1923, Season One (2022)


I can usually recognize a western written by a certain kind of male author, because it contains copious amounts of sadistic, prolonged violence toward women. And this one has so much of it, it's hard for me to focus on the good attributes, which include excellent action scenes, gorgeous Montana territory, heaps of emotional intensity, and an exquisite secondary lead performance from Helen Mirren.


Montana is still rough in the 1920s, but the Dutton ranch is the largest spread around. A devastating drought has made the ranchers need grass, which is the same problem the sheep-herders have. A community get-together winds up in an argument between the ranchers and the Irish herders, with one of them, Banner (Jerome Flynn), swearing that he will do as he sees fit. A lawman in addition to being the head of the local council, Jacob Dutton (Harrison Ford) tells him if he breaks the law, he'll pay for it with his life. He decides to gather the cattle together and drive them up into the mountains above Yellowstone, to let them feed on the grass as long as they can, and then sell off most of them so they survive the winter. But when they reach the top, the sheep herders have already gotten there ahead of them and don't want to give up the land they are squatting on, which leads to a violent conflict with serious consequences...


Hundreds of miles away, Teonna Rainwater (Aminah Nieves) is being brutalized in a Catholic school for Indian girls, where they are forcibly given new white names and taught to be subservient wives and mothers by a dozen sadistic nuns, lead by a psychopathic priest who spends just as much time beating the living hell out of the nuns as he does the students who snap back at them. Teonna cannot submit no matter what the nuns do to her, which means eventually she will need to break away from them in a daring escape, which leads to an escalation of violence and terror...


Across the world, Spencer Dutton (Brandon Sklenar) is shooting animals for a living. As a hunter, he tracks down lions, jaguars, and hyenas that make a habit out of eating humans for kicks. On one such mission, he meets a fiery English woman named Alexandra (Julia Schlaepfer) who feels stifled by an arranged marriage to a prig and wants out of it. On a whim, she runs away with Spencer for a whirlwind romance, never suspecting that a blood-soaked letter from home will call him back to America and lead him to set out on a journey of violence...


You get the drift, right? I will start off with the good, because there is some of it. But the bad, for me, outweighs it. The three stories are interesting in their own right, even if they move slow and stretch credulity. And the writer has a good ability to both stir up your intense emotions (anger in particular) and make you fond of these people, aided by some excellent performances. The 1920s setting is fun, a mix of horse drawn carriages and automobiles. And while the three separate main stories don't appear to be connected, you know he will wind them together in later seasons. Helen Mirren is fantastic in a role that lets her shine as a terrified but determined woman who will do anything to protect her loved ones, and Harrison Ford is good as the aging patriarch who is stubborn as all hell. Despite the fact that he spent half of five episodes shooting animals (not my favorite thing to watch), Spencer became my favorite character.


But it is sensationalist writing, and by that, I mean it's not realistic either to the time period or to human behavior in that these people are constantly running into soulless violent monsters, everywhere they go. Taylor Sheridan, the writer, wanted to shed light on the abuses inside of the Indian Schools at the time, but he went way overboard. I did not need to watch girls being beaten mercilessly with rulers, paddles, or punched in the face for ten or twenty minutes per episode for half the season; I did not need to see the priest beating and torturing them for information, nor him beating up the nuns; I did not need to see Teonna bashing a nun's head into a desk repeatedly, punching her all the time, or beating her to death with a bag full of Bibles. None of the Catholic characters in this series have any compassion or humanity or protest any of this outrage; all of them are abusive, predatory, racist sadists, which is outright bigotry on behalf of the writing team. And there was so much violence against young girls, it made me wonder if the writer was getting off on it... because there's more later, against other women. A character played by Timothy Dalton pays a whore, who spends most of her time topless and beating up on other whores with a belt. I wound up fast-forwarding a lot. I cannot express how uncomfortable all of that made me feel to watch, as a woman, or how awful it is.


