As has become customary, the strength of the Dutton women is on full display on 1923 Season 1 Episode 1.
Cara Dutton promises to be the character to watch on this new series, with Helen Mirren standing firmly in her shoes.
This new era of Duttons shows that although it’s been 40 years since the Dutton family reached Montana and set up their homestead, things haven’t gotten any easier.
In a surprising turn of events, Isabel May returns as Elsa to narrate the latest escapades in this sweeping saga of one family’s journey to and thriving in the west.
May’s voiceovers might have been my least favorite thing about 1883, but the actress who breathed life into the vibrant young lady whose blood soaked the land far too soon is a welcome addition after winning our hearts.
This time around, it’s Cara to whom we warm quickly, and she’s got the same fighting spirit. Cara has held the family together in the years since she and Jacob moved west to help Margaret, who they discovered had died before their arrival.
Cara and Jacob raised James and Margaret’s children as their own, and with them, they created an empire. And then that empire crumbled. That’s where we stand today, with the Duttons struggling to hold onto their land and keep their herd alive during the most trying time in US history.
It’s been five years since the end of World War, which left the world’s soul crushed in its wake. Veteran Spencer Dutton hasn’t been able to shake it, and he spends his days doing what the Duttons do best — circling danger, inviting death to his door.
Cara wonders why he hasn’t returned home and who could blame her. It’s not as if they’re living the life of Riley these days. They’re infighting with townsfolk and fellow ranchers as the very ground they walk on, too, has lost its zest for life, making every day a struggle for survival.
Drought has sucked the life from the land, which means fewer crops and little to nothing left for herds of cattle and flocks of sheep to graze. The biggest battle Jacob and other town leaders face is finding the means and way for cattle ranchers and sheep herders to coexist.
Over the past few episodes on Yellowstone, John and Rip have been moving cattle and gathering them for branding. Even today, it’s still quite the skill to keep cattle alive and ensure the land on which they live is for their use only.
It’s been a battle raging for generations since the Duttons first set foot on what is now the Yellowstone, and it shows no chance of abating. But today, we’ve got technological advances and can more easily transfer water from one spot to another.
That’s the difference between life and death, and it’s not an advantage Jacob and sons have in 1923.
The biggest fight is brewing between Jacob and Banner Deighton, the latter who lost his sheep, which were killed when they were found grazing on another man’s lease.
Banner acts as if he believes that the land belongs to them all, but it’s a pretty safe bet that if the shower were on the other foot, Banner would put his flock over another man’s cattle.
When Jacob and Banner went toe-to-toe on the issue, Banner came up wanting.
With his flock, his livelihood, on the line, Banner crossed Jacob once again. On Yellowstone, the Duttons find themselves in similar situations season after season.
Characters like Banner rarely have happy endings, and it will be interesting to see how he makes out. It’s an awful situation all around, and there are no winners when rain is sparse, and death is always dancing on your doorstep.
Making matters even worse are the bitties demanding reveling in prohibition when drinking your sorrows away could either mitigate trouble or exacerbate it.
Jacob and their friends didn’t have a problem pushing their way through the picketers to wash the dust down with a drink, but it’s just one more hoop to jump through to get through the day.
Maybe the promise of excitement beyond living day to day lured Spencer to his rather unique job hunting and killing man-eating animals in Africa.
Like his big sister Elsa, he answers to the call of the wild.
The faraway location is new for the Dutton saga, and it shakes things up a bit. And just like 1883 didn’t pull away from the Dutton family dropping like flies on their way to Montana, 1923 didn’t shy away from the reality of the bloodthirsty beasts Spencer hunts.
A woman on safari didn’t heed Spencer’s warning and gave her life for a lion’s dinner. It was brutal and bloody and proved that Spencer’s putting himself in the line of fire just as much now as he did during the war.
The question is why and whether he’ll make his way home or not.
Thomas Rainwater’s family is also explored with the introduction of Teonna Rainwater, a teenager at the local Catholic school for Native American girls.
She’s not courting danger, but it’s all around her nonetheless. She’s got a wild, free spirit that she must stamp down to survive.
The scenes at the school were harrowing and should make every one of us blanch for how the Native Americans were treated. In our quest to make them just like us, we pulled them from their homes and forced obedience.
It’s an ugly mark on history that we’re still unsure how to address.
It was heartbreaking that they didn’t think they’d live long enough to get married. Still, they dreamed of the day it could happen, even as they wondered how their families seemed to have given up on them.
Like a lot of the hour, it was heartbreaking and brutal, especially how the sisters controlled every aspect of the young girls’ lives, which was on sickening display during bath time.
It’s enough to make you wretch, and it shines a light on how ignorantly we’ve behaved in the past when so many other options were available.
I don’t know nearly enough about that period in history and how Native American children were being forced to assimilate into our white world, but I have faith that the creatives behind 1923 will do the story justice.
We needed to look no further than the Dutton clan for bright spots, including Jack and his fiancee Elizabeth.
Jack just seems like a happy young man, so it’s no surprise he’s captured Elizabeth Strafford’s heart. They’re the epitome of young love in the same way Jack himself is the epitome of a man who knows little of it.
The herd needed to be tended, which meant stalling the wedding for at least a week. Jack failed miserably at delivering the news, but Elizabeth was steadfast in her devotion, even if she was stung by how little the wait affected Jack.
Cara tried to intervene in time, but thankfully, she was a little late. That offered her time to read in Elizabeth the realities of being a rancher’s wife.
Jack and Elizabeth are crucial to our story, as they are Yellowstone’s John Duttons’ grandparents.
The way Elizabeth practically jumped from a moving carriage to leap into Jack’s arms after their argument felt in standing with Beth Dutton in her love for Rip.
Their love story will be one to watch as direct ascendants of the family we’ve come to love.
Jack’s parents, John Sr. and Emma, didn’t have much to do in the premiere, and I hope that’s not indicative of their characters’ arcs as a whole. With every iteration of Duttons, there are always those who are more beloved than the rest, even by the writing team.
For most of the premiere, Cara and Jacob cared for different aspects of their busy lives, and their days likely follow a similar pattern in which they’d have to make time to see each other.
There’s so much to be done and little time to do it. But, as the story goes, they created an empire once, and we know it will come again.
What wasn’t easy to understand was the opening scene in which Cara shoots a man after chasing him in the dark. Was this foretelling events in much the same way we awaited Elsa’s fate with the wagon train?
I guess we’ll find out.
With two successful predecessors and a lauded cast, the 1923 premiere had a lot to live up to, and it didn’t pull my attention in the same way 1883 did right out of the gate.
The scope of 1923 is broader than either Yellowstone or 1883, introducing several different locations and juggling multiple stories with characters that don’t intersect. While it’s not on the books, I recall hearing that the story they’re telling is so vast that they’ve already considered adding a second season.
At this point, it’s hard to imagine we could have a closed-end story in ten episodes. The premiere was relatively introductory in nature, without a clear path of where it was heading. With 1883, we knew they’d reach Montana. Here, I’m not so sure.
The Dutton saga is the story of the American west, but 1923 might be the first time such a big swing won’t pay off.
What did you think of the premiere? Did it live up to your expectations? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer and critic for TV Fanatic. She’s a member of the Critic’s Choice Association, enjoys mentoring writers, conversing with cats, and passionately discussing the nuances of television and film with anyone who will listen. Follow her on Twitter and email her here at TV Fanatic.