Drought. Depression. A dynasty in peril. In 1923, the prequel to Yellowstone and sequel to 1883, the Dutton family are once again at odds with the times, as societal change and the resulting instability puts their Montana ranch at risk.
In Taylor Sheridan's latest spin-off of the Western franchise, Harrison Ford plays Jacob Dutton, the patriarch of Yellowstone Ranch, who takes in his brother James Dutton's (Tim McGraw's character in 1883) children after his death, raising them with his wife Cara Dutton, played by Helen Mirren. Yet, despite building the empire his brother could only dream of, the Roaring '20s are presenting the Duttons with unprecedented hardship.
"The character finds himself in very difficult circumstances," says Ford. "The pressures on the ranch, which represents the future for his family, are intense. It's a complicated time. A lot of those complications and pressures come to rest on Jacob Dutton's shoulders and the way he deals with them is distinct. Jacob Dutton has hard choices to make and he makes those hard choices like an animal with his back against the wall."
The revolution taking place is not confined to outside the outside world, it also affects the generations living within the gates of Dutton Farm. James Badge Dale plays John Dutton Sr., the son of James and oldest nephew and right-hand man of Jacob. John and his wife Emma (Marley Shelton) are likely to be pitted against their son Jack (Darren Mann) and his wife-to-be Elizabeth (Michelle Randolph) in this turbulent time.
"You're watching the next generation go forth to experience things that we're never going to imagine," says Dale. "In some ways we are representative of an old way of life that isn't coming back."
While John Sr. and Emma have committed to the Dutton way of life and preserving its legacy, their son is bound to embrace new ideas that bring the family business into a new era.
"It's traditionalism butting up against innovation and a new way of thinking and a new way of being," says Shelton. "Jack and Liz represent this fresh take. One of the questions of the series is, 'Will the new generation and the older generation find a common ground that will keep the Dutton way of life alive and moving forward?'"
Also at the center of the tumult is ranch foreman Zane, played by Brian Geraghty.
"I do what [Jacob] needs to me to do for the ranch. I'm there to help protect Cara and the rest of their family," says Geraghty of his character. "There's a loyalty to Zane that goes beyond his job title, and things that potentially Jacob may or may have not done for me."
According to Geraghty, there are more tonal similarities between 1923 and 1883 than with Yellowstone, but the similarities between Zane and Yellowstone foreman Rip, played by Cole Hauser, are undeniable: "I think Cole and I are very different energies in terms of how we'll play the parts, but we get to the same place," teases Geraghty.
Much like how Rip is concerned about the developments on Dutton Ranch after John (Kevin Costner) becomes Governor of Montana in the series set in present day, Zane questions the direction the ranch is headed in the '20s.
"It's in a moment where the technological advances are coming and I think us cowboys are interested but we don't want anything to change. We're afraid of it," says Geraghty. "Zane loves being cowboy. He loves his ranch life, and so those changes feel a bit threatening."
The new series also shines a light on a dark stain of American history: the School for American Indians, a boarding facility where indigenous people faced abuse in the name of assimilating Native Americans into Euro-American culture. In 1923, the oppression is personified by Jennifer Ehle as Sister Mary, an Irish nun with a particularly mean streak. For indigenous actor Aminah Nieves, who portrays her student Teonna Rainwater, the stories covered familiar ground.
"The history lives within me as an indigenous human being," she says. "For me, these are stories that have always been shared with me, that have lived with my family."
While honored to represent this painful part of her legacy, Nieves had to shore herself for the experience. "It was just really important to really connect back to who I am and to the land as much as I can," she says. "Outside of this, I do tend land and I'm an ethnobotanist, so really getting my hands in dirt and preparing my mind and my body and spirit for this journey was really important."
The cast credits Sheridan with the revival of a genre that was ostensibly passé, while giving Westerns new depth. "Taylor Sheridan is certainly one of those people that is the most extraordinary talents of our current time," says Ford. "He puts the mythology, the cowboy myth and American history under the tension of truth. There's a degree of distance between what America represents itself as and how it behaves. And while we may be ambitious for the representation, we're living in the reality."
"Taylor has created an architecture, that once I recognized, I could see that the story was built on hinge moments in the character's life. Since I know which way the hinge was turning, and where we were going, I was seeing that a lot of the development was being done for me by Taylor. To be honest, I could just be there and be real in that circumstance, and it would do the job," he says. "Cowboys are resolute and they're stern and they're tough — we know that about cowboys. But Taylor has given me opportunity to express it in contexts that we don't see very often. Really, the challenge is living up to the character."
1923 premieres Dec. 18