Reviews · TV

The Premiere of ‘1923’ Finds Promise and Pain in the 20th Century

Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren star in the latest Yellowstone prequel, which also features plots following a rugged safari hunter and a Native American residential school student.
Helen Mirren in the premiere episode of 1923 - Review
By  · Published on December 16th, 2022

This review of 1923 covers the premiere episode only, which debuts on Paramount+ on December 18, 2022.

At this point, Paramount+ may as well be called the Taylor Sheridan channel. The man who co-created Yellowstone in 2018 has expanded his reach to include not just the massively popular flagship series and its prequels but two other currently airing shows and a whopping five more in the works. The network is betting huge on the filmmaker’s ability to deliver quality entertainment, and at least in the case of the new series 1923, it looks like a bet that will pay off.

The network made the premiere episode of 1923 available for review ahead of release, and the show’s first hour certainly lays great groundwork with plot threads that will likely be intriguing to Yellowstone fans and newbies to the franchise alike. The show establishes itself as a direct sequel to the pioneer drama 1883 right off the bat, but it keeps the connection between the two plotlines tenuous, handing over the reins to a new protagonist in a surprisingly unsentimental bit of transitional voiceover.

From there, the 20th-century-set show establishes its own storytelling voice quickly. Because it’s Sheridan’s again, that storytelling voice sometimes sounds familiar – characters are divided in large part into stoic, gun-toting Western heroes and city slicker-types or outsiders with a lot to learn – but it’s also more ambitious than usual.

That ambition takes shape in the form of multiple plotlines spread out across several locations. First, there’s the saga of Jacob Dutton (Harrison Ford), an elderly rancher who watches over the Yellowstone property with his Irish wife, Cara (Helen Mirren). A classic Ford character in the making, Jacob suffers no fools and exudes a casually intimidating energy that he only allows to fall away around his lady love. His plot, about a brewing conflict involving a group of neighboring Irish shepherds headed up by a disruptive man named Banner (Game of Thrones‘ always-great Jerome Flynn), is the first episode’s weakest, but it’s only because the other two are so uniquely compelling.

Half a world away, the pair’s nephew, Spencer Dutton (Brandon Sklenar, playing a character who appeared as a child in 1883), tracks village-threatening predators in Nairobi and attempts to shake off some grisly wartime memories. His plot isn’t strictly in line with the type of story Yellowstone typically tells, but it’s a whole lot of fun anyway and cinematic to boot. Sklenar imbues the character with a rugged, no-nonsense sort of charm that works on both the strangers Spencer encounters and audiences who will surely be captivated by his particular brand of confidence. In short, it’s easy to believe that this extremely cool guy who swills black coffee like it’s water and takes down big cats like he’s playing target practice could be related to a Harrison Ford hero.

The show’s third plotline has the potential to be its most resonant, but it’ll also likely be the trickiest to pull off with the sensitivity and truth the subject requires. Back in Montana, a strong-willed Native American girl named Teonna (Aminah Nieves) begins to languish in a residential boarding school, the target of cruel, relentless abuse from the white nun (Jennifer Ehle, immediately fantastic and frightening). When Teonna misspeaks in class, she’s smacked in the hands with a wooden switch again and again, and daring to speak in her native tongue lands her an even worse punishment.

Nieves gives Teonna her all from the minute she appears on screen, and as the student’s day wears on – we see her visit the headmaster’s office, participate in a rigidly structured group bathtime, and speak about her survival plans to a friend at night – it’s clear that she’s deeply resilient. Though we’re not given her backstory, the show’s trailer reveals her to be Teonna Rainwater, a presumable ancestor to Gil Birmingham’s Yellowstone character. Knowing that she might survive all this brutality, though, doesn’t make it any easier to watch.

The true story of the horrors of residential schools is one that must be told, and there’s tremendous emotional power in these scenes, but it’s worth questioning whether or not Sheridan is the right person to tell it. As Liza Black points out in a piece for High Country News, the filmmaker “exhibits a sick, Tarantino-style impulse to include graphic violence against women — Native women, that is.” In his quest to carry the Western genre into the 21st century, Sheridan often attempts to bring issues impacting Indigenous Americans into the spotlight, as in the 2017 film Wind River. But there’s a clear line between exposing the country’s painful history and using it as an excuse for pulpy exploitation. In the first episode of 1923, the show may or may not fall on the right side of that line – but it’s a closer call than it should be.

As a writer, the ever-prolific Sheridan has to run out of steam eventually, but it seems unlikely that his latest series will be anything besides a crowd-pleaser. With a stacked cast, compelling storylines, and an eye for the cinematic, 1923 starts strong and, like one of Spencer’s wildcat targets, sinks its claws into you quickly.

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Valerie Ettenhofer is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, TV-lover, and mac and cheese enthusiast. As a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects, she covers television through regular reviews and her recurring column, Episodes. She is also a voting member of the Critics Choice Association's television and documentary branches. Twitter: @aandeandval (She/her)