“One Ocean Closer to Destiny” is the sixth episode in 1923’s eight-episode opening season, which will be half the series’ overall run. With Teonna still encamped in North Dakota, Spencer only halfway to France, and Jacob and Cara struggling to raise an army, it’s unlikely the main characters will collide before the finale. And I do wonder if, in the long run, the first season of 1923 will come to feel like a slow-burning prequel to the action that’s been teased since the premiere: a deadly and era-defining range war. When it arrives, we’ll tick off time in shots fired and lives lost — electric moments of terrible consequence. For now, we count the time in oceans and continents, distances so vast it stuns me that man can safely cross them.
Compared with the hurricane we got last week, this Sunday’s episode felt almost still (shark-attack sequence notwithstanding). Its major developments were mostly relational, and some of the most promising story lines got unexpectedly short shrift. I like 1923, but three-quarters of the way through the season, it hasn’t declared itself in the way 1883 and Yellowstone had by this point. To me, its rhythms remain unpredictable.
For example, I never could have guessed this episode would make so little time for Teonna’s progress home. Having finally escaped her tormentors at the Catholic boarding school (and the predictably awful encounters that defined her days there), I thought we’d see more of her. Instead, she’s the subject of the episode’s cold open only. The good news is that she’s still with Hank, who tells her to burn any evidence of the school and to dress as a boy in his son’s spare clothes. They’ve yet even to send word to Teonna’s father that she’s escaped the nuns’ lethal clutches.
It’s unclear what bad news will reach him first: that his daughter is wanted for a double homicide or that his mother — the same woman who spent hours waiting to transfer her granddaughter to a local school — is dead. Two cops barge into her cabin with a warrant for Teonna’s arrest, and one knocks her carelessly to the ground. The story he feeds his partner is true: She did technically attack him before she hit her head on the stove. But she’s also an old woman who posed no real threat. Back at camp, Teonna and Hank refuse to burn Teonna’s copy of the Bible for fear of God’s awesome vengeance. The juxtaposition is powerful. They have more reverence for the white man’s holy book than these white cops have respect for Native American lives.
At the Yellowstone ranch, Jacob continues his miraculous recovery, walking the grounds unaided by the end of the episode. Buoyed by the news of Spencer’s homecoming, he tells Zane to start quietly building a posse to challenge Banner and his men. Cara, meanwhile, is struggling to fill the 20 livestock-agent positions she and the sheriff have been interviewing for. It’s not her fault, though some applicants are galled to see a woman asking questions of a man. But it’s a dangerous job that pulls men from their families in exchange for bad hours and dirt pay. It’s a miracle they find even the three good men they do.
In the interview scenes, Cara seems uncharacteristically dour, which I didn’t understand until she spells out that she knows all about Jacob’s side hustle. If she can’t raise enough men to fight Banner with the law on their side, he’s willing to pursue it vigilante style. So time is of the essence. Jacob can see from his own yard that a mining operation to the north — which I think is the old Strafford ranch — has already begun, threatening the Yellowstone’s water supply. There’s activity to the south, too. It’s a squeeze.
To prevent Jacob from making her a widow — for how many bullets can one octogenarian survive? — Cara breaks her vow. In the aftermath of the shoot-out, Jacob made her promise not to involve the law; she betrays him here to save his life. The sheriff comes to the ranch to give Jacob a dressing down and collect witness statements, then says he’ll arrest Banner the next morning. This is the difference between justice and revenge, Cara tells Jacob, by which she means the difference between rational and impassioned thinking. But when Jacob coldly turns his back on her, she makes the case more plainly. While he slept and healed, she dug graves for the dead and did everything it required, from spoon-feeding to ass-wiping to keep him alive. Jack lost both his parents; Elizabeth functionally lost both her parents as well. Jacob may have been more wounded, but he’s not the Dutton to have suffered most over the past few months. He’s not even in the running.
Looking sufficiently chastised, Jacob struggles to mount his horse and rides off into the metaphor. But when he comes back, he’s not so much contrite as collected. This isn’t about vengeance, he wants Mrs. Dutton to know. It’s actually an overdeveloped hero complex that drives him. It’s on him to save Montana from the bulldozer’s metal blade, to make sure there’s always an old Aspen tree casting a long shadow on Cara’s grave. But in his rousing rant against progress, he stumbles onto something I struggled to unpack. “The men who build cities always send men like Banner first,” he says. But who are men like Banner to Jacob? Isn’t Banner just another, less lucky version of Jacob? A sly and resourceful man who wanted to make a living from the land. A man with his back up against the wall. If this is really a war on progress, then Cara is right to insist Jacob’s is a suicide mission.
Perhaps the only person who can stop him starts the episode lost at sea. Luckily, both Spencer and Alex make better swimmers than sailors, and they spend the day huddled together on the upturned hull of the tugboat. They’re back in the tree again, really, fighting off lions, hoping to stay alive long enough for some miraculous rescue (only this time, instead of lions, it’s the plot of the Blake Lively survival movie The Shallows). Meanwhile, the show keeps dreaming up improbable ways for Alex to get fatally sunburnt. Spencer at least thinks to cover her in his own shirt, which unfortunately looks to have the UPF rating of tissue paper.
Reassuringly, after six hours in the blazing sun, Alex can’t really muster the energy to be cutesy, instead adopting a cartoonishly aristocratic stiff upper lip. I refuse to be scared, she says, which is a quality she’ll no doubt need as she adapts to home on the range. In the dead of night, an ocean liner headed for Marseilles spots them in the distance and dispatches a dinghy to complete the rescue. The dinghy itself is captained by a man who thinks threatening to abduct and rape Alex makes for good “getting to know you” banter, but the captain of the liner is a fine man. He advises Spencer and Alex to avoid Ellis Island, which is overrun by disease. (By 1924, it won’t be an immigration-processing center but a detention center.) The couple should try Galveston instead.
There’s still the problem of Alex’s foreign citizenship, though, which Spencer asks the captain to help sort by marrying them at sea. (I guess immigration law was more lenient a hundred years ago?) He obliges, even offering to let them choose rings from a boxful he’s collected off the bodies of dead sailors with no known forwarding address. When Alex can’t find one small enough, the captain offers her his wife’s, which he wears as a talisman around his neck when he’s at sea. It’s a graceful and unexpected moment of television. The eye of the storm.
After the short ceremony, Alex and Spencer are given a bunk room and a box of food, which they ignore in favor of a shower and consummating the marriage. It’s a real credit to their lust for each other because, if it were me who just survived a shipwreck, I would 100 percent cry until I passed out. Instead, Mr. and Mrs. Dutton dutifully commence making the babies Jacob is saving Montana for.
Eventually, in the cloak of night, they venture out to the bow of the ship, where they deliver big romantic speeches as I desperately try to stay on Alex’s side. There’s a fine line between charming and cloying. As it’s her wedding night — a night that is definitionally cheesy — I suppose I’m inclined to give her a pass as she likens the love between them to the constancy of a shadow. She hasn’t slept much. She’s delirious.
And they’re not the only Mr. and Mrs. Duttons to end the episode back in each other’s embrace. Jack and Lizzie are reconciled and expecting another John Dutton, who I imagine will be followed quickly to planet Earth by Spencer II. The Duttons name themselves according to the same custom Teonna observed at the top of the episode. White men like their names so much that they pass them on to the point that the names become numbers with no real meaning. I take her point, and yet, looking at the Duttons, who are again facing a fight for survival, I see how some might take pride in appending their children’s names with higher and higher numbers.
The Duttons tick off time in generations. The meaning they derive from their names is the proof they’re still here on the land whose fate they’ve adopted as their own.