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More Taylor Sheridan: 1883
1883 is a spin-off series from Yellowstone. I’ve written before about the genius behind both (as well as another spinoff I have yet to watch called 1923, starring Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren). That would be the prolific Taylor Sheridan.
I’ve called Yellowstone “Sopranos with cows.” 1883 is much better. Both are absorbing enough, as far as the story-telling goes. The setting for the latter — a wagon train from Texas bound for Oregon of clueless immigrants and a handful of experienced cowboys — makes for a much more interesting narrative. So far I’m still in the journey through an unsettled wilderness plagued by murderous bandits. (Spoilers ahead.)
A retrograde politics pervades Yellowstone, exalting the dubious hero Kevin Costner. The basic moral principle is Costner and his clan got and keep theirs (an enormous, prosperous ranch), by whatever means, and nothing else matters. It also bleeds with white-man resentment that the world fails to honor their grit and sacrifice.
1883 is more elemental. Here it is the land in its natural state that is the hero. That naturalism includes the indigenous population. The incursion of white people is depicted as a defilement of the Edenic plains. The closest thing to the land is the cowboy, the other heroic archetype. There is nothing better than being a cowboy, we are told repeatedly. This weirdness is a departure from the more trite happenings in Yellowstone.
The treatment of race in both is worth a comment. In Yellowstone, the racial contradictions are perversely inverted, with Indians conniving to take land (formerly their land, of course) belonging to the white patriarch. A Wall Street firm with similar designs is headed by a black woman. At the same time, the patriarch’s son has married an Indian woman who is stoutly supported by the family as one of their own. What has been called “everyday racism” is firmly rejected, of course to ratify an underlying, systemically racist socio-economic country. Both Yellowstone and 1883 reflect an awareness of this reality, though no principled opposition to it.
In 1883, one of the head cowboys is an heroic, virtuous black man, reminiscent of the Danny Glover character in Lonesome Dove. The racial situation is described in terms that are simultaneously frank and naturalized. Of course, it’s 1883 so no such transformation is in the offing. I would say a criticism is that these conditions are presented as unalterable and inevitable facts of life. Meanwhile, back east Reconstruction is in the process of being extirpated, but there is little U.S. history in 1883. The one exception is that the protagonist is a Confederate officer tormented by the defeat of the Lost Cause. It’s as if his journey headed to virgin land in Oregon is an effort to reestablish the Confederacy.
I have a note on the gender angle too. In both series, the young ladies are feral and horny as all get-out. If you want to grant that Indians are a separate race, there is oodles of interracial sex too.
A final, humorous note. In the subtitles, which I rely on because I have 50 percent hearing loss, you often see something to the effect “German and Slavic speaking in the background.” Apparently “Slavic” is a language, something I didn’t know.