This 1883 review contains spoilers.
1883 Episode 10
Near the conclusion of this 1883 season 1 finale, the great Graham Greene’s newly-introduced character, Spotted Eagle, tells Tim McGraw’s hero of the story, James Dutton, that James looks “like a man who plans”.
There’s a reason 1883’s creator, Taylor Sheridan often writes about these steadfast characters born of an era where a man’s love of his family and his land was everything. There’s a reason why Sheridan always has the Dutton family typically one step ahead of their rivals. It’s because good writers write what they know. Good writers… write about themselves.
It is crystal clear that Sheridan has always had a plan for 1883, and it has been evident from the very first episode. Fans who will go back to the premiere now that the season is complete will pick up on hints and foreshadowing Sheridan left that are as large as the Buffalo on the Oregon trail. We knew from the very start that the Dutton daughter Elsa (Isabel May) was fated to be attacked by Lakota warriors, wounded, and very likely killed. We knew the family had to make it to Montana to found the family empire, and we knew along the way, many, many people were going to die.
Elsa, with her trademark narration, leads this finale with another darker look at life. She speaks of how death connects the universe from the rabbits to the birds, from humans to the stars above. The melancholy pioneer-poetry continues to serve as the literal voice of the groups’ struggle, but this time it feels different. Perhaps it’s because the audience expects Elsa’s fate is in fact sealed, as we know Sheridan does not shy away from the tragic in order to serve his stories.
Our fears are confirmed when only minutes after arriving at Fort Caspar, Elsa berates a pair of baby-faced soldiers guarding the gate, and immediately falls off her horse, succumbing to her injuries.
For the next several moments, for the first time, the show felt like it was merely delaying the inevitable. Familiar arguments of where the Duttons’ destiny lies, or where the pioneers have to trek, quickly resolve one way or another, and it conveniently leaves the Duttons and Shae with the remainder of the featured cast. A memorable and touching moment of this inevitable separation is when Elsa says her goodbyes to our charming Cowboys, Colton and Wade (Noah Le Gros and James Landry Hébert). The three exchange flirtation, respectfully joke with one another, and two of the fan-favorite characters ride off into an unknown future.
It is a moment that, even for a split-second, parts the seas of sorrow. That sea comes flooding back fairly quickly however, as Elsa’s voice-over turns back to thoughts of death. Elsa immediately narrates how the Cowboys doubtlessly are fated to become another unmarked grave in the unforgiving wilderness. It was a real jolt back to reality which I felt wasn’t needed at all, and a true disservice to the conclusion of these characters that Sheridan couldn’t leave the fate of the two men with even a shred of optimism.
For the remainder of the episode, that hopelessness follows. During their final days on the trail North, Josef (Marc Rissmann) has his leg amputated to survive the snake bite. Even when he is safe, he loses his beloved wife, Risa (Anna Fiamora) and in his final sequence on screen, is seen trying to stake his plot of land. Optimistic perhaps, but a small consolation considering everything he has gone through.
Thomas (Lamonica Garrett) and Noemi (Gratiela Brancusi), along with her boys do seem to get the happiest ending, as they find a plot where they think they can be happy, and I’m thankful that Sheridan at least gave us that nugget of happiness.
Even that is short lived, however, as fans lose more than anyone likely expected. Shae finally sees the coast and the calm of the ocean, as he promised Elsa he would. It is a sense of calm and accomplishment after the long emotional journey. It was a moment of serenity and peace. Then, after seeing a hummingbird and believing he’s connecting with his family once again, Shae takes his own life. As mentioned, Sheridan did leave hints. He foreshadowed how Shae’s story would end, by how Shae dealt with the death of James’ sister Claire (Dawn Olivieri) but to be honest, Sheridan seemingly threw this particular character’s conclusion at us strictly for the sake of misery.
In what some might see as a merciful end to a man who has seen so much tragedy in his 75 years, I felt it was a betrayal for a character that inspired others and that saved so many. It felt empty, perhaps much like a real suicide would. But after so much death and loss at this point, the audience didn’t need yet another reminder of death in such a profoundly hollow manner. This was one time where I questioned what purpose it served. Granted, Sheridan’s writing often pushes what the audience needs, rather than what the audience wants, so there is something to be said not only about how Shae’s death evoked such a gutteral emotional response, but my connection with Shae as well. Perhaps there’s some solace in that.
In the final act of sadness, we tragically lose the beloved Elsa, as she and her father make the journey to the piece of paradise Spotted Eagle spoke of. As Elsa and James slowly trot through the field surrounded by the pines, fans of Yellowstone will undoubtedly recognize the iconic valley where the Dutton stronghold looms, and where the dynasty begins. While Elsa’s death is yet another thread in a tragedy-soaked tapestry, the acting in this goodbye is beautifully heartwarming and personal. Isabel May has been an absolute force this entire season, often holding the reins and leading the powerful drama, and Sheridan gave her the fitting tribute she deserved.
I realize that Sheridan wanted to create a sweeping mini-epic, documenting the struggles of these pioneers, but I felt he forgot what drove those people in the first place. This was not only a pioneering in building a life, this journey was the seeds of the American dream. The seeds of hope, and freedom. Without any kind of hope, there is no dream to begin with, and Sheridan could have struck a healthier emotional balance by simply allowing audiences to retain a bit of hope, even for just a moment.
Even if I didn’t always agree with the tone he berated the audience with throughout this episode, overall, I can’t help but recognize Sheridan’s laser-like creative focus this season. With such a strong grasp of what he wanted to accomplish with 1883, the question becomes – why didn’t Paramount simply leave it alone? This finale seems to be such a concrete way to end this chapter in the Dutton story, and yet the idea of future episodes, even if they are merely meant to lead audiences into the next chapter of the book (announced spin-off 1932), is actually off-putting at this point.
Elliott, in particular, gave a touching performance every opportunity he had with Shae. This show introduced Isabel May to millions of viewers who will now look forward to her work in the future. Tim McGraw silenced critics proving he has the acting chops to stand toe to toe with a legend like Elliott and often lead the show.
1883 had powerful writing. It had sweeping cinematography. It had an invested cast, and an even more captivated audience. It had the perfect ending. Let’s just hope that the next episodes don’t lessen the effect of a brilliant premiere season.