Taylor Sheridan’s Yellowstone universe is often more frequently associated with morally gray characters and visceral storytelling rather than it is with romance, as the saga follows multiple generations of the franchise’s central Dutton clan as they battle (often violently) to hold on to their eponymous Montana ranch. Yet, for all that prequel series 1923 wrestles with complex post-war issues of American identity and confronts the horrors that settlers of the West often inflicted on both one another and the native peoples who originally occupied the land they claimed, the true heart of the show can be found in the relationship between its central power couple: Jacob and Cara Dutton.
Admittedly, it’s hard not to love any characters played by Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren, who are the sort of performers that would be compelling to watch going grocery shopping together. But Sheridan has given the duo rich emotional material to mine, casting them as a longtime, loving frontier couple who put each other first, take no bullshit, and have managed to craft a life of genuine meaning out of a situation they never expected to find themselves in. According to Dutton family history, Ford’s Jacob was originally summoned west following the death of his younger brother James—the lead character from the prequel 1883—to raise his children and hold on to the land he had settled. Mirren’s Cara, of course, goes with him, but rather than fulfill the simplistic “behind every successful man is a good woman” trope, she stands firmly beside her husband in a role that’s ultimately more powerful (and, yes, openly feminist) than one would initially expect from a show about Prohibition-era ranchers in Montana.
More importantly, however, 1923 makes clear that Jacob and Cara’s relationship is deeply romantic, the rare sort of all-encompassing mature love that we so seldom get the chance to see play out on television—a medium that often likes to treat its older characters as sexless eunuchs. Here, it is apparent that Jacob and Cara’s entire world is each other, and while that doesn’t always play out in traditional ways (the ranch they’ve been entrusted to hold onto is often a looming third presence in their marriage, as is the threat of loss and violence), it doesn’t make their feelings any less potent or sincere. And if you don’t find the idea of Cara stomping off into the woods to shoot one of the men she thinks murdered her husband in the face with a shotgun just a little swoon-worthy, you may not be approaching this franchise in the correct spirit.
Though the show goes further in portraying the physical aspects of the relationships among its younger generation—Spencer Dutton and his British fiancee Alexandra, and Jack Dutton and his WASP-y wife-to-be Elizabeth—neither of those pairings carry the emotional heft of the elder Dutton duo. After all, Spencer has tried to leave Alex behind twice already, and Jack and Elizabeth have yet to make it to the altar, mainly due to the fact that they were both shot by the sheepherders the Duttons are feuding with. But while the future of these romances remains in flux, Jacob and Cara’s love for one another is unquestionably the bedrock upon which this family—and this show itself—is founded.
A truly unique partnership in ways that 1923 has only barely begun to explore, Jacob and Cara are a rarity for the time period in which they find themselves, as the heads of a sprawling clan in which none of the children are their own. Yet, the pair seem to have accepted their childlessness with grace—they raised their nephews as if they were their trueborn sons, and spoil their grandnephew as much as any blood grandparents of the time period might. (Which is to say, not much.) And, most importantly, neither seems to blame the other for the state in which they find themselves. Rather, their lack of blood children seems to have drawn them even closer to one another as partners (both romantic and otherwise) and 1923 delights in illustrating the unconventional ways the two balance one another out. It is Cara who calms her husband’s worst excesses and Jacob who embraces his wife’s strengths. When he’s too injured to take charge of public family matters, it is Cara who steps into his place and speaks with a voice that commands no less authority.
Plus, they’re genuinely adorable together. From the way Jacob openly refers to Cara as “The Boss” of the family, to her teasing lectures about the dangers of riding his horse too fast, every scene the pair shares speaks of a deep ease, affection, and comfort with one another, the heartfelt truth of a rich, and longstanding bond that has clearly existed well before the events we’re watching play out on this show. That they genuinely love one another is a given, but also regularly expressed; in truth, the elder Duttons are as obviously smitten with one another as the much younger Jack and Elizabeth are, though they are gifted with far fewer onscreen public make-out sessions.
But in a way, that makes a certain amount of sense. Because in Jacob and Cara’s world love is an action, rather than a sentiment, and it’s displayed through the seemingly endless work that’s required to hold both the Dutton ranch and family together. It’s months away herding cattle and scrubbing blood off the floor and helping your spouse learn to walk again in secret and being a leader when the other cannot. It’s a million different moments that combine to form the shape of a lifetime together, and in a show like 1923—so often teeming with bombast, melodrama, and constant near-death stakes—it’s their relationship that manages to feel the most grounded and true.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.
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