1883‘s “Behind Us, A Cliff” takes the groundwork of Episode 1 and runs with it, creating a spectacular second chapter that thrills as much as it pulls on heartstrings. Warning: Major spoilers ahead as this is a full recap of the episode.
But first, Episode 2 drops us right into the heart of the Civil War. A far-worse for wear James Dutton (Tim McGraw) struggles to stand amidst the fallout of The Battle of Antietam. He’s the only one left standing, and his rebel jacket may be the reason why.
As he struggles to cope with what just happened, Tom Hanks enters as James’ Civil War General. The two share an emotional moment amidst the wreckage, and it sets the stage perfectly for a Dutton who’s lived through hell and would prefer to chase a dream; not live in the nightmares of his past.
James has raised his daughter the same way, too. Isabel May’s narration as Elsa Dutton fills in a bit more of her father’s backstory. We learn he spent 3 years in a prison camp. He weighed 97 pounds when he came home. And soldiers will forever remember him for his bravery.
Back in their “present-day” wagon camp, James looks far better off. And immediately after telling his daughter not to wander off and keep an eye on her brother, a young John Dutton I, she does exactly that to soak in the majesty of 19th century Texas.
Elsa’s narration truly takes hold in Episode 2, too. We begin to see the entire world through her eyes. As her mother and aunt set up camp, we learn how far more free-spirited she is than either. And it’s all due to her father.
Rounding Up Wild Cattle
James is raising his daughter and oldest child to help him through the world. She’s a skilled rider as a result and knows how to use a firearm, too. So when James, Shea, and Thomas (LaMonica Garrett) set out to round up wild cattle she’s along for the journey.
Her mother, Margaret (Faith Hill) wishes she could become a proper lady for Elsa’s own sake, but deep down Margaret knows this is who her daughter wants to be.
In an intimate fireside moment, we take a brief detour to learn Elsa’s birthday is April 9, 19 years before 1883 takes place. But back at the heart of the episode, she, Shea (Sam Elliott), James, and the crew meet up with a camp of cowboys they’re able to enlist in helping them round up the wild cattle. It’s a dangerous task and journey, to say the least, and Elsa’s about to be caught in the middle.
Before long, she’s doing exactly what she was advised not to do by the cowboys. Elsa crosses the river, finding a longhorn in the bush. But through her rebellion, she manages to run a small herd directly to her cohorts.
“Freedom is running wild through untamed land,” she narrates amidst another Texas sunset; this one marked by her success. This, we’re learning, might as well be Elsa’s motto.
‘1883’: ‘What Kind of Woman Drinks Coffee?’
Back at the wagon camp, sisters Margaret and Claire hash it out through their different views on life. We get to know actor Dawn Olivieri as Claire much more closely in this episode. Claire’s daughter (Emma Malouff), Mary Abel, is cut from the same cloth as her shrewd, hateful mother. She chews out Margaret for drinking coffee, and all seems fine enough aside from this familiar drama. But before long, Margaret’s “dream” becomes Claire’s “nightmare” as a round of bandits come barreling through.
Claire takes it upon herself to throw huge rocks at the bandits, issuing a full-out gunfight. Her own daughter falls in the mix, and Mary Abel is shot dead.
In the aftermath, Claire stares up at Margaret who is holding her tiny son who survived. But Claire has now lost everything through her last surviving child’s death.
Once James returns to camp, he vows to go after the men that did this. It leads him, Shea, and Thomas straight into town.
Billy Bob Thornton’s Jim Courtright Enters the Fray ‘Tombstone’ Style
To deal with these bandits without hanging, the gang seeks out the local lawman: Jim Courtright (Billy Bob Thornton). Marshall Courtright swears James in, giving him a deputy badge so he can stand alongside Shea and Thomas’ Pinkerton agents.
Before long, this swath of 1883 lawmen head into the local saloon where the bandits are drinking and celebrating. Led by Courtright, their party makes one hell of a Tombstone entrance and showdown as they wipe out every single bandit.
With the murders of the episode sorted, Shea Brennan lets their party know they now have to leave town. If they don’t, there will be retaliation. As a result, the wagon party readies up under his command and has to push their journey onward ahead of the immigrants being any form of “ready.”
The biggest additions of the episode come in the form of rogue cowboys Ennis and Wade join the wagon party. Their charisma is a welcomed plus, to be sure, as the episode’s emotional weight looms heavy.
In an incredibly effective and tragic sendoff, we learn that Claire has lost seven children alongside her husband. Margaret attempts to talk to her sister, but she won’t have it.
James then steps in. He tries to convince Claire to come with their party and not give up. But she has “nothing left to live for” and refuses outright.
The 1883 patriarch grants her wish and leaves her behind, but before long he’s turning around to see what can be done. James, however, brings a shovel along with. He knows.
And sure enough, we watch as Claire takes her own life by the river. As her body falls, Shea and James prepare to dig her a grave beside her daughter.
What an episode.