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1923

How 1923’s Brandon Sklenar Harnessed Spencer Dutton’s Trauma

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After the overwhelming success of “Yellowstone” and the prequel series “1883,” Taylor Sheridon set his sights on weaving an even more ambitious, sprawling tale about the Dutton family with his ongoing miniseries, “1923.” This prequel to “Yellowstone” (and sequel to the events of “1883”) follows a generation of Duttons during the Prohibition era after World War I while tracing the individual character arcs of several Dutton family members, including Spencer Dutton (Brandon Sklenar).

Sklenar plays the youngest son of James and Margaret Dutton, and Spencer’s story seems to be deeply rooted in personal trauma, accentuated by the horrors he experienced during the Great War and his adventures as a big game hunter in Africa. Drowning himself in an isolated, dangerous existence far away from his family ranch in Montana, Spencer must return to his roots when he is most needed.

Spencer is the kind of man who likes living on the edge — a coping mechanism he picked up to ensure survival after experiencing acute loss and pain throughout his life. After spending most of his time hunting wild cats in Africa, Spencer crosses paths with the charming Alexandra (Julia Schlaepfer), and the two fall in love. However, there is trouble in paradise after Spencer commits a crime in self-defense, further complicating his journey back to America. Sklenar seems to deeply understand Spencer’s emotional landscape, and in an interview with Decider, the actor talked about the character’s trauma, which tints his experiences as a young man on the verge of losing everything he holds dear.

Cultivating empathy

Season 1 of “1923” ended on a massive cliffhanger, with Spencer’s fate hanging precariously in the air, as he finds himself separated from Alexandra and farther away from his homecoming. With a second season already in the works, fans of the show can expect Spencer to undergo the necessary trials to prove his mettle as the savior that the Dutton family so desperately needs. This is heartbreaking, as Spencer has already experienced a lot — his father passed away due to a fatal gunshot wound when he was a child, followed soon after by his mother. Once he was old enough to enlist in the US military, Spencer fought in World War I, and the experience scarred him enough to take up hinting predators in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Sklenar mentions these incidents and the role they played in shaping Spencer as a person while talking about the character’s deep empathy, which is a by-product of his difficult childhood and a life marked with extreme hardships:

“His [Spencer’s] whole life has been rooted in trauma. We saw the flashback in ‘Yellowstone’ where he witnessed his father die in front of him after being shot. We know his mother froze to death, which he witnessed. Going through those two tragedies at such an early age, Spencer could go one of two ways. He could either become incredibly empathetic to and understanding of the feelings of others, or he could become callous, cold, and sociopathic. Thankfully, he went in the first direction.”

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Throughout “1923,” Spencer’s empathy is on full display. There’s an instance in which he tells off a Safari guide for their lack of empathy after the death of a hunter, and Spencer’s constant refusal to engage in direct conflict highlights his insistence on actively practicing kindness, whenever possible.

An unfortunate string of events

Alexandra and Spencer face a ton of obstacles in the show, which include narrowly surviving a shipwreck and risking death while being lost at sea. After being rescued, the duo has to contend with the Earl of Sussex, Arthur (Rafe Soule), who happens to be Alexandra’s ex-fiancé. Looking to prove his claim over his ex-lover, Arthur challenges Spencer to a duel while on a ship bound for London, which leads to the unfortunate incident of Arthur being thrown overboard. The lovers are criticized by the British royal family for being dishonorable in a startlingly hypocritical turn of events, and Spencer has to now bear the brunt of something he had no intention to participate in, to begin with.

Spencer’s empathy is bound to birth feelings of guilt, especially due to the fact that he has been banished from the vessel and separated from Alexandra. The predator-hunting cowboy had already made the difficult decision to return home – the site of all trauma — and his homecoming has been thwarted by the impossible odds stacked against him. Will Spencer be able to make it to America in one piece, with the core of his humanity intact?

Sklenar also touched upon Spencer’s need to surround himself with constant thrills and dangers to feel alive, as it is the only way he can push through the pain. With his empathetic instincts grounding him to his humanity, and his dire circumstances urging him to withstand the cruelties of life, Spencer needs to make a choice about the kind of person he wants to be. No matter what path he chooses, it is bound to alter his life and legacy as a Dutton forever.

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