Land. It’s precious. It’s a point of pride and contention. And nothing has served as a better reminder than the first half of of Paramount+’s “Yellowstone” prequel, “1923.” Make sure to brush up on the first four episodes before new shows drop February 5.
In the opening scene, we’re met with a disturbed, blue-dressed Cara Dutton (Helen Mirren) holding a shotgun and chasing a man through the woods. Her shotgun jams while her prey fumbles for his revolver, but the Dutton matriarch is too quick for her foe.
Meanwhile, a voiceover from Elsa Dutton explains the curse of the family: “Violence follows us.”
The first episode begins to set up that violence: we see scenes of Spencer Dutton (Brandon Sklenar), a big-game hunter known for tracking and killing “maneaters,” dramatically taking down a male lion on the African plains; close-ups of sick and dying cattle, their grazing lands pillaged by locusts; and even street-side boxing matches and heated prohibition protests outside the town’s “soda shop.”
But it is a courtroom scene that sets in motion the conflict proving to be the show’s crux. Here we meet Banner Creighton (Jerome Flynn), an unscrupulous shepherd trespassing on cattle grazing lands to feed his herds. Jacob Dutton, played by Harrison Ford in his first major television role, is reluctant to allow this. “Stealing a man’s grass is like stealing his steers,” after all.
The young and charismatic Jack Dutton (Darren Mann), soon to be married to the vibrant, independent Elizabeth Strafford (Michelle Randolph), later encounters the sheepherders and is shot at, proving the point that this is more than a minor disagreement over grass.
We’re also introduced to Teonna Rainwater (Aminah Nieves), a young Native American woman suffering at the hands of a cruel nun in a Catholic Indiana Boarding school.
Episode 2, “Nature’s Empty Throne,”
Jacob and the Yellowstone cowboys save Jack, capturing the herders and successfully hanging all but one—the crafty Banner, who manages to calm his horse while he wriggles his knife from his sheath, freeing himself from his noose.
Meanwhile, in Kenya, we see Spencer Dutton on the trail of a giant leopard who has killed a guest at a luxury game camp. In the end, it turns out there are two leopards, and ultimately two people meet their demise at the claws of the giant beasts.
While recovering under the jacaranda-fringed terrace at a posh hotel, seeming in Nairobi, Spencer is approached by Alexandra (Julia Schlaepfer), a vivacious blonde Brit who expresses surprise at an American so far from home. “I never understand why you British are so shocked to find an American anywhere but America,” Spencer retorts.
It turns out that he’s off to Tanganyika next (present-day Tanzania), and Alexandra, facing a loveless marriage, leaves her betrothed to join Spencer.
Episode 3: The War Has Come Home
Despite the Dutton’s desire to stave on a range war with the sheepherders, the conflict further escalates in episode 3, but first, we’re back in Africa.
Alexandra and Spencer, who have since agreed to get married despite having just met, are enjoying a stunning game drive—elephants galore—when one of the pachyderms makes an aggressive advance on their vehicle. Spencer, ever the hero, kills the beast, but the duo is left in the bush, witnessing a dramatic hyena and lion showdown before being rescued. The parallelism here is strong: sheep vs. cattle, the Duttons vs. Banner’s crew, and even the Native American conflict we’ve been introduced to through Teonna’s storyline.
Banner is soon home and plotting revenge, both for the lynchings and for giving away his sheep, which the Duttons offered to Native Americans at a nearby reservation.
The Yellowstone crew heads into town, where Jacob approaches the sheriff, explaining the herder’s attack on Jack and the range justice that followed. Meanwhile, most of the group has a great time at a basement speakeasy, unaware of the impending doom that awaits them upon their return to the ranch.
The next day, after spending the night in town (the quaint Uptown Butte, in real life, meant to serve as Bozeman), the clan is ambushed by the herders—indeed the mastermind plot of Banner. Several Yellowstone cowboys are killed, and Jack and Elizabeth are wounded. Banner later shows up with a tommy gun, shooting Jacob in the stomach and killing his nephew, John.
Here, we return to the show’s opening scene, where Cara chases down a herder who begs for his life. “Hell is where you’ll go if you do this, ma’am,” he refrains, but she shoots anyway, then lets out a guttural, blood-curdling scream in the middle of a copse of trees.
Finally back at home, a doctor arrives to treat the wounded Duttons. A gravely-wounded Jacob asks Cara not to tell the sheriff about the ambush, afraid of revealing the crew’s vulnerability. Cara stands on the stone ranch house’s porch, set at Darby, Montana’s Chief Joseph Ranch, taking in a sweeping vista of the snowcapped mountains, and begins to pen her letter to Spencer: “This ranch and your legacy are in peril. War has descended upon this place and your family.”
Episode 4, “War and the Turquoise Tide,”
By this point we’re beginning to see the conflict fully come into view. In one of the episode’s early scenes, we see a troubled Cara lying on the ground on her back, wearing a brown dress, screaming. After she’s calmed, we learn that Jacob has survived the night. “Now we just have to focus on the next night,” Cara tells Zane, the family’s most loyal ranchhand, who replies with a terse, “hope’s a dangerous thing.”
Conniving Banner has met with Donald Whitfield (Timothy Dalton), a local mining tycoon, offering to sell mining rights to the Dutton’s land once he takes it over. Banner and his remaining sheep farmers then kill the cowboys guarding the cattle grazing the mountains, selling the stock to Wyoming. Fearful of losing even more family and staff, the elder Duttons decide to let the cattle go.
Meanwhile, Spencer and Alexandra are none-the-wiser, frolicking in the cerulean waters of Zanzibar–or so we think. Later in the episode, Alexandra discovers a stack of unopened letters from Cara. Spencer admits that not reading them is what kept him alive. We quickly learn that Creighton’s ambush occurred three months earlier, and Spencer’s help is desperately needed on the ranch.
Four episodes in, we’re left with many niggling questions: will Spencer and his newfound love return to Yellowstone? Will Banner’s risky blood-oath wager on the Dutton’s land pay off? And perhaps most heart-wrenching of all, will Teonna, who retaliates against Sister Mary’s incessant abuse by suffocating her in bed, flourish after escaping the brutalities of her school?