With "1923," the "Yellowstone" universe grimly enlists Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren

Ford and Mirren. What more does the Dutton family need? How about a more cohesive narrative and a smidgen of joy?

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published December 18, 2022 3:30PM (EST)

Harrison Ford as Jacob Dutton in "1923" (James Minchin III/Paramount+)
Harrison Ford as Jacob Dutton in "1923" (James Minchin III/Paramount+)

Five seasons into "Yellowstone" it's easy to see that all of its offshoots are possible because of Kevin Costner – not necessarily the actor himself, but our idea of him.

In John Dutton III, Taylor Sheridan has a part requiring someone heroic to such a degree as to allow him to get away with distasteful acts. John Dutton is great, but he's not a good guy; his determination and independent streak appeal to an audience that admires the model of success that prioritizes legacy over sentiment and power over people. Costner has played an assortment of Western protagonists, but Sheridan's wealthy rancher is a second skin enabling him to play against type. 

The match between actor and role is potent enough to inspire a whole family tree of prequels featuring Dutton forebears portrayed by Middle America's heroes. "1883," an instant hit for Paramount+, stars one of country music's best-loved couples Faith Hill and Tim McGraw as John Dutton's great-great grandparents Margaret and James Dutton, initially introduced in "Yellowstone."  

Increasing the legendary cowboy quotient is Sam Elliott's Pinkerton agent, with Tom Hanks and Billy Bob Thornton passing through to sweeten the deal. How do you step up from there? "1923" answers by enlisting Harrison Ford, the nation's favorite cowboy-swashbuckling archaeologist-president rolled up in one perennially scowling Dutton ancestor named Jacob.

One episode does not a series make. But "1923" tests our faith.

This being a Sheridan product, there must be a fierce, respected lady figure to balance out Jacob's life on the ranch; enter Helen Mirren as his Irish wife Cara. "Ford and Mirren" reads like quite the Golden Age cinematic duo, doesn't it? And with the two of them in the place and an entire Montana prairie as their stage, what more do we need?

The premiere answers that by crying out for a cohesive point.

One episode does not a series make, even one of the limited variety. But "1923" tests our faith by presenting subplots running on separate tracks in various places on the planet. In one hourlong sweep, we're transported from Montana to Kenya, where a relative is running from psychological damage inflicted by his tour in World War I by tracking apex predators, and back to Jacob Dutton's locust-decimated land.

1923Aminah Nieves as Teonna in "1923" (James Minchin III/Paramount+)

Montana's population has changed, and its conflicts are now between rival groups of European immigrants, with Dutton and his lawmen holding the badges and gavels of the "we were here first" class. Sheridan's series take pains to remind viewers that isn't true, but in "1923" that notion takes on bloodier implications.

Mirren is no shrinking violet, and neither is the woman she portrays.

While sheepherders and cattlemen battle over their right to graze their stock on land that can't sustain them, Indigenous children have been forced into government boarding schools designed to strip them of their culture. As if to disabuse his viewers of any fantasies about how those places operated, Sheridan introduces Aminah Nieves' Teonna Rainwater by having her spend most of her time onscreen being beaten bloody by a nun.

I'm merely a casual "Yellowstone" viewer, so I'll leave tracing the family tree to others and discovery, especially since a few transformational changes transpired between "1883" and "1923" that are explained by a familiar-sounding narrator.

1923Helen Mirren as Cara Dutton in "1923" (Emerson Miller/Paramount+)

The unifying thread joining the now of "1923" and "1883's" version of then is violence, established in both prequels by having its female stars survive some type of nastiness before doling out pain in kind. Mirren's wrath rips through the screen in a heart-stopping scene I'm guessing will be explained later in the season but in the moment isn't quite connected to anyway. That's fine; its main purpose is to remind us of how physically imposing she can be when her characters are messed with. No shrinking violet, this performer, and neither is the woman she portrays.

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Ford's stoicism leads the "1923"' mood, a match for the land nature has turned against Montana's cattlemen. But it doesn't make for the most compelling flavor over an hour that struggles to prevent the casual viewer's attention from wandering. People lacking the stomach for history-inspired fiction that overcorrects for the years of whitewashing by showing the few non-white characters suffering horrendously may want to look elsewhere, too.

Others can take heart in what the Sheridan-verse holds as a central truth, which is that the spoils of the land are won by those willing to do terrible things to earn and keep it, and the rest can either bend to that way or take their shots. It's a rough philosophy, but it frequently makes for riveting TV.

Sheridan's track record leads me to guess that most people will trust that the scattered plot of "1923" will eventually knot into a story worth noting in the Dutton family Bible. For now, it proves that appreciating life in the present, as seen in "Yellowstone," is preferable to gazing backward, no matter how starry that view may be.

"1923" premieres Sunday, Dec. 18 on Paramount+. New episodes stream weekly.


By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

1923 Harrison Ford Helen Mirren Kevin Costner Paramount Review Taylor Sheridan Tv Westerns Yellowstone