Not part of the 'Yellowstone Universe'? Well, you cannot be entirely alone despite the legions of its fans, and it does need a bit of an explanation for the uninitiated. Back in 2018, a series called Yellowstone
was premiered by the Paramount Network, and at the current count there are five seasons, plus related series, and more to come. Yellowstone
itself (apologies to those of you who know all this) is a Western, set in the present day; it revolves around the powerful Dutton family in Montana, owners of the largest ranch in the region – the Yellowstone – and it stars Kevin Costner.
It's a colourful family saga, a no-expenses-spared production, tense with such situations as clashes with those trying to challenge land ownership, violence over nearby boundaries, Native American rights. The scenery is beautiful and the family home (a real one, built between 1914-17) serves as a stunning statement to the family's wealth. So far so good. Then, there is a prequel, 1883
, which tells the story of how the Dutton family braved the move westward and established themselves as landowners.
Another prequel, brought out this year, fills in some of the gap between the 19th century and the present day, again just called by its date, 1923
. It is perfectly okay to begin here, and one could always go back (and forth) and see about joining the 'Yellowstone Universe'. All of this is created and written by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario
), previously a respected actor, who clearly has an enormous imagination and is very persuasive. He brought in to star in 1923
: Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren, as the older Duttons, Jacob and Cara, devoted to each other, also independent minded; Jerome Flynn, who outdoes himself as a desperate and dangerous adversary bent on revenge; Timothy Dalton as a business tycoon with awful sadistic tendencies; but the ones who really bring the show to life are Brandon Sklenar and Julia Schlaepfer, not very familiar names, but electric together.
This period in the American West anticipates the Great Depression. There is drought, anxiety about stock, land disputes and, not unexpectedly, the law is a fragile thing in a place where the gun is readily to hand. Watching this eight-part series now, when there is so much in the news from America that revolves around guns and lack of respect for the law, and, indeed, massed displays of taking the law into their own hands, it is difficult not to see shadows long cast from the country's past.
Ford plays the elderly Jake Dutton, who, while he respects the law, is not above crossing its boundaries, citing past times when one could get away with it. This brings down upon the family a disaster that is the focus of the series. Mirren is superb in her role as a woman who is equal to any man, yet at the same time tender and wishful in her relationships to her nephews, brought up by herself and Jake.
The much missed younger nephew, Spencer Dutton, is not there. In a clever, almost theatrical style, the story moves back and forth from the wild American west to the wild African east, to Kenya, where Spencer is working as a highly respected hunter, mainly called on to protect game safaris for wealthy visitors, those found at stylish Nairobi watering holes. The juxtaposition of danger, guns, money, the wide-open, pristine spaces does seem to create parallels. Who is civilised here? Back in Montana, another sub-plot involves the grim mistreatment of Native American girls at the missionary school. In Africa, it is the wealthy white colonialists who echo the entitlement, speaking disparagingly of anyone local and treating their own women as chattels.
One of those young women is a well-connected daughter of an English family, travelling with a friend as well as her fiancé and his family: Alexandra. Here it all comes together. Spencer, a decorated hero from the First World War (not long over) has been trying unsuccessfully to deal with his demons from that traumatic experience by shutting himself off from the Duttons, avoiding the emotional connections with family, making a name for himself in Africa. He has not reckoned with meeting anyone like Alexandra. Their relationship lightens the whole story, though it is fraught at times, and takes them through situations – lions, sea voyages and duelling – that must have been rather fun to plot and execute. It's gripping, and it is at times delightful. Alex and Spencer – a new generation Ford and Mirren – and then some.
Alex is cut from the same cloth as Spencer's Aunt Cara, sensitive but stubborn, hating the position of a female who has more or less been 'sold' to make a good family partnership. Back in Montana, the young Native American Teonna, played by Aminah Nieves, is just as helpless to defend herself against what white society has planned for her. The story of 1923
moves from one location to another, but there is always a thread.
There is, however, one word of warning to this tale. It is the sub-plot with Timothy Dalton. He makes a truly evil, greedy bastard, machinating behind the scenes, buying off a judge here, a jury there, and setting things up to bring down the Duttons. His BDSM scenes with two young women are very tough going and unnecessary. Again, there is an unpleasant reflection on current-day cases of misogyny and worse, behaviour of those in positions who abuse trust. Taylor Sheridan's 1923
shows the sprouting from the roots that were put down in the 'origin story' of Yellowstone
, which turn into the sturdy trees of the later series, and which look all too familiar in today's troubled world.
It has been said that each episode cost many millions to produce, and some of that will have been the extensive and thoughtful cinematography, which focuses at length on the vast expanses of landscape, both in Montana and in Kenya, where it was filmed. This could be because Taylor Sheridan has a respect and admiration for the land, brought up to admire and appreciate its riches, but not to take advantage of them. This, too, is part of the story.