This 1883 review contains spoilers.
1883 Episode 9
Taylor Sheridan clearly came in with a plan of attack for the debut season of his prequel, 1883. The pacing throughout this batch of episodes has been a carefully crafted ride, swooping up hills, dipping into valleys, coupled with a great balance of character development, shootouts, and old-West chaos to keep any audience member entertained. A major component of that ride has been the season-long mystery of what will become of Dutton-daughter Elsa (Isabel May).
In the season premiere, audiences were witnesses to the show’s golden-haired heart shot through the belly with a Lacota arrow in a horrific attack on her group of pioneers. That scene, literally a fiery introduction to the motifs of the show, conveyed the death and danger that would become characters of their own throughout the 9 episodes so far, but it left many questions. How did this happen? When does this scene fit into the timeline? Most importantly, would Elsa survive?
Those questions are answered fairly quickly, as there is very little set up to begin this episode before fans quickly begin to see familiar clues. As if jinxed by Elsa’s latest narration about how the “land hates us”, in yet another innocuous, random act of cruelty from this world, Risa (Anna Fiamora) is riding beside her husband, Josef (Marc Rissmann) when her horse is bitten by a rattler. Risa is violently thrown from her horse, causing a massive head injury. Josef jumps to the aid of his wife, only to be bitten by the same snake, causing major concern for the survival of two of the prominent members of the show’s group of immigrants.
Not too far ahead of the wagon train, James (Tim McGraw), Thomas (LaMonica Garrett), and a teary Shae (Sam Elliott) find a small community of Lakota women and children, violently ravaged and murdered by unseen assialants. All they can glean is that the attackers have also stolen the Lakota’s horses, and they, having stumbled upon this horrific scene of violence, have made one terrible oversight – with their tracks all over the crime scene, they now appear to be the guilty party. If the warriors of the community return, they are undoubtedly going to hunt down the wagons, and kill every last man, woman and child.
Elliott’s acting in this scene is absolutely sublime. Knowing the tragedy he went through losing his family is bubbling just beneath the surface of Shae’s face when he has to look at other women and children scattered across the land. This episode is one that many fans have been waiting for. Even as the second-to-last episode this season, the several moments for Elliott to shine are part of a culmination of what we’ve come to love about this character all season long.
James, Shae, and Thomas take off after the guilty party, but under James’ orders to stay near the scene, the wagons and the group are vulnerable. As Colton and Wade (Noah Le Gros and James Landry Hébert) tend to the back of the pack, Cookie (James Jordan) causes major panic saying they have to get to the fort as soon as possible. He lights a fire under the immigrants, causing most of them to flee. Eventually all that’s left is a small group staying at the scene of the tragedy including Margaret (Faith Hill), Elsa, and the Cowboys. The Dutton women agree, they have to go against James’ plan, as there’s strength in numbers, and so decide to head towards the fort and attempt to catch up with the others. Before they once again hit the trail, Margaret tells her daughter she can’t arrive at a fort full of lonely soldiers half naked and dressed like an Indian, so Elsa changes into the foreboding white dress she wears in the first episode the moment she is shot.
The rest of the episode is all-out-war. James, Shae, and Thomas find the guilty and sweep in like swift justice. The pioneers are found by the Lakota warriors and decimated. Most importantly, we see Elsa’s fate come full circle as we discover how she came to be in that teased predestination. She rides on ahead to try and help the pioneers that left her and her mother behind, and that’s the cause of the horrors we’ve already seen in episode 1. Her marriage to Sam ends up saving her life, as she proclaims in Comanche what her beloved has taught her. This stays a warrior’s hand from immediately sealing her fate and finishing the job, as Elsa, wounded but forever a Dutton woman, survives the attack, receives treatment and hangs on… for now.
Sheridan has quickly become a showrunner who understands how to utilize an ensemble cast in his storytelling, but credit has to go to director (and occasional 1883 cinematographer) Ben Richardson. He captures moments of true connection from the actors in this episode. The co-lead team of Elliott and McGraw demonstrate the brilliant balance Sheridan can create in his male characters – that steadfast stability paired with tenderness and understanding. Even Noah Le Gros is finally given a chance to shine, showing that the prettiest, most optimistic cowboy can be broken by the unforgiving landscape and the stakes they face. It’s also great to see Isabel May, who has recently evolved Elsa into a fierce warrior, remind fans in this episode of the little freckled teen she was only 8 episodes ago. With all these little moments the cast is given, this episode really did feel like a seasons’ long culmination of storytelling.
In one of the only weak spots to this week’s narratives, I do feel Sheridan was focused so much on this planned chaotic climax, that the smaller details got lost. There are moments where I questioned why characters were “off screen”, or where they were geographically. Moments that in a show of careful realism seems to stretch suspension of disbelief too much for the sake of the action. Faith Hill as Margaret also feels like an afterthought in this hour. Many of the men, Elliott especially, are given so many worthy lines of inspiration and reverie, yet it feels Margaret is just simply there. In one crucial scene, where she and James are unsure about Elsa’s future, both the writing and the direction short-changed her performance.
In the best way possible, this episode has reminded me of the early seasons of Yellowstone, showing the focus and resolve of Sheridan’s storytelling. It’s violent, it’s raw, it’s heartbreaking. And we still have one more episode to go. The calculated risk to address season long riddles and yet not actually answer them was another brilliant idea from Sheridan.
Next week’s finale may give us some closure, but we may not know Elsa’s true fate, nor the fate of this family until well into season 2. Yet, much like the dark cloud that seems to float overhead of anyone associated with the name “Dutton”, the audience will undoubtedly continue to follow this captivating story. It’s a thread that I’ve truly enjoyed with 1883 as a Yellowstone prequel, and what I feel many fans consider to be the true draw of Sheridan’s drama.