This week’s 1923 doesn’t take place during the holiday season, but the Paramount+ drama delivers a gift, anyway: One of haunted Spencer Dutton’s incredibly rare smiles.
Sure, it’s fleeting. And yes, we’re fairly certain that his tragedy-to-joy ratio is nine to one. Also, I suppose you could argue that his surviving the attack at the end of the premiere is a present in and of itself. (But did anyone really think he was a goner?) Anyway, let’s review the events — and people — that bring us to that blessed moment in which Spencer shows us his teeth, as well as the rest of the major action (all the sheep drama!) in Episode 2, “Nature’s Empty Throne.”
LIFE NUMBER NINE? CHECK! | The episode begins just as the leopard attacks Spencer, they fight, and it eventually gets off him and runs off. He shoots and misses? Just then, Spencer’s assistants come running, yelling his name. He’s barely said “I’m here!” before the elusive cat reappears and takes down one of them. As the spotted jerk is dragging the man away, Spencer and the other assistant follow. They spear the cat and then shoot it dead, but it’s too late for their friend: Though Spencer takes off his shirt and uses it to stanch the wounded man’s torn throat, the leopard’s victim dies quickly. Spencer marches into the dining tent, grabs a bottle of booze and a glass, shoves everything off a table, then calmly asks the assembled tourists if they’ve got a cigarette.
They do, and he lights up as they stare, shocked. Then Spencer asks Holland, the safari director, to send them back to their tents so that one of the guests, a doctor, can clean the deep, filthy scratches the leopard left on his body. When that’s done, and arrangements are in the works for the fallen Kagiso to be brought home, all Holland wants to talk about is what it felt like for Spencer to go head-to-head with the beast. But Spence isn’t having it. First, he notes that Holland hasn’t said he was sorry about Kagiso’s death. Then, he points out that the cats were a breeding pair, which always hunt together, but Holland only showed them one set of tracks. “You knew,” Spencer says, leveling his gun at the man, who visibly — and guiltily — blanches. Things escalate until Spencer shoots his gun just past the man’s head and holds it at his throat, and only when Holland is babbling his apology over and over does Spencer relent… but he makes sure Holland knows the only reason he’s still alive is because Spencer needs a ride to Nairobi in the morning.
‘LET’S LOOK DEATH IN THE EYE’ | The next time we see Spencer, he’s drinking at a hotel bar in Nairobi, where he’s the object of obsession for a gaggle of British females. One, whose name is Alexandra, approaches him to flirt and ascertain his profession. Once she’s confirmed that he’s a hunter (he volunteers that he works for the Protectorate of Kenya), the others rush in. Apparently Spencer’s reputation precedes him. “You’re Spencer Dutton, the American war hero who hunts the man-eaters,” one woman gushes. Alexandra seems less dizzily giddy than her friends; she asks him, if not for the romance of it, why does he do what he does? “Because dying is the most alive you’ll ever feel,” Spencer replies like the Hemingway Novel in Human Form he apparently is. “And you don’t see the romance in that?” she wonders, the moment turning so charged between them that one of her friends rushes over to remind her that she’s engaged, and the ladies leave.
Later, Spencer’s boss informs him that he’s heading out to Tanganyika to take down a spotted hyena that’s been attacking railroad workers, and his car will be waiting in the morning.
Elsewhere in the hotel restaurant, Alexandra’s father celebrates her engagement at a lavish dinner party. She smiles at his toast, but then downs her Champagne in one gulp and quickly excuses herself from the table. She races to the balcony and struggles to take deep breaths. When her friend, Jennifer, follows, Alexandra confesses that she doesn’t want to get married. “I’m a real estate transaction, Jennifer,” she says, crying. “That’s all this is.” Jennifer counters that her fiancé is kind, and there are so many men who are not. She cheers her up a little, then returns to the party while Alex takes another moment for herself. That moment carries her to yet another of the hotel’s bars, where she finds Spencer and they banter hotly — getting thisclose to a kiss — before her fiancé finds them and she leaves with him.
They see each other from across the parking lot the next morning and exchange a nod (how do they make even that flirty?) before he takes off. But just as his car pulls out of the driveway, Alex makes up her mind about something. She grabs her suitcase — it looks as though her engagement party is heading out for a safari — and runs after Spencer’s car. “Got room for one more?” she asks when the car slows to a stop. When Spencer says not really, she throws her bag in the bag an dclimbs in anyway. “Where I’m going is dangerous,” he warns her. “Let’s look death in the eye then, shall we?” she replies cheekily. So he smiles and has the car start up again as Alexandra yells “Find someone who loves you!” at her jilted fiancé as he runs after the vehicle.
