Yellowstone. 1883. 1923. In the past five years, Taylor Sheridan has given us three series about the Duttons, a dynastic family scrambling, always scrambling, to save Montana’s biggest cattle ranch from men who fancy the land for dollar signs but don’t know how to love it. And the Duttons — man, they love it: The purple vistas, the early mornings, the long rides, the doomed romance of living a dying way of life. They love it all.
On 1923, Brandon Sklenar is Spencer Dutton, an ancestor of Yellowstone’s John Dutton, the taciturn rancher played by Kevin Costner. Spencer shares his descendant’s obsession with all things cowboy, which is to say he’s skeptical of progress, doggedly self-sufficient, and yoked to the family ranch by forces greater than time or distance. And Spencer has tested that limit. When we meet him in the series premiere, he has not been home since before he left to fight the Great War.
Spencer now ekes out a living as a big-game hunter in Africa, always half-wishing that his next assignment might put an end to his PTSD nightmares — until he meets Alexandra, played by Julia Schlaepfer, an impetuous British aristocrat who jolts him awake. Together, they embark for Bozeman, where the Dutton ranch is imperiled by a violent range war, gold mining, and the general un-wilding of the American West.
The first season of the show — which Sheridan has declared will be half of the series’ overall run — seemed destined to end in an epic homecoming, a reunion that should have merged three generations of unflappable men into an unstoppable, avenging megacowboy ready to rain hell on any man, institution, or ideology wishing to make an enemy of the land. Instead, we leave Spencer in a dinghy just beyond some anonymous southern European shore with his new bride, bound for London against her will. Theirs has been an OTT whirlwind romance, the kind that alters the trajectory of lives (hers) and saves souls (his). Spencer started the series broken and angry but ends it the most doomed of all of Sheridan’s doomed men — as Sklenar says, “He’s in the worst place we’ve ever seen him.”
Well, that was a big left turn. When you first read the finale script, what did you think?
I was emotional — big guy in a plane just crying, reading the script, but that’s where I was. I think we got the episode when we were in Africa, and we could not believe the way it ended. And it’s gut-wrenching, heart-wrenching. It’s all the above.
I was expecting to see Alexandra and Spencer walking up the hill to the Yellowstone, and instead they’re screaming “I love you” back and forth over the roar of the sea.
And the most tragic part about that is they don’t hear each other say it. It’s the first time the audience sees them tell each other that they love each other, and they don’t even hear it.
Did you approach that moment like it might be the last time they ever see each other?
Absolutely. I think Spencer’s in a place where he doesn’t know if he’ll see her again. He doesn’t know if he’s going to see his family. He doesn’t even know where he is going.
For him, his journey had an end point: arriving at the ranch with Alexandra, which would then begin fulfilling his mission of saving the land and saving the ranch and avenging the death of his brother and whoever else has gone by the time he gets there — which at this point, he’s thinking, If I ever get back, they could all be gone. And it’s going to be my fault.
Spencer has so many prototypical leading-man qualities that come out in the finale: He’s the strong, silent type; shrewd but not book smart; lethal but not a fighter. How do you make him specific even when he’s doing these grand, romantic lead things, like, you know, dueling and waltzing on an ocean liner?
From day one, I was acutely aware of him being this amalgamation of characters we saw 40 years ago, 50 years ago — your Steve McQueens and your Clint Eastwoods, and those are my favorite films to watch. Those guys are the coolest. But how do we do that in a way that’s current and different? And building the inner life so that he is emotionally available, and he has heart and he has soul, and he’s not just this guy who has all the answers and is always on his game and always cool?
Spencer and Alex fall in love at first sight on African safari. It’s inherently cheesy regardless of how sincere the love is between them. In this episode, she asks him if he misses Africa, and he doesn’t miss a beat: “I got my favorite thing about Africa right here.” It seems almost off-brand for Spencer to be so cheesy. Steve McQueen would never.
That’s what I’m saying, and this is also in Taylor’s writing. Spencer’s very self-aware. His awareness is greater than I think those characters of yesteryear that he hearkens to. He’s aware that she’s upset about her ex-fiancé, Arthur, being there. He knows she’s nervous about it, and he’s trying to hold space and make light of it and be her rock and be extra confident and extra loose about it because he knows that’s going to comfort her.
