‘1883’: How Major Episode 5 Death Changes Elsa Dutton Forever

by Jon D. B.
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1883 Season 1, Episode 5 brings the hardest-hitting death of the series so far, shaping Elsa Dutton’s coming-of-age story with “The Fangs of Freedom.” Be warned of major spoilers ahead.

“Freedom is running wild through untamed land.”

Elsa Dutton did not meet the Westward Expansion with the purpose of finding love. But love found her in the shape of Ennis; a young, wily Texas cowboy. Through the brilliant performances of Isabel May and Eric Nelsen, audiences would watch these two slowly but surely become one over the course of 1883‘s first five episodes. Their life together is to be a magical one full of passion, hope, and true love. Until the Wild West claims it all.

Amidst an all-out gunfight with trailing bandits of the worst kind, Ennis gallops head-first into the fray. His only desire is to save the woman he loves. And save her he does, but at the cost of himself.

Dying in the dirt of west Texas, his last words are to Elsa’s father, James (Tim McGraw). “I loved her,” he says with his dying breath. Elsa finds her love dead and gone. She is inconsolable, and forever changed.

“One day you’ll see the world through my eyes,” Margaret (Faith Hill) tells her daughter prior to Ennis’ death. “And it breaks my heart.”

It’s Episode 5’s tragic death of Ennis that serves as Season 1’s turning point for Elsa, much as her mother predicted. A whimsical, hopeful child becomes a hardened, wary woman through the death of the only man she’s ever loved romantically.

Elsa Dutton’s Coming of Age Is Told Through Her ‘1883’ Narration

Revisiting Elsa’s brilliant narration throughout 1883 personifies how crucial this event is in shaping the woman she is to become. Her words of remembrance in Episode 2, specifically, paint a young woman full of vibrant naivety:

“The world here plays parlor tricks on your senses. I do not know what the word Texas means. But to me it means magic... The light was soft and pale and pink, like God had decided to light this day with candles. And the whole of Texas spread out before me. It was the most magnificent thing I had ever seen.”

Elsa Dutton, 1883 S1 E2

Even Elsa recalling the feeling of giving herself to Ennis (and the cowboy giving himself in return) in Episode 5’s second act rings of hope and beauty and life:

“The whole world faded away. No stars or moon, no sky at all. No earth between my feet; no rock against my back. There was only us.”

Elsa Dutton, 1883 S1 E5

But by Episode 5’s end, she emerges a changed woman; one deeply scarred by death’s personal toll. Much of her hopeful naivety is gone, forever replaced by a heart far too weary for one her age:

“I’d known death since I was a child. It’s everywhere. But it had never touched me. It had never placed it rotten finger on my heart. Until today. Today my eyes died. I see the world through my mother’s eyes now. Yes, freedom has fangs. And it sunk them in me. I chose to love him. He chose to love me back. Then chose to protect me. Then a man we’ve never met chose to kill him. And made me colorblind.”

“Maybe killing this man will get my eyes back. Maybe it won’t. But I chose to find out.”

Elsa Dutton, 1883 S1 E5

Bringing Elsa Dutton Full Circle

Already, 1883 has brought Elsa full circle to her opening narration in the premiere episode.

“Some called it the American Desert. Others, the Great Plains. But those phrases were invented by professors at universities. Surrounded by the illusion of order. And the fantasy of right and wrong. To know it, you must walk. Bleed until it’s dark. Drown in its rivers. Then its name becomes clear. It is Hell. And there are demons everywhere.”

“But if this is Hell, then I must be a demon, too. And I’m already dead.”

Elsa Dutton, 1883 S1 E1

Shot through the abdomen by a Native American bandit, Elsa’s narration shows a woman who’s seen Hell long before this injury. And as of Episode 5’s loss, we know why.

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