1923's James Badge Dale And Marley Shelton Kept John And Emma's Backstories A Mystery

In his "Yellowstone" prequel series "1923," Taylor Sheridan turns back time to shed further light on the Dutton family history. The Duttons have been living on the Yellowstone Ranch since the late 1800s, and ever since then, it has been an uphill battle for them to preserve their legacy, amidst constant in-fighting and external rivalries. "1923" continues the tradition of putting legacy above everything else — the story follows Jacob (Harrison Ford) and Cara (Helen Mirren) Dutton, who are seen shouldering the responsibility of caring for James Dutton's family alongside the ranch. This is no easy task during the Prohibition era, especially right after World War I, and the onset of what will later be known as The Great Depression.

James Badge Dale plays John Dutton I (the great-grandfather of Kevin Costner's John Dutton III (it can get confusing as there are many Johns in the Dutton family), who emerges as one of the central characters in "1923." Being the son of James and Margaret (the narrators of "1883"), John has accepted his responsibility to protect/expand the ranch from a formative age and seems genuinely devoted to the cause alongside his wife, Emma (Marley Shelton). The intense, interconnected storylines in "1923," which often switch locations and offer key insight into a range of characters, leave little space for in-depth backstories, and such is the case for John and Emma. However, the John-Emma backstory omission seems to be a deliberate creative decision, according to an interview Dale and Shelton gave to Decider.

Living in the present

A younger version of Dale's character (played by Audie Rick) appears in "1883," and we also get a glimpse of John in a flashback sequence in "Yellowstone." However, details about John's life and the decisions he made to arrive at the version of himself he is seen embodying in "1923" are sparse, and we do see in the present is a man who must further the legacy of the Dutton family name. Right from the first scene he is introduced, there seems to be an unspoken understanding between him and his wife: they are committed to doing what is expected of the Duttons, no matter what the cost.

Dale weighed in on the decision to forego any backstory for John and Emma, as the focus is solely on the here and now, where we get to witness the impossible odds they need to face and overcome while battling generational burdens and trauma:

"I've gone so deep into backstories that I've completely gotten myself backwards. What we did talk about was the 'now' story. What we have as actors is this script, and we're dealing with the right here and right now."

Shelton also added that the mystery surrounding the character came from the joint decision "to each have [their] own backstory or version of what [they] think happened and not share it so that if they're not aligned," they won't be any disappointment. This approach allowed Dale and Shelton to flesh out their respective roles with freedom, making the collaborative process fresh and interesting. When working together in scenes, the two are free to explore who they are and what they stand for, which keeps their dynamic ever-evolving, leaving room for growth.

Everything is not as rosy as it seems

At first glance, the "Yellowstone" franchise appears to focus on family, along with the implicit obligations that one is forced to carry out simply because of generational legacy. The Duttons rarely process their trauma — instead, it is passed down like a family heirloom, with future generations being doomed to repeat the sins of their fathers.

However, Sheridan's show also delves into the corruptive influence of power and generational wealth, along with the thread of violence that runs through a family who is willing to do anything to preserve an inert piece of land. This also breeds traditional and problematic notions of masculinity, land ownership, and morality, wherein the Duttons are criticized and humanized at the same time. In the end, every Dutton is haunted by their own sense of purpose, whether they realize it or not.

The same can be said of John and Emma, who appear to have a solid marriage and share a unified goal when it comes to preserving the Dutton name. At the moment, most of their concerns stem from the fact that their son Jack (Darren Mann) might stray from the family way if he marries Elizabeth (Michelle Randolph), a rancher's daughter who stands between Jack and the obligations expected of him. Heavens forbid a Dutton exercises some semblance of personal autonomy by moving away from a toxic, borderline-tyrannical family tradition, which has only wrought emotionally broken generations and unimaginable violence so far. 

In the end, the Duttons only care about banding together to fight for and preserve their generation-spanning status quo, not bothering to look back at the many, many lives destroyed or crushed in the process. Such is the legacy of the Yellowstone ranch.