Is that what he’s projecting when Arthur tells him to pick his dueling weapon and Spencer’s just like, I could care less.
Well, at that point, he’s like, I’m going to destroy you no matter what you decide to do, so it doesn’t matter.
Speaking of destroy, I have a question about the fight. When Spencer drags Arthur across the deck, do they put a little saucer under him so he slides easier? Or are you just casually hauling a grown man to his father’s feet?
No, he was on just a piece of plastic so he didn’t mess up his jacket. But yeah — no, I’m just dragging him across the deck. He is a pretty light guy. He’s not too heavy.
The show is divided into two story lines concerning Spencer: In one, he’s the romantic gallant, but in the other, he’s taken on this almost mythic significance as the only man who can save the ranch. When you play Spencer, are you thinking about that guy — the one that the Duttons are expecting to rescue them?
Yeah, you know your mission and you know your purpose and where you’re going. I’m not actively playing a version of him that he has yet to become, but you are mindful of the role he’s going to have to step into.
Maybe he never gets to Bozeman! Maybe his nephew Jack gets his act together and saves the ranch.
Oh, no — he’s going to get there. I hope he gets there. I can’t even say. But he’s got to get there. I’m in the same boat as you right now.
Selfishly, as Spencer, I have such a feeling of carrying out that purpose and avenging them and saving them and fully realizing it. And [Sheridan] just keeps putting obstacles in front of him. And I know he’s going to keep doing that, because that’s what he does. He’s not going to make it any easier at any point; it’s just going to keep getting more difficult. And I’m thinking, Well, how can it be more difficult than this? It just got the most difficult. He’s lost everything at this point — everything.
Alex pledges to find Spencer in Bozeman, but it’s really hard to imagine him going to America without her. What happens to him now?
I don’t know where he ends up, and I don’t know how he gets back to America from where he is. But I do think that he has hope that they’re going to find each other, but he also is swallowing the hard truth that he may never see her again — because she’s going to England somewhere, and he has to now choose, Do I go find her, or do I go home to my family and hope that she finds me?
When we were shooting the finale, we would have moments, Julia and I, when we turned to each other and we would just go, “Man, this is sad.” This is very tragic — just from an outsider point of view, not even as the characters. And then as the characters, it’s so devastating. It truly is.
How do you think Spencer’s evolved since that first scene in the premiere, where he’s tracking the lion with no fear of death?
He is an entirely different man. Such a sweeping character arc. Physically he changes a lot, and emotionally when we meet him, he’s got nothing to live for, really — he’s trying to die, ultimately. He doesn’t care if he dies. He’s drinking himself slowly to death, and he’s actively hunting things, hoping that it’ll be his last time. And he’s got this cavalier way of dealing with his trauma and this dry, sardonic humor and doesn’t really feel much of anything.
And then through the progression of the series, in this first part, we see Alex bring this boy out of him step by step. She finds that little kid inside of him that’s wounded, and he softens up a lot and opens up a lot, and he has something to live for. And then once he gets Aunt Cara’s letters and he finally reads them, that’s another huge shift, because now he realizes his purpose and what he has to do. He really levels up into this — I see the end there in that finale; that version of himself that he’s presenting is his most realized version at that point in his life. He’s showing up for Alex. He’s showing her that he can hang with these people and he can put himself together and he can waltz and he can carry himself in such a way. And he is a little worldly; he does know how to eat at a table. It’s kind of like, Whoa. Wait, wait. Who is this guy?
And just at the peak of his internal realization of himself, it’s just stripped away from him completely. Everything that he had gone through up until that point with her — and for her and for his family and for himself — is completely ripped away from him. And that last time we see him on that boat getting taken away, that’s another huge shift in him.
I’m pretty confident that the man that we find in episode one of part two is going to be a different guy. He’s going to be a different animal completely. The amount of guilt and pain and anger that he feels, I think it’s going to be a huge shift for him.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.