Warning: Major spoilers ahead as this is a full recap of the episode.
1883 begins with the narration of the young woman we come to know as Elsa Dutton (Isabel May), daughter to James and Margaret Dutton (Tim McGraw & Faith Hill). As she lies face down in nondescript plains, her words ring out:
“I remember the first time I saw it. Tried to find words to describe it. But I couldn’t. Nothing had prepared me. No books. No teachers. Not even my parents. I heard a thousand stories… But none could describe this place. It must be witness to be understood. And yet, I’ve seen it. And I understand it less than when I first cast eyes on this place.
“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.”
Right from the start, she’s cast into the hellscape of the Westward Expansion. Native Americans run the land in 1883; a time scarred by the war between these Indigenous Peoples and the descendants of European settlers. And Elsa is only breathing because these “enemies” can sell her at a high price. But she won’t back down.
Elsa draws her pistol, landing a fatal blow through the skull of her attacker. Yet he is just as quick, piercing her stomach with an arrow. Elsa screams as she runs face-first into the remaining attackers; firing wildly.
“But if this is Hell, then I must be a demon, too. And I’m already dead.”
This is 1883.
‘1883’ The Tragic Story of Sam Elliott’s Shea Brennan
After the haunting opening credits roll, we meet Sam Elliott’s Shea Brennan for the first time. He sits alone on his front porch, sobbing uncontrollably. As he enters his prairie home, we learn the horrible truth. Smallpox has claimed Shea’s entire family, including a young girl he treasured above all else.
The horrible truth of smallpox is shown in full before a weary Shea makes the final call: he burns down his homestead with their bodies inside.
The next morning, Shea brings himself to a peaceful field, dressed in full uniform as he places the barrel of his revolver underneath his chin.
If not for the wise words of his partner, Thomas (LaMonica Garrett), the deed would’ve been done. Thankfully, Thomas is able to talk him down, and the duo head towards town.
‘1883’s James Dutton Enters With a Bang
As they do, Shea and Thomas come across a lone wagon under attack by outlaws. It’s James Dutton (Tim McGraw), who immediately proves himself a beyond-capable gunman.
But Shea and Thomas don’t interfere. Instead, they just watch. Before long, however, James has every single bandit dispatched by using