This article contains massive spoilers for the 1883 season 1 finale.
Perhaps you’ve heard by now, but the season 1 finale of Yellowstone prequel 1883 killed off its lead character. That’s not very unusual on its face. Plenty of TV shows kill off important characters and season finales present good occasions to do so. One major character death alone certainly isn’t enough to make a fuss over or write an article about (though we probably would anyway because Yellowstone and 1883 are huge deals). But there are certain things about 1883’s deceased lead that feel quite different in profound ways.
If you’ve not seen the series and just clicked on this headline out of a morbid curiosity as to how this series went down, the character we’re referring to is not, in fact, brooding cowboy and Dutton family paterfamilias James Dutton (Tim McGraw). Though McGraw, in his grizzled bear and frayed Stetson, looks like he’s just positively itching to die in a hail of six-shooter bullets, he makes it through to the end just fine. It’s actually his daughter, Elsa (Isabel May), who bites it in “This is Not Your Heaven” (albeit among many other nameless pioneers).
This is fairly surprising as Elsa is not only a teenager but also the audience’s eyes and ears for the Dutton family and European immigrant caravan trying to make it to Oregon. Elsa narrates the whole thing from the first episode to the last, even extending that narration beyond her mortal coil to assure us all that the Great Plain in the sky isn’t so bad.
Still, killing attractive young blonde women is not unheard of for television (or really any other medium at that) and nor is pulling a fast one by not letting the narrator see things through to the end. What makes Elsa’s death so interesting and so bold a storytelling decision is how little 1883 hides its inevitability. 1883 tells us over and over again that Elsa Dutton will die and in the process almost dares its audience to not believe it.
Elsa’s fate is sealed in the season’s penultimate episode, “Racing Clouds.” In it, Elsa and the rest of the caravan come upon a group of Lakota men who believe Elsa’s people sacked their camp and killed all their women and children (in fact, it was a group of horse thieves). In the ensuing confrontation, Elsa takes a Lakota arrow to her stomach but is able to fight the rest of her attackers off before engaging in some Comanche-learned diplomacy to send the rest away.
At first it seems as though we’ve avoided catastrophe. Elsa’s adrenaline is pumping to the point that she doesn’t even feel pain from the bolt in her side. Later on, her mom Margaret (Faith Hill) and another pioneer are able to both successfully remove the arrow and cauterize the wound. No harm, no foul. But then…when James Dutton returns from a mission out to treat with the Lakota, he pulls his wife aside to see the arrow Elsa was struck with. After examining it briefly, James realizes that it’s filthy and primed for infection
“She is gonna die,” James tells his wife point blank. “And it’s gonna cut us in two. And if we don’t accept it now, she’s gonna die in some fort with a doctor doping her up so badly she can’t see straight. And we will have robbed her. She needs to see every sunset and every sunset. And we will lie to her. We will tell her she’s fine.”
James Dutton is not one to mince words. He believes to his very core that his daughter is going to die from the infected arrow wound. Given that he was both a Civil War soldier and a capable survivalist, there is no reason to doubt that his prognosis is true.
And yet…1883 then cruelly provides its viewers with so many potential offramps for Elsa to survive and for James to be made a liar. Margaret is initially adamant that Elsa is going to be ok because she is so young and so strong. Her argument seems far more compelling than her husband’s because to this point we’ve spent eight episodes witnessing just how strong Elsa is. After beginning the story as a naive little girl, Elsa becomes a fierce warrior on the American frontier. It’s like she’s a child of the land itself and what mother would kill her own daughter?
That argument begins to lose some steam as Elsa develops a fever, just like James said she would. But 1883 soon introduces another offramp to confront that. Despite saying that he doesn’t want his daughter to die on some foregin operating table, he races Elsa to Fort Caspar anyway. Everything’s gonna be ok! James was wrong! Alas, Fort Caspar is a shell of itself, with its surgeons and just about everyone else gone.
Nevertheless, the Duttons saddle up Elsa once again and try to bring her to the next army fort on their route north. It’s on the way that 1883 presents Elsa’s final and best opportunity to be healed. James, Elsa, and the remnants of their caravan come across a small Crow outpost led by Spotted Eagle (Graham Greene). Spotted Eagle takes one look at Elsa and concludes that her only hope is to be taken by healers to the frigid waters of a nearby river for the cold to shock her infection.
Up to this point, 1883 had taken a very respectful approach to its indigineous American characters. The Native Americans of the show are as richly drawn as its Europeans and white Americans. The show doesn’t present them in a derogatory fashion nor a condescendingly reverent one. This is not the type of story where a tribe would have a quasi-magical solution born of primitive ritual to an injury that the Western world and all its vaunted “science” wouldn’t have.
For a moment, however, viewers can’t help but hope that 1883 is that kind of show – that this river water will mystically act like a Lazarus pit and bring Elsa back to life. Alas, it’s not. Spotted Eagle concludes that the Lakota coat their arrows in filth to ensure infection. There really is no hope for Elsa. It’s over.
James comes to terms with what he already claimed to have come to terms with anyway and asks Spotted Eagle where he can lay his daughter to rest. Spotted Eagle offers up a beautiful hunting spot and James rides Elsa away where she dies in his arms on the land that will one day become Yellowstone ranch.
Again, it’s not remarkable that 1883 kills Elsa Dutton. In many ways, the show has been teasing her death from the first moment of the series when it opens in media res to show her receive what we now know was a mortal blow. What is remarkable is how honest the show was about its intentions and how certain that makes the audience believe that it must be lying.
When a story presents offramps for a character’s death like rationalization (“she’s so young and so strong”), modern medicine (the non-existent surgeons at Fort Caspar), or even something approaching magic (the healing waters of a Montana river), optimistic viewers can’t help but think one of them will pan out. Why introduce potential solutions if none of them are going to work anyway?
The answer, as 1883 writer Taylor Sheridan understands, is that the world doesn’t care about our last minute hail Marys. When confronted with the awful and violent majesty of nature, the best we can do is carve out our own little piece to tame. Like the Duttons do with Yellowstone in Montana.