her former school’s vicious schoolmaster priest finds her and put her to death. The scenes at Teonna’s boarding school are among the most vivid and graphic depiction of what thousands of native children faced in the West (and Canada) in the early part of the 20th century and Sheridan makes admirably clear that to understand Western U.S. history, one must make American Indians a significant part of that story. The show will likely soon enough tell how Teonna connects to the larger Yellowstone story, as she, her father, and a new love interest try and protect her from the officials looking to bring her to justice.

Aminah Nieves as Teonna Rainwater in ‘1923.’

The Yellowstone Dutton Ranch, in its expanse, its buildings, its vistas, also plays a character itself in 1923, much as it does in Yellowstone. And in 1923, like in the original show, the ranch is in trouble. The cow business is a tough one, especially at a time of historic Western drought, putting pressure on Jacob and Cara to stay afloat. Putting additional pressure on the Duttons is mining executive Donald Whitfield, played by Timothy Dalton. Whitfield is intent on taking over the Dutton Ranch to expand his mining empire and his landholdings; his newly-purchased Stafford Ranch abuts the Dutton Ranch. To further his efforts, Whitfield partners with the murderous Banner and his sheep-herder crew to keep the pressure on the Duttons, and even to keep Banner out of jail for his ambush of the Dutton family.

Whitfield is another over-the-top arch enemy for Sheridan’s Yellowstone saga. Yet in his sadistic nature towards women, his lust for power, his push to expand his mining business, and his overall villainess behavior, he is also something much more. He is the living human embodiment of the impact of industrialization and business interests on the West and the U.S. as a whole. While the Duttons still use horse and buggy to get into town from their ranch, Whitfield uses a Ford Model T-like car, one of the increasing number of four wheel automobiles (some even with chains on their wheels) that begin to clog Bozeman streets throughout 1923, sometimes frustrating Jacob Dutton who loses a place to park….his horse. In his manipulative behavior, use of sleezy lawyers and strategic use of his checkbook to further his interests, he symbolizes in almost comic book fashion the way big business changed America during the early part of the 20th century, particularly in the mountain region, a theme returned to often in Yellowstone. “I’m a businessman,” Whitfield explains. “The word decent doesn’t apply to me.”

The New World Dawns

Whitfield isn’t the only sign of the changes coming to Montana in the early 20th century. Home appliance salesmen dot the narrow Bozeman streets, people discuss the wonders of electricity, and the show even hints at the dawn of widescale adoption of radio as a child wonders at how this machine with sound works.  Civil society and government bureaucracy is also growing. Throughout the first season, we see the growing power of courts, lawyers, bankers and, of course, the early attempts to influence these actors for personal gain, a theme that continues a century later in present day Bozeman as Costner’s John Dutton knows all too well.

And it wouldn’t be a Yellowstone series without another timely yet simplistic piece from a high-profile opinion writer who tries to bend the show’s themes to fit into today’s popular obsession: the division between “red” and “blue” America. In a silly piece even given the genre (laughingly titled, Right Wing or Woke? The Complicated Politics of ‘Yellowstone) just days before the 1923 finale, Ross Douthat concludes that the Yellowstone universe is a “right-wing show — for a pagan right.” Douthat probably should have quit with his Yellowstone analysis when he first attempted to write about the show’s politics during a vacation in the American West last Summer.  Like many writers trying to make sense of the popularity of Yellowstone and what Sheridan is trying to accomplish with his show, Douthat generally misses the point. 1923 and the Yellowstone universe isn’t really about our polarized politics. As Cara exclaims in the famous Dutton dining room in episode seven of 1923, “no politics at this table!”

Sure, 1923 and Yellowstone are about populism, but not in the way that term is used in Washington. The programs are actually about something much larger and far more complex: it’s about the complicated American story, its messy history (particularly around its treatment of indigenous Americans), the impact of Western expansion, the on-going impact of business, industrialization and technology on human relationships and how families of all kinds struggle to survive in a world where every person is out for themselves. It is about the contradictions about the American way of life, questions about urbanization and the compromises all of us to make to be part of the American experiment. It’s what happens when “The Rule of Five Hundred” (the name of the penultimate episode of 1923) no longer applies. Jacob Dutton explains, “if there wasn’t any government, the strongest people would take advantage of the weakest every time, without fail.” Yet, of course, the Dutton family does that very thing to protect its way of life.

1923 is ultimately about the journey of a region and a country as it seeks to knit together its diverse land, its diverse people, and its diverse needs during a period of massive technological change. It’s a classic American story in all its violence, messiness, exploitation, and  ”progress.” Not for nothing does John Dutton run for Governor of Montana on Yellowstone in present day America, exclaiming, “I am the opposite of progress. I am where progress stops.”  It’s a fight his family has been part of for over a century.

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Adam Hirschfelder

Adam Hirschfelder runs public programs in Marin County for the Commonwealth Club of California. Hirschfelder graduated with honors from Northwestern University and received his MA in education policy from Teachers College, Columbia University. He serves on the boards of directors of the Marin Cultural Association. A New Jersey native, he now lives outside San Francisco. The Force is Strong with Him.

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