Beyond that is almost constant horrific violence, from men being hanged in trees rather than reasoned with about land division to gunned down on the way home. But it's honestly the violence against women and the repugnant amount of bigotry toward Catholics that is going to stick with me the longest, and that makes me reluctant to watch anything else Taylor Sheridan has ever written, because I understand this sort of thing isn't new for him. There's awful people no matter what direction you throw a rock in his world, from vengeful aristocrats to lawmen who accidentally kill an Indian woman and just ride off and leave her to rot. It made me feel disgusted that I felt so angry at the injustices they melted out that wanted most of the religious characters dead, and then I got to see them killed in gruesome ways. I want to find out what happens to the Duttons, but I don't know if I have the stomach to handle any more sustained moral outrage, and I doubt the story is going to get any nicer.
Sexual Content:
The Indian girls are forced to bathe in view of the nuns, one of which is a sexual predator; in the guise of bathing Teonna after a beating, she molests her in a long and uncomfortable scene; a long scene between an engaged couple that includes kissing, undressing, and glimpses of her naked breasts; two couples shower together; a short but erotic sex scenes between a married couple; some innuendo, referencing of illegitimate children, and talking about being ravished; a man watches two half-naked whores kissing each other; another man pays them later to beat each other in various scenes that combine sex and violence (one of them spends most of her screen time topless); we see another couple climb into bed, with her fully naked from the side.



For a word that wasn't in common use in the 1920s, the f-word gets said 35 times. GD gets said 6 times. SOB 7 times. And so on.
There is almost too much to list, most of it stomach-turning and in long scenes that go on forever. Spencer shoots lions, jaguars, and even a bull elephant to protect himself and others. He endures a shipwreck, a brawl in front of a bunch of people, a sword fight in which he beats up his opponent, and then chucks him overboard on a ship. Jacob Dutton finds sheep-herders on his mountain lands and because one of them shot his nephew's horse (aiming at him), he has their sheep run off (destroying their families' livelihoods) and then hangs all of them from a tree; only one of them survives, and comes back to mow them all down with gunfire. A hundred men wind up dead in the subsequent range war battle, with lots of blood; a main character takes a bullet to the eye, one of the girls gets hit, and Jacob winds up riddled in bullets. A white man who has married an Indian woman against the law is dragged out of his home and beaten up in sight of his kids, while she's hauled off to jail. Elsewhere, two marshals search an Indian woman's home, one of them shoves her, and she cracks her head open on the stove and dies; he forces his companion to lie and say she attacked him, before they ride off and leave her to rot. By far, the most amount of violence comes from the priests and nuns toward the Indian girls, and vice versa. Our first scene with Teonna has her being beaten mercilessly with a ruler because she can't remember her lesson; this makes her snap, and beat the hell out of the nun responsible; they are both then dragged to the priest's office, where he beats them both with a paddle. The subsequent four episodes contain more scenes like this, each time with Teonna or her friends being abused, her snapping and beating up a nun, being punished for it in various awful ways, until finally she goes on a midnight murder spree in which she first beats the nun she hates the most with a bag full of Bibles, then sits on her, forces a pillowcase into her mouth, and smothers her, before stabbing a child molester in the chest with a knife. The infuriated priest sends three other priests after her, who quote Bible verses and talk about God while they mistreat everyone they meet; when an Indian boy calls him on his hypocrisy ("that you act like this tells me your God does not exist"), one of the priests starts to beat him to death, before he is scalped and has his throat cut. The two priests who track down Teonna also wrestle her to the ground and rip open her top to expose her breasts (she's dressed as a boy), and one of them beats her--again. On and on it goes. They are killed, along with some of the people protecting her. I got real sick of it.



The anti-religious element to the script is strong. There are no compassionate or moral Catholic characters or Christians in general. They are all merciless, brutal, sadistic psychopaths, child molesters, or hypocrites, who pontificate about God and try to force people to give up their native beliefs, then act morally outraged when the Indians accuse them of being monsters and reward disobedience with brutality. If you are going to depict this, you need a balance of actual Christian/Catholic characters who protest the violence, who "do unto others" the way Jesus said, and who have real problems with the racism on display among their peers... but no one here has a moral conscience.

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