“Nothing Left to Lose” was not the finale episode I anticipated — like, not even close — but maybe (just maybe!) it’s the kick in the pants this unhurried story needs. Teonna somewhat excluded, the characters on Team Good saw their predicament go from truly bad to heartbreakingly awful over the course of 68 minutes. Meanwhile, Team Evil was on a recruitment push. For example, I did not predict that the sex workers Donald Whitfield (Timothy Dalton) has low-key imprisoned would delight in viciously whipping the shit out of each other, so turned on were they by old James Bond’s “power as an aphrodisiac” tutorial.
And on Team Good, not even side characters like Yellowstone foreman Zane, whose emotional life I had not heretofore considered, were spared. His wife, Alice, was introduced and carted off to prison on miscegenation charges way faster than Alexandra and Spencer made it off the capsized tugboat. The first seven episodes of 1923 proceeded at a sturdy, incremental pace that seemed destined to deposit Spencer Dutton, messianic huntsman and taciturn stud-muffin, at his Aunt Cara’s front door by season’s end. Instead, he’s on a dinghy bound for … wait a sec; they didn’t even tell us where it’s docking.
If his goal was to upset this viewer’s expectations, Taylor Sheridan could not have been more successful. I sometimes wondered exactly how close we would zoom in on the big Dutton-family reunion. Would we see Spencer visit the grave of his older brother as he plots revenge? Or would we leave him slightly farther away, pulling his high-society bride up the hill and into pastoral life? I thought we’d at least get to hear Alexandra crack wise about the lack of motor cars and electricity.
But no — after an unforeseeable run of disastrous events, Alex is being held hostage on the HMS Majestic by her old fiancé’s royal dad while her husband is being forced upon some nameless European shore. It was bad luck that Spencer and Alex would wind up on the same ship to London as Arthur and what remains of Alex’s old wedding party — namely, Arthur’s parents and Alex’s plucky bridesmaid Jennifer. And it feels exceedingly unlikely that in the year 1923, Arthur — a sort of frail-looking adult male blond — would challenge the most lethal big-game hunter in Africa to a duel in the middle of a black-tie dinner. Nor did I expect Arthur to choose the sword as his weapon. Nor did I expect Spencer to be such an effective swordsman. Beginner’s luck, I guess.
Spencer graciously disarms himself after delivering unto Arthur a tidy trouncing, but the poor cuckold simply refuses to survive this tussle. The pipsqueak pulls a pistol on Spencer, who tosses him overboard in self-defense, which, I don’t know, are we sure there wasn’t some other way? It seems extreme when you rewind three times to gape at how effortlessly Spencer pitches a full-grown man into the sea. He spends most of the rest of the episode in the brig in a tuxedo. It’s only when Jennifer breaks ranks with the aristocrats to testify that she saw Mr. Artie with the Revolver on the Lido Deck that the captain consents to let Spencer go free.
I’m pretty sure there are some discrepancies between the noble titles, as mentioned in the episode, and those in the end credits; either that or I don’t understand how England works. From the scene in which Spencer defends himself before the captain of the Majestic, I gleaned that Alexandra is the Countess of Sussex, and her father, who questions the legitimacy of his daughter’s marriage to an American hunter at sea, is the Earl of Sussex. But in the end credits, the Countess of Sussex is the actor who plays Arthur’s mom. And according to Debrett’s, an Earl’s daughter is actually given the courtesy title “lady” — please send help. Regardless, someone important wants Spencer removed from the queen’s fleet. And someone important — who I think is a different person — forbids Alex from accompanying him.
Alex and Spencer are horny for grand declarations of love at the best of times, but their last of the season is brutal and raw — screamed across the sea as Spencer is led to shore in handcuffs. They cry their “I love you”s only to be drowned out by the surf. Alex, who will be carted off to London to face her family’s disapproval, promises to meet her husband in Bozeman — the city in all Cara’s letters. But how will she get so far on her own with no money and no help? I can’t imagine the family she’s “disgraced” will support her. When Alex and Spencer scream to each other across the void, do they do it as lovers saying good-bye for now or, on some level, good-bye forever?
A brief pause for wild speculation, if I may. What are people making of the fact that Alex is notably more seasick than she’s been on voyages past? Is she pregnant? And if she is, is it possible that the baby she’s carrying could be the father of John Dutton III (Kevin Costner)? Hear me out. “Nothing Left to Lose” featured no shortage of family tragedies, including the loss of Jack and Elizabeth’s unborn child. Yes, Liz is young and there’s plenty of reason to think that she will conceive again and carry a baby to term. But! The sad possibility that she might not was discussed at length between her and Jack, who tenderly pointed to Cara as an example of a woman whose childless existence was filled with purpose. Could this be Lizzie’s destiny, as well? There’s no way to be sure! And yet it got my rusty old gears turning. Anyway, just the facts from here on out.
