In Episode 5, “The Fangs of Freedom,” we see a rare moment when the 1883 guide lets his guard down for a moment and allows those pent-up emotions to wash over him. In the first few moments of the episode, he looks over the graves of those that died in the river crossing. He curses and sniffles as his Pinkerton partner, Thomas, walks up beside him. Thomas asks what’s “eating” him, and that’s when we realize just how calamity much Shea has endured in his life.
As we know from Episode 4, “The Crossing,” Shea was a Union soldier – potentially an officer – during the Civil War just two decades prior to the journey on the Oregon Trail. During that time, he saw plenty of his men fall and watched as battlefields ran red with the blood of thousands. Of course, like so many veterans at the time, Shea had to bury his sorrow in order to survive the remainder of the war as well as the aftermath. But the tragedy of his story didn’t end there. When he finally returned home, his wife and child contracted smallpox and later died.
‘1883’ Duo Shea and Thomas Discuss the Price of Leadership
In his role as a guide, Shea’s no-nonsense attitude keeps the travelers in line during their voyage, especially when rations and spirits are low. Whenever there’s a crime committed among the group, he takes swift and severe action, offering no one a second chance, as that would only mean more lives at risk. Because of this, the 1883 characters have come to expect his cold, tough exterior. But what they don’t always see is the toll this position of power takes on him.
In his conversation with Thomas, Shea says that they’re “making too many widows” and “too many orphans.”
Thomas tries to assure his 1883 partner that they aren’t responsible for anyone’s death, only guiding them along the treacherous trail to the best of their abilities. The Buffalo Soldier then compares the situation to Shea’s time on the battlefield. During the Civil War, the two have seen 100 times the amount of death that the caravan has experienced.
“How’s this different than sending soldiers over a hill?” Thomas asks him. “You knew they was gonna die. You never shed a tear for them.”
Shea responds, “The hell I didn’t.”
At this moment, we understand that the 1883 guide feels as much pain and sorrow as anyone else in the group. The only difference is that he has to hide these emotions in order to maintain the image of strength and endurance that the travelers need in order to carry on.