Harrison Ford plays Jacob Dutton (a name I’ve learned carries quite a bit of weight in this franchise), family patriarch and livestock commissioner. There’s a lot being thrown at Jacob in this first episode. There are rising tensions in Montana, with the rough, ruthless landscape going through a lengthy drought that’s led to a grass shortage. That might not sound like a big deal now, but considering the community depends on livestock — which eats that very grass to survive — and you’ve got a heck of a problem on your hands. There’s also a rise in locust, an oncoming economic depression, and just about every other problem you can fathom. Most important is the drought, which has led to sky-high tensions between the cowboys and sheepherders.
The sheepherders are led by Banner Creighton (Jerome Flynn), who is furious over the sudden lack of resources while also harboring a vendetta against Jacob and his entire family, particularly in regard to how much land they have. Jacob has no time for Banner’s complaints, which leads to a quick, furious scene in a courthouse. It sets up the conflict between Banner and Jacob quickly, but the worldbuilding here feels too rushed and doesn’t let us understand why Jacob and Banner have what feels like a heated rivalry.
The scene establishes that Jacob’s family has the largest plot of land in the region, while sheepherders like Banner are suffering. That’s an interesting dynamic, but it’s all too familiar and gets to violence in a few seconds — and it feels like a missed opportunity to really establish something special. Thankfully, Ford is thrilling, effectively channeling a lifetime of fury and frustration into this no-nonsense patriarch. He’s not one to shy away from violence, and it’s clear this is a man that will do absolutely anything in his power, and maybe more, to keep what’s his. A lifetime of difficulty has led to this toughness — “I’ve been here since 1894, Clive, I do not remember an easy year,” he tells a co-worker. It’s admittedly a bit one note in the first episode, but “1923” has an entire season to give Jacob some nuance.
Then there’s Helen Mirren, who plays Dutton family matriarch Cara. If you had concerns that Cara would be little more than a doting wife, you can toss those worries away: It takes less than a minute into the first episode for Cara to blow away a foe with a shotgun. It’s clear Cara is not one to be messed with, and Mirren feels very much in her element, feeling every bit as hardened as Ford, but with a sense of humanity that allows her to feel more grounded. Cara seems to be a person far more sensitive when talking to those she cares for, but if someone comes to threaten what her family has worked for, well … she’s got a shotgun and she knows how to use it.