1923, the latest Paramount+ drama from the prolific producer and writer Taylor Sheridan, isn’t your average spinoff. For starters, the second Yellowstone prequel features two of the most venerated and decorated actors of their generation: Harrison Ford (in his TV debut) and Helen Mirren (in a rare return to the small screen for the dame). And while critics were only given the pilot to screen for review, it soon becomes clear that Ford and Mirren, who previously co-starred as husband and wife in The Mosquito Coast, still share a magnetic screen presence that can elevate 1923 beyond another overwrought Western.
Set four decades after the events of 1883, the limited series that chronicled the Dutton family’s arduous journey to the land that ultimately became the Yellowstone Ranch, 1923 finds the now-thriving ranch under the control of Jacob Dutton (Ford), the older brother of James (Tim McGraw from 1883), and Jacob’s Irish wife, Cora (Mirren). After arriving in 1894, Jacob and presumably Cora began raising James’ sons, John (James Badge Dale) and Spencer (Brandon Sklenar), as their own. John now has an adult son, Jack (Darren Mann), who is eager to continue the Duttons’ ranching legacy—even if it means delaying his wedding to the more prim-and-proper Elizabeth Strafford (Michelle Randolph), who might not have been completely aware of what comes with marrying a cowboy, for a cattle drive.
But, in true Yellowstone style, regardless of the year, the Duttons are facing threats on multiple fronts. And as Isabel May, who starred in 1883, says in an early voiceover in 1923, “Violence has always haunted this family.” Following the turmoil of World War I and the Spanish flu pandemic, the characters are forced to contend with prohibition, cattle disease, a rise in locusts, and the economic conditions of the looming Great Depression. Central to the new Duttons’ story in Montana, however, is a drought that has led to a grass shortage for grazing, causing a growing sense of competition and resentment between the cowboys and shepherds in town. With his piercing eyes and thinly veiled threats, Banner Creighton (Jerome Flynn), a belligerent Scot who leads the group of local sheep herders and has a certain vendetta against the Duttons, makes it clear that he will be one of many familiar foes for the Duttons to contend with. (Timothy Dalton, the former James Bond, will also play a villain, but he does not appear in the first episode.)
While Jacob rounds up livestock and attends to business in town as the livestock commissioner, Cara, despite being in her later years, continues to tend to the homestead and relish the quiet freedom she has on the ranch without her husband—something that she reminds Elizabeth in an attempt to keep the peace between her and Jack. (But make no mistake: Cara knows how to fire a double barrel shotgun when she needs to protect her family.)
No stranger to iconic action heroes, Ford cuts a naturally imposing and threatening figure as a classic cowboy, although his character’s stiff expression seems to be stuck in a perpetual scowl except when he’s with his wife. By contrast, Cora feels more dynamic and emotionally accessible, with Mirren tapping into the matriarch’s quiet humanity and strength. Because of its leads, 1923 functions more interestingly as a family drama and will only benefit from a deeper exploration of Jacob and Cora’s shared history as partners. Together, Ford and Mirren’s witty repartee even helps to add a few moments of levity in an otherwise taut and tense hour that attempts to juggle two other storylines that don’t really feel connected to the ranch but are arguably more compelling than spats over land rights.
A world away, Spencer, Jacob and Cora’s war veteran nephew, has developed a reputation as a kind of marksman hunting dangerous big cats that are threatening the lives of villagers and travelers in Africa. Traumatized by his experiences in the battlefield, which were shown in a lengthy and graphic flashback that illustrates 1923’s innate cinematic quality, Spencer has decided against going home to Montana in favor of searching for the parts of himself that he lost in the Great War. Sklenar bears such an uncanny resemblance to Ford that, at first glance, one might think Sklenar was playing Jacob in a flashback. As a ruggedly handsome safari hunter, Sklenar commands the screen by playing one of the show’s most immediately compelling characters.
Sheridan has not shied away from the historical mistreatment of Indigenous peoples, but he’s taken that theme a step further in 1923 with the introduction of Teonna Rainwater (an excellent Aminah Nieves), a strong-willed young woman on the verge of reaching her break point who is forced to attend one of the horrific residential schools of that era. When she lashes out, Teonna faces the wrath of her sadistic nun teacher, Sister Mary (a terrifying Jennifer Ehle), and a slightly more compassionate but even more ruthless headmaster, Father Renaud (a menacing Sebastian Roché), who has his own perverse way of asserting his power over both women.
Sheridan continues to walk an ever-so-fine line between exposing the murder and mistreatment of Indigenous peoples in history and falling into sensationalist exploitation. While it remains imperative to depict these difficult parts of American history, these scenes in the school are deeply unsettling and uncomfortable to watch—so much so that they feel like a different show altogether—and these unflinching depictions of violence can run the risk of being gratuitous. It’s still unclear from the first episode alone how all of the storylines will inevitably converge, or if all of the storylines even work to begin with, but if executed correctly, Sheridan’s prequel can be a worthy star vehicle for its sprawling ensemble.
1923 premieres December 18 on Paramount+.