We may as well finish teasing out all the episode’s romantic story lines while we’re on the subject of devastating misfortune. Zane heads home — a place I previously assumed was the bunkhouse — as the Yellowstone men struggle to absorb their latest setbacks. It turns out that Zane is not yucking it up with the other cowboys most Saturday nights but married to Alice, an Asian woman with whom he shares well-mannered kids who ask precocious questions at the dinner table. Unfortunately, one of Banner’s henchmen follows Zane home, peering through the curtained windows at the Davises’ lovemaking. Cops promptly arrest Alice for violating horrific anti-miscegenation laws that would remain on the books in Montana until 1953. They beat Zane bloody. Mercifully, they don’t take the kids.
Compared to the life and death, freedom and imprisonment stakes of the episode’s more dramatic story lines, Jacob’s woeful tale of an old guy who can’t afford his big-ass ranch anymore doesn’t exactly pack much emotional punch. Sometimes people who used to be on top lose ground, you know? Life goes on. So they yanked out the horse-hitching rail by city hall to make room for car-parking spots? No one said Luddite life would be easy.
At his arraignment, Banner pleads not guilty, which Jacob surely expected. What takes the livestock commissioner by surprise is that the judge releases Banner without bail when Banner claims he acted in self-defense. By this highly suspect legal theory, Banner’s premeditated, extrajudicial murders committed days after the Dutton men hanged the shepherds for trespassing were simply a matter of self-protection — not retaliation. It doesn’t seem like watertight legal reasoning to my untrained ear, but perhaps when you share a lawyer with the state’s richest man and the state’s governor, it just has to sound good to the right judge.
It’s technically a win for Banner, but he’s more accustomed to ticking off the score in bruises and even bodies. He can’t just walk away. He calls Jacob a coward, taunts Jack, and threatens a showdown on Dutton land, all while still in the courtroom. But later, cooler and more wretchedly capitalist heads prevail. Donald explains to Banner that true victory comes in the form of intergenerational wealth accrued at the expense of your enemies. If you kill them, you end up in jail; if you take what they love, you can end up a very rich man. To his credit, Banner looks uneasy about their alliance once Lindy descends the stairs looking teary and haunted, but the promise of immortality in the form of fuck-you money quickly overwhelms the Scot’s better angels.
Team Evil has spies everywhere, even at the bank that denies Jacob’s loan — the one he needs to avoid defaulting on his taxes come year-end. Donald Whitfield sees an opportunity to crush the ranch while enriching himself. He buys the lien on the Yellowstone, which — and it’s hard to believe this could possibly ever be the case, not to mention still the case — means Whitfeld now owns Jacob’s debt. If Jacob’s unable to redeem his home quickly, the ranch’s deed reverts to Whitfield. Like Spencer, like Jack, like Zane, Jacob joins the ranks of Yellowstone men stunned to find themselves in situations beyond their control when it seems that it was only yesterday they were the ones who had all of it. It’s the same story Sheridan’s still telling now on his contemporary drama Yellowstone. First, the West was won by force; now, it’s ruled by finance.
Which brings us to the story of Teonna and the first men and women ever to be muscled off this land. After a season of unrelenting violence and abuse, she finally has a morsel of hope in her life. She’s on the run from the school, which has now enlisted the cops for backup, but it’s the freest we’ve ever known Teonna. Along with the recently orphaned Pete, she and Runs His Horse are heading to Wyoming, where they can seek refuge with the Comanche. When a smitten Pete tells Teonna he’d take a beating from her overprotective dad to be with her, it’s the first moment of real sweetness we’ve ever seen in her life.
“Fall in love later,” Runs His Horse scolds them. But when Teonna falls asleep on Pete’s shoulder, sobbing at the memory of all she’s been through, we see the wrenching pain soften her dad’s face. And when we hear the Feds hatch a plan to beat them to Wyoming by rail, we know Teonna was right when she ignored her father earlier in the episode. “They’ve been trying to kill me since they took me,” she told her dad then. “I don’t believe in later.”
If Sheridan is true to his word, which all cowboys must be, we’re halfway through 1923. It’s not just Teonna without the luxury of “later.” Jacob can’t afford to stall and wait for Spencer anymore; the precipice has come to him. I did not imagine the season would arrive at such a somber end, but I suppose victory was never really in the cards for the Duttons. That Team Good never vanquishes Team Evil is what enables Sheridan to tell the same story about the Mountain West time and time again. The dying way of life, whether it be that of Jacob or that of Runs His Horse, can never triumph. 1923 is a small show set against an epic landscape. It’s about how many more days you can eke out before the inevitable end of life as you know it.