NO MORE MR. NICE DUTTON | Back in Montana, Jacob and the other men farther back in the cattle drive hear the gunshots that we saw at the end of the last episode. As they race to the top of the mountain, we see that Jack is pinned under his horse, with his gun just out of reach. A sheep herder takes aim at him, but that guy is taken out by a bullet from Jake’s men. After a brief firefight, the eldest Dutton rides up to Banner Creighton, who puts his hands in the air in surrender. Doesn’t stop Jake from repeatedly pistol whipping him, yelling about the “prairie maggots” (aka sheep) he’s been grazing on Dutton land. There’s a lot more shouting — Banner says they didn’t start the shooting, Jack says they did. Jake has some of his men drive the sheep toward the reservation then places nooses around the necks of Banner and three of his colleagues as they sit astride their horses. “You attack my family. It’s going to be the last thing you ever do,” Jake calmly informs him before shouting “Ya!” and riding away.
One of the strung-up men immediately gets hanged when his horse rides off behind the Dutton group. Banner urges the others to stay very still as they try to work their bound hands free, but it’s to no avail. Pretty soon, the other three are literally twisting in the wind, and he’s the only man still sitting on his horse.
“I gave those men a chance,” Jake explains to Jack while they’re sitting by the fire that evening, “because I wanted them to tell the world what happened when they crossed me.” Jack looks vaguely terrified, as though he didn’t know his uncle had that in him. John Sr. also has a very interesting, though slightly less readable, expression on his face.
Back at the site of the hangings, one of the other men’s horses comes back, and Banner is lucky enough to be able to get his hand into its saddlebag and remove a knife. He uses it to cut his hands free, then climbs his own rope high enough to cut himself down. He hits the ground with a thud, and he coughs and wheezes a lot, but he’s alive and happy about it.
LADIES IN WAITING | Back at the ranch, Cara sits outside because she heard the dogs barking at something. Emma joins her, reporting that Elizabeth is upstairs, singing and waltzing around as she practices for her wedding reception. They talk about how soft she is, thanks to being raised mostly in Boston and spending her summers in Montana. Emma remarks on how she’d hoped Jack’s future wife would “take some of the fire out of the next generation,” but that doesn’t seem to be the case. “It seems your son is marrying gasoline, my dear, and the fire will only get bigger,” Cara observes. Then she admits that she’s sitting outside because the house feels too empty when the men are gone, and Emma is of the same mind.
NO HELP AT ALL | A Native American woman enters an office and announces that she’s there to see the superintendent. The white woman behind the desk seems disinclined to help her, but but bids her sit and wait. An elderly Native American man is also waiting; he tells the newcomer he also has an appointment… and has been sitting there for two days.
When the woman eventually goes in to see Superintendant Worth, she tells him that her granddaughter attends a school in the Dakota (“North Dakota,” he patronizingly corrects her) and that the girl lived with her “before they took her.” She wants her granddaughter to attend a Baptist day school on the reservation, but he says that’s not possible, given that the girl’s mother is dead and her father is away working the reservation’s herd, and she was living with her grandmother, she was not with her family in her primary residence. (It’s infuriating to type, and it’s far more infuriating to hear Worth’s holier-than-thou tone as he parrots this ridiculousness to the grandmother.) “I am her family,” the woman counters. His only, not-helpful suggestion? That the grandmother should officially adopt her granddaughter. She leaves. (Side note: Teonna must be her granddaughter, right?)
Elsewhere, Zane and the sheep arrive at the reservation, where he gifts the herd to a group of Native American men on horseback. They look a little confused, understandably, but then one gives Zane a knife to give Jacob as a thank-you. Back with the main herd, Jacob decides that they’ve reached a good place to hold for a while. He instructs John Sr. to pick three cowboys to stay with the animals, and the rest whoop in happiness as they prepare to head home.
TEONNA’S LIFE GETS WORSE | At the torture chamber, er, Catholic school for Native American girls, mean Sister Mary is back to her harsh and exacting ways, but she seems a little afraid of Teonna after the events of the premiere. The girls are given lessons in being a good, obedient prairie wife — sweeping, laundry — but Teonna is simmering the whole time. And at dinner, when she sees maggots writhing in the food for which she’s supposed to be thanking God in English, she instead mutters, “I’d rather be hit than eat this” in her native language. Sister Mary runs over to slap her; Teonna responds by body-slamming the nun into the table.
That earns her a trip to the “hot box,” a narrow structure that looks similar to an outhohuse, that evening. “If you speak that filth in my school again,” Father Renaud threatens her, “I will bury you alive. And the world will be done with you.” When she’s taken out, God knows how many hours later, she’s feverish and barely able to stand. She’s soaking in an ice bath when a nun acts like she’ll help her clean up but uses it as an excuse to touch her in a sexually inappropriate manner; only Sister Mary’s entrance stops the abuse from going farther. Sister Mary — who is sporting an impressive shiner — tells Teonna that she’s the one who’s there to help her learn the skills that will help her “thrive as mother and wife.” Then she thrashes her, saying, “I’ve sworn to kill the Indian in you, and I’ll keep my word.” Before she leaves, the nun vows that “If you ever lay a hand on me again, I’ll kill the rest of you.”
Now it’s your turn. What did you think of the episode? Sound off in the comments!