Across the Duttonverse

‘1883’ turns Taylor Sheridan’s ‘Yellowstone’ family into American myth

Much has changed for Taylor Sheridan’s Yellowstone franchise in the ten or so weeks since James and Margaret Dutton–played by country music dream couple Tim McGraw and Faith Hill–met up with their extended family members in a darkened train station on the outskirts of Fort Worth, Texas, in the first episode of 1883. At the time, back in mid-December, they told us that 1883 was the origin story of how the Dutton Yellowstone Ranch came to be. And this past Sunday evening, in the gripping and much-watched finale of 1883, we indeed learn why his land is so important to John Dutton (played by Kevin Costner some 140 years or so later), so revered in fact that not even a half-billion offer for his ranch could get John to part with his property.

Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

As millions of viewers followed the Dutton ancestral journey on the Oregon Trail over 10 episodes, Paramount + has transformed the Yellowstone story into the cornerstone of its streaming aspirations and positioned the Dutton story as an essential American fable that says a lot about where America has been and, perhaps, where it is going. First, the network formally confirmed rumors that a current-day spinoff of Yellowstone, 6666–focused on the famed Texas ranch and the on-going maturation of former Yellowstone bunkhouse joke and ex meth head, Jimmy Hurdstram–would happen.

Then, Paramount + really made its strategy clear, announcing additional episodes of 1883 as well as an entirely new series, 1932, which the network noted “will follow a new generation of Duttons during the time of western expansion, Prohibition and the Great Depression.” So, that’s one original show, one spinoff and, now, TWO prequels. (By my math, that leaves room for another prequel focused on the Duttons in the 1960s and 1970s, focused on John’s battles with hippies and disco, which could further explain his dalliance with a hippie protestor in Season 4 of Yellowstone).

In this mass digital expansion of Taylor Sheridan’s Dutton family universe into some 21st century mash-up of Ken Burns, Dave Filoni (Of Mandalorian/Book of Boba fame) and Clint Eastwood, Paramount + is obviously making a bet that audiences can’t get enough of Sheridan’s neo Western dramatic style. The viewing public clearly wants dramatic takes based on familiar and non-familiar American history that not only contain realism and violence, but also modernize how some characters are traditionally depicted in American Westerns, particularly Native Americans.

Based on the millions of people who watched the finale of 1883 and debate the intricacies of every plot point and Western fashion choices in scores of show-affiliated Facebook groups, Paramount + may have it exactly right in its positioning of the Duttons as a Skywalker-like family with a dedicated and rabid fan base, that has far outgrown its initial base in rural and small towns, ready to consume its every move. Not for nothing does all-America entertainment giant, Tom Hanks, and his wife, Rita Wilson, along with Billy Bob Thornton make brief appearances in 1883 alongside McGraw, Hill and Sam Elliott.

Over its 10 episodes, 1883 traces the Dutton family (and, really, the American story) as it, led by former Confederate Army soldier, James Dutton, seeks a new life away from the difficulties of poverty in post-Civil War Tennessee. In Texas, the Duttons cross paths with a group of European immigrants headed to Oregon, also for a fresh start. Dutton is convinced to join the convoy by fellow Civil War veterans, Shea (played by Elliott) and Thomas (played by LaMonica Garrett).

Much of the series follows the brutal trials and tribulations the travelers face heading North and West from Texas mostly via covered wagons, including run-ins with violent bandits, horse thieves, smallpox, raging rivers, snakes, storms, brutal sun, dusty dry landscapes, little water, and, of course, Native Americans (more on that shortly). James and Margaret’s oldest child, their daughter Elsa, narrates most of the journey. As she notes in one musing, “the land hates us.” This American story isn’t pretty (though she is) and there’s a clear message in its difficulty.

In Elsa, one gets a sense of what Sheridan is after not only with 1883 but his larger Yellowstone Cinematic Universe. In an interview this week in Deadline, Sheridan notes, “…(Elsa) represents the innocence and hope that is unique to Americans and it has to do with the fact we’re such a young country. I wanted her to be that one vibrant thing, and never lose that as she became wiser through the journey.”

Indeed, the story of the Dutton caravan heading West is not only the story of America’s Western expansion, but also a coming of age story of Elsa, a striking 18-year old with shiny blond hair on the cusp of womanhood. During the trek, she loses her virginity, flirts with cowboys, rides like cowboys, fights like a cowboy, talks tough and makes quips of a woman twice her age. In many ways, particularly in her close relationship with her father and her tough talks with her mother, she is a clear spiritual heir to Beth Dutton some 150 years later.

At the end of 1883, Elsa dies from a wound suffered in a brutal battle in which she tries to protect the Dutton/immigrant caravan from an angry band of Lakota Indians, who assume Elsa’s group massacred members of their tribe (they didn’t). During that battle, Elsa screams Comanche words she learned from Sam, a Comanche man she marries during the journey in a brief Native ceremony (somewhat mirroring Kayce Dutton’s marriage to a Native woman 150 years later on Yellowstone) In fact, the final scene of 1883 shows Elsa and Sam in heaven riding horses and fully in love. Needless to say, if Elsa is to symbolize America, her marriage to a Indian and after-life with him surely tell a different story than the ones previously told by good ole Westerns.

A Native American also plays a critical role in the connective tissue between 1883 and Yellowstone. As Elsa is dying near the Wyoming/Montana border in the final episode, her father James encounters Spotted Eagle, a Crow tribal elder played by legendary Native actor, Graham Greene, who tells James that Elsa does not have much time to live and native healers need to treat her.

That natural intervention only buys Elsa a bit more time to live, and the Crow elder directs James to the Paradise Valley in Montana as a proper burial spot. That valley, of course, is where the family establishes the Yellowstone Dutton Ranch. Elsa dies in the stunningly beautiful valley two days later, embraced by her father. As a result, viewers of Yellowstone get their first major clue why the land is so important to John Dutton in the 21st Century, and a hint that the Dutton-Native dynamic will shape the contours of this story.

As with Yellowstone, it’s clear that Sheridan is determined to portray Native Americans  with far more complexity than American entertainment has traditionally treated them.  Given this, one wonders about the year–1883–that Sheridan chose for the title of this show. That year, sadly, was the year that U.S. implemented the Code of Indian Offenses, a body of legislation that, among other things, restricted the religious and cultural ceremonies of Native American tribes.

In essence, the laws forbade Native Americans from freely practicing their traditional religions. (It wasn’t until 1978, through the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, that we granted civil liberties in full to Native Americans.) Yet Sheridan features traditional Indian ceremonies twice in 1883 and both involve Elsa, who Sheridan has positioned as the symbol of the U.S. It’s a hell of coincidence, if unplanned, particularly since the Oregon Trail heyday was in the 1850s and saw much fewer passages with the opening of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869.

In James Dutton’s fateful talk with Spotted Eagle prior to Elsa’s death, the Native American notes that not only would Montana’s Paradise Valley be a good place to bury Elsa, but it would be a good place for the Duttons to settle as a family. He noted, however, “(i)n seven generations, my people will rise up and take it back from you.” As close viewers of Yellowstone know, John’s Dutton’s grandson, Tate, is a sixth-generation Dutton. He is also half white and half Native American. His progeny would be the seventh generation. In short, don’t be surprised to see a Dutton sequel trilogy on the Yellowstone-verse horizon. The Last Dutton? If it was good enough for the Skywalkers, well, God Bless America.

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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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