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The explosive opening, which unfolds without much context, gives way to a familiar voice: 1883’s doomed Dutton daughter Elsa (Isabel May) soothingly narrates, speaking of the family’s unfortunate penchant for being followed by violence. Her musings lead to an unexpected scene in Africa, where a big game hunter is nearly mauled by a lion. These first, somewhat confounding five minutes are followed by a close-up of Jacob, brother of 1883’s James Dutton (Tim McGraw). Ford’s weathered character is surveying a land plagued by locusts and drought. He and other men on horseback – including his nephew John Dutton Sr. (James Badge Dale,) last seen as a little boy in 1883 – have discovered that much of the Dutton herd has succumbed to these hard times. As the next scene suggests, said hard times also include streets filled with angry, female prohibition supporters and even madder sheep and cattle ranchers. The latter two groups gather in a town hall meeting, where Jacob and other livestock officials address a brewing tension that Dutton has a personal stake in. Desperate to feed their starving animals, the sheep herders – led by Banner Creighton (Jerome Flynn) – have allowed their flock to cross into private land, including some of Dutton’s, reserved for cattle.
Jacob and John next meet with other members of the Montana Livestock Association, and ultimately decide all the ranchers must put their cattle together and move them to greener pastures. It’s a risky, but necessary all-hands-on-deck affair that’ll also require the help of John’s son Jack (Darren Mann,) a young cowboy of the rootin’ tootin’ variety who’s set to be married soon. Jack’s fiance Elizabeth (Michelle Randolph) is none to happy to find out her big day needs to be postponed so her future husband can run cattle up a mountain. She even suggests he marry a cow instead and christen the union when they reach the mountaintop. Cara soon arrives to drop some wisdom on the bride-to-be, schooling her on the ups and downs of being married to a rancher. The girl calms down, accepts that the cattle will always come first, and runs to Jack for a passionate reunion. Late that evening, we catch up with Banner, who clearly hasn’t learned his lesson. He and his massive herd come upon a fence blockading some fertile ground. With barely a thought to the potential consequences – or the pistol Jacob put in his face just hours before – he orders his men to cut an opening through the fence and let the animals feed.
With the seeds of that future conflict planted, we’re taken back to Africa, where the hunter’s now sleeping on a train. During a graphic nightmare of his time in World War I, he’s awakened by an attendant. He re-actively pulls his gun on her, but quickly apologizes and pays her for the trouble. He’s arrived for a job, which involves hunting and killing a “leopard the size of a sofa” that’s terrorizing a camp of high-society types on a safari holiday. Between this mysterious hunter’s exploits and Jacob’s ranch war woes, 1923 takes a lengthy, seemingly disconnected narrative detour. We’re introduced to Teonna Rainwater (Aminah Nieves,) a young native woman – and presumed ancestor of Yellowstone’s Thomas Rainwater – who’s forced to attend an American Indian boarding school, controversial institutions established at the time to assimilate Native American children into the white man’s world. She’s verbally and physically abused at the school, first by a ruler-wielding nun, Sister Alice (Kerry O’ Malley), then by a priest, Father Renaud (Sebastian Roche.) Following the brutal encounters, she shares with a friend the fact they’ve never heard from any of their friends or family who’ve since left the school. She suspects they’ve all been killed, and suggests they escape unless they want to suffer the same fate.
Back on Dutton land, we catch up with Jacob and his cowboys as they move the cattle up the mountain. Jack goes on ahead and spots the grazing sheep that were let in by Banner. A man on horseback, watching the herd, raises his rifle and takes a shot at Jack. But the episode cuts back to the ranch, leaving us wondering where the bullet landed. This is one of two cliffhangers we’re hit with during the premiere’s closing minutes, as the leopard hunter also finds himself in a, er, hairy predicament. He’s found his target, but not before the beast’s made a bloody meal of a tourist, a married woman who’d been flirting with the hunter earlier. After killing the creature, one of his tracker companions yells out that there’s actually a pair of leopards on the prowl, the second of which leaps toward the hunter just before the screen goes black. But here’s the real kicker. Shortly before this unfolds, we learn the man’s identity via a letter Cara is penning to him. The hunter is Spencer Dutton (Brandon Sklenar,) the youngest son of 1883’s James and Margaret (Faith Hill,) who was born sometime after that series rode off into the sunset. Aside from John Sutton Sr., Spencer is the only surviving member of 1883’s Montana-settling clan. In the correspondence, Cara begs her “Dearest Spencer,” who apparently skipped off to Africa after the war, to return to the Dutton ranch.
Source: Entertainment Weekly, Matt Cabral (December 19, 2022)