The first thing I noticed about this week’s opening scene of “1923,” perhaps a byproduct of an upbringing spent mainly in Santa Fe, was the expanse of Aspen trees as Cara drove her chestnut horse to town on her buggy, visiting the post office in hopes of mail from Spencer. The Aspen—the populus tremula, or “trembling poplar”—is a spiritual tree, its meaning often associated with conquering fear.
And fear there was in 1923’s fifth episode, “Ghost of Zebrina,” where we watched the show’s body count climb a few notches, some expected, some less so, and some still unknown.
Emma, now a widow thanks to John’s passing (his grave joins the other Duttons in—you guessed it—an Aspen clearing), is sullen and withdrawn, ultimately taking her own life early on in the episode after a heated final exchange with Cara. Jack is “choosing revenge over passion,” neglecting his to-be bride, Elizabeth, while Cara, tending to Jacob’s severe injuries from the ambush, reels from the fallout within her family. No one’s in a good place in that massive stone ranch house, and they don’t want you to forget it.
Still, this focus on the Dutton clan’s internal turmoil gives us a break from the rootin’, tootin’, shootin’ external conflict of the first four episodes. Our narrator, Elsa, explains, “life had become a series of melancholy routines,” and it seems it has. There are fewer scenes of cowboys riding free-spirited across the Montana plains and more scenes of a bed-ridden Jacob Dutton having his painful wounds tended to by Cara and lots of exciting talk about adding solid foods, like rice and boiled chicken, to his diet. With Spencer nowhere in sight and Banner presumably still in cahoots with conniving miner Don Whitfield, perhaps Elsa is correct that the Duttons are on their way to going extinct.
Meanwhile, at Teonna’s Indian school, the nuns have discovered a dead Sister Mary, but Teonna takes vengeance in pairs, also murdering the nun who sexually assaulted her in an earlier episode.
Teonna, naturally, is doing just fine, relatively speaking. She drinks from a stream and fends off wolves overnight in the alien-like landscape of Makoshika State Park in Dawson County, Montana, taking solace on a mushroom-shaped hoodoo rock formation before being discovered in the morning by a Native American sheepherder, to whom she confesses her crime and for the first time, her surname: Rain Water. She’s rightfully skeptical of her new ally but ultimately agrees to accept his offer to get in touch with her father. Could Teonna’s sad storyline finally be taking a happier turn? I wouldn’t wager so just yet.
Despite the episode’s desolate beginnings for the Duttons, in the second half of this week’s show, we see the tide begin to turn. Cara learns that Spencer is coming home (or so she thinks—more on that in a moment), and, much to her relief, Jack and Elizabeth have made up, in more ways than one. The couple quietly exchanges vows, Elizabeth later confiding to Cara that there’s another Dutton on the way. That’s right, we have another generation to add to the Dutton family tree. It’s the “first good news these ears have heard in months,” according to Cara.
Meanwhile, Spencer and Alexandra’s anticipated homecoming isn’t without its struggles. We meet the lovesick couple again on the streets of Mombasa, a scene that can only be described as visual candy for this globetrotter—it’s so rich in color and sight and sound that I could almost smell and taste it.
We soon learn that there will be no easy way for the couple to get home, and they ultimately barter with Lucca, a sickly tugboat captain who needs a deckhand to navigate his junker through the Suez Canal. Before saying “ahoy, matey!” the duo climbs aboard a much nicer ship to send a wire back home via radio. Alexandra’s suggestion, natch.
So there you have it: Cara is thrilled with the news of a new Dutton and relieved that beloved Spencer is en-route home to avenge Banner and Don Whitfield’s treacherous plans alongside Jack. Could it finally be happily ever after for the Duttons? She may think so, but for anyone who knows the show and the Duttons, you know the answer is a big resounding “no.”
In a turn that anyone who’s watched two episodes of “ER” could’ve predicted, Lucca dies at the tugboat’s helm of some strange sort of hemorrhage, leaving the rustbucket listing somewhere off the coast of Somalia. An earlier encounter with a massive ghost ship had already rattled Alexandra. So we’re left with Spencer’s mayday calls as the tug veers dangerously close once again before the episode ends with their overturned vessel adrift at sea.
But as we know, Spencer and his lady friend are brave and cunning, and I refuse to believe their journey ends in the Arabian Sea. Their plotline is one of the show’s most interesting to me —it’s a cinematic respite from the American West—so I hope the showrunners elect to show the challenges of their journey rather than Spencer magically riding into town next episode, Alexandra in tow. I’m utterly fascinated by transatlantic travel in the 1920s, albeit in no way envious of it. That storyline serves as a reminder that we’re watching a world on the cusp of truly being interconnected: Cara learns of electricity coming to Paradise Valley at the beginning of this episode, and we start seeing glimpses of newfangled technology, like radios and cars, throughout, something we haven’t seen much of thus far.
The Duttons—and Yellowstone—are entering a new era, and it remains to be seen if it’s one of tragedy or fortune.