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‘1923: A Yellowstone Origin Story’ Season One (Blu-ray review)

1923 is the second in a series of epic western miniseries that serve as prologue to Tyler Sheridan’s runaway success, Yellowstone.

Yellowstone, and its extended properties, are unusual properties to analyze and review: a combination of harsh frontier violence and middle class “family” uplift, like a Chicken Soup for the Soul volume authored by Sam Peckinpah.

Again and again as I watched 1923 (and its sister program 1883, for that matter) I was asking the questions “Who is this for, and what is the message they’re getting from it?”

1923 is set past the traditional end of the West and it juggles a slow burn range war in Montana with subplots about Native girls being “Civilized” at a Catholic mission, and an ersatz Dutton son, Spencer trying to run away from PTSD he suffered during World War I by contracting himself as a professional hunter to British engineers in the colony of Kenya.

The individual plot lines deliberately echo several famous (and not-so-famous but interesting) Hollywood pictures from Legends of the Fall to The Ghost and the Darkness. It is stylishly shot, magnificently staged, and immaculately performed by a cast of heavyweight actors that includes Harrison Ford; Helen Mirren; Robert Patrick; and my favorite 007, Timothy Dalton.

So why does it feel so hollow at times?

I would argue it’s because 1923 is caught in between actually being subversive or unsettling in its depiction of the foundation of the country, and between needing to reassure the middle class audience that watches it that they are, and always have been, the real heroes and that family is the most important thing.

The thesis of the show, if I can be very academic about it, is that the major institutions of the world are hollow, and that family bonds trump all.

In a way, the basic formulation of the show is not all that different from Richard Stark’s Parker novels: Jacob Dutton (Ford) represents small business, prosperous through chiefly hard work and skill, who is squeezed at both ends by unpredictable small-time operators (in this show represented by Jerome Flynn’s Banner Creighton) and massive impersonal corporate outfits bent on consumption for its own sake (Dalton’s Donald Whitfield). The community never enriches the Dutton family, it only hems them in from doing what needs to be done, or destroys them spiritually in vast, impersonal, conflicts like World War I.

All of this would be called out as saccharin bullshit but for the ease with which 1923 (and all the Yellowstone shows share in this), deploys sudden, brutal, violence to depict the harshness of frontier life. This gives the programs a service verisimilitude and allows them to partake in the same energy of the great transgressive Westerns of decades past. This show opens with Helen Mirren practically decapitating a man with a shotgun for rustling. 1883 opens with a scalping. In both cases the stage is set for a really hard hitting Western, the likes of which we haven’t seen on the big stage since Unforgiven, maybe even Heaven’s Gate.

But the grit is surface-level; a mirage. Soon we’re given the same kind of family soap opera drama with a cast of characters who evoke the archetypes of classic Western characters as a shorthand so that they can be characterized on the fly.

The result is that unlike the Euro-westerns of the 60’s or the revisionist Westerns of the 70’s, 1923 wants a bloodbath without ever getting its hands really dirty and examining the heroes under the same structural lens that it handles its villains with.

Bankers are greedy, aristocrats are pompous, the system is weak and exploitable but the Duttons are part and parcel of the same system and the resulting ambiguities are rarely explored.

The two major subplots of the season: Spencer Dutton’s private war with the European class system, and Teonna Rainwater’s abuse at and flight from a Catholic assimilation school further reinforce the central conflict. At best, the institutions of Church and State can only act as their material conditions dictate, whether their actors privately sympathize with the heroic characters or not. I’ve literally seen Soviet propaganda films with a more nuanced take on inherited aristocrats than this mini-series, and only famous anti-cleric Sergio Corbucci has been so unkind to priests in his westerns, but there must always be, ironically, a safe space from structural critique fenced around the Duttons.

What is so very vexing is that this kind of milquetoast, cliched, half-political approach is couched in a set of amazing performances from a brilliant cast and impressively staged action scenes.

Ford looks more alive here than in anything he’s made in ages. As an actor, Ford was always most enthusiastic about adult drama and looked at his escapist roles with a sidelong glance, so it’s only natural that he’s migrated (as the dramas themselves have) from the movies to prestige TV. Mirren is given a true rarity: a “star part” written for an older woman. She is the first Dutton we see, but her entrance proper in the story is built up to masterfully and throughout the season she is always given the best speeches.

I’m also very impressed with the villains: Dalton in particular gets a long monologue about cities in his first appearance that is a show stopper right up to the moment you realize he’s gotten the character he’s talking to to sell his soul for running water. He is the most formidable antagonist in a Yellowstone show: thoroughly modern and corrupt, seeking ownership for its own sake rather than for how the means of production (in this case, land to graze cattle on) can be used to make a life possible for others.

Extras are plentiful, with several featurettes covering a large variety of topics.

Ironically as 1923 is pulled between its need to show the structural cruelty of the West for credibility’s sake and it’s need to cordon its family of protagonists from that critique I too am torn between an admiration for the high quality of the production from everyone involved and disappointment in the lack of self-awareness in the writing.

After all, if it were really hard work and that ennobled the people of the frontier would be the noblest bunch that ever lived. It saddens me to see that the oldest lies are the hardest to let go of.

Recommended, with caveats.

 

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