‘1883’: The Death of Sam Elliott’s Shea Brennan Explained

by Jon D. B.
Pictured: Sam Elliott as Shea of the Paramount+ original series 1883. Photo Cr: Emerson Miller/Paramount+ © 2022 MTV Entertainment Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Revisit the entirety of Shea Brennan’s (Sam Elliott) journey in 1883 and unravel the secrets of how this storied man met his end.

1883 has come to a close, and what an adventure it was. Few actors are capable of holding an audiences’ attention like Sam Elliott, and 1883 creator Taylor Sheridan crafted the veteran actor a perfect vehicle in Shea Brennan.

A veteran Captain of the Civil War turned Pinkerton Agent, Shea would lose his entire family to smallpox. And this is exactly where we meet him after the haunting opening credits roll in 1883‘s first episode. Shea sits on his front porch, weeping alone. Reentering his prairie home, we see the horrible truth for ourselves. Smallpox has claimed not only his wife, Helen, but their young daughter, as well.

Shea makes the final call to purge this smallpox breakout that was his home. Beyond weary, he burns down the entire homestead with the bodies of his loved ones inside.

The following morning, Shea brings himself to the outskirts of his peaceful property. There, he sits dressed in full uniform as he places the barrel of his revolver to his gullet. But this is not where Shea dies. Instead, it is the beginning of a new chapter. His final chapter: 1883.

‘1883’ Brings Friends Old and New for Sam Elliott’s Shea Brennan

To understand how a man like Shea Brennan dies, his life must first be understood. And throughout his life, one man has proven the most solid of rocks for Shea: Thomas (LaMonica Garrett).

Pictured: Sam Elliott as Shea and LaMonica Garrett as Thomas of the Paramount+ original series 1883. Photo Cr: Emerson Miller/Paramount+ © 2022 MTV Entertainment Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Thankfully, Thomas is able to talk his Civil War Captain down from his gun, and the duo head towards town together in their new role as Pinkerton Agents and business partners. Their business? Moving wagons across America’s deadly Westward Expansion.

Once on the Oregon Trail, Shea and Thomas become close with an immigrant pioneer, Noemi (Gratiela Brancusi). Noemi is eager to secure herself a husband after the tragic death of her own. But it is not to be Shea.

“I had a wife, and I ain’t lookin’ for another one. You understand? I will get you to Oregon. You have my word,” Shea tells her in Episode 3, River. Sam Elliott’s gruff old captain is never to marry again. The love he holds for his late wife is too great; something he reinforces with the events of every episode. And his journey away from her only becomes more difficult from here.

A bright spot, however, surfaces in the daughter of another pioneer, Elsa Dutton (Isabel May).

The Tragedies of Elsa Dutton and Shea Brennan

Seeing much of his own daughter in her, Shea and Elsa become fast friends. But tragedy is to mark her short life as deeply as it had Shea’s long one.

Pictured: Sam Elliott as Shea and Isabel May as Elsa of the Paramount+ original series 1883. Photo Cr: Emerson Miller/Paramount+ © 2022 MTV Entertainment Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Elsa falls in love with a young cowboy, Ennis (Eric Nelsen). Ennis’ own tragic death, however, sends Elsa on a far darker path. Thankfully, she has Shea to help ease her burden. And as he does, he reveals much of himself, and what he sees as the final chapter of his life.

“I know how you feel. A lot of people are gonna tell you that. Whether it’s truthful or not, I don’t know. But I know its true when I say it,” Shea tells Elsa as they sit by Ennis’ grave.

“I’ve sat right where you’re sittin’, thinkin’ the same thing. Thinking I don’t want to live without them. Don’t see the point. Still do most days. But here I am… Livin’ without ’em.”

“Why?” Elsa asks as she cradles her revolver; mirroring Shea’s own contemplation of suicide days weeks earlier.

“Well, my reasons would be different than yours,” he sobs. “I don’t have anyone else left that loves me. You do.”

In this moment, Shea realizes this young woman needs comfort as much as she does any form of suicide prevention. And through the power of Sam Elliott’s masterful performance, he delivers exactly this in one of 1883‘s best scenes.

Shea’s Secret: ‘I’m headed to the ocean’

“I’ll tell you a secret. I’ll tell you why I’m still sucking air today. I’m headed to the ocean,” Shea reveals.

“An Apache scout told me once, that when you love someone you trade souls with them. They get a piece of yours, and you get a piece of theirs. But when your love dies, a little piece of them dies with you. That’s why it hurts so bad. But that little piece of him is still inside you. And he can use your eyes to see the world,” he tells Elsa of Ennis.

“So I’m gonna take my wife to the ocean. And I’m gonna sit on the beach and let her see it. That was her dream. Then I’m gonna see her. That’s my dream.”

It’s through this heartbreaking speech that we learn Shea Brennan’s “secret” – his plan for his own final days. The reason he’s doing everything within his power to return to the furthest stretches of Oregon isn’t to live out the rest of his days. It’s to take his late wife’s soul with him so she can see the ocean through his eyes.

Once she does, Shea plans to take his own life on the shore. His dream isn’t of a long retirement in Oregon. It’s to see his wife again in death.

‘1883’s Finale Brings Shea Brennan’s Death Through Sam Elliott’s Masterful Performance

Through fate’s tragic hand, Elsa is to meet her own death before Shea, further breaking his heart. And as Elsa awaits death, Shea tells her father, James Dutton (Tim McGraw) of his own daughter he lost.

Pictured: Sam Elliott as Shea of the Paramount+ original series 1883. Photo Cr: Emerson Miller/Paramount+ © 2022 MTV Entertainment Studios. All Rights Reserved.

“I’ve lost a daughter, too. You’ll come to blame yourself. Think it’s your fault, for giving her so much rain. Maybe it is your fault. But I’ll say this. I’ve watched this girl for the last six months, and she has outlived us all. I’m 75-years-old. And she has outsmiled me, outloved me, outfought me. She’s outlived me. She’s outlived all of us,” he tells James of a dying Elsa.

With most of the immigrants lost, Thomas and Noemi building a life for themselves in the Oregon valley, and Elsa buried on what will become the Dutton Yellowstone Ranch, Shea seeks to fulfill his own destiny in 1883’s finale, This Is Not Your Heaven.

Traveling alone, he finally makes it to Oregon’s ocean shore. “Isn’t it beautiful?” he asks his wife, Helen, showing her her dream through his own old, tired eyes. As he does, a hummingbird visits; bringing tears to his final moments.

And as the hummingbird flutters off, accompanied only by the sound of the waves, Shea places his revolver beneath his chin once again. But this time, he pulls the trigger, ending his life.

Our journey with Sam Elliott across the perils of 1883 ends as the show itself does. His Shea Brennan does not give audiences the ending they hoped for. But he honors his promise to Helen. And through this, we’re given one of the most impactful on-screen arcs ever offered.

Relive the entire journey as 1883 is now streaming in full on Paramount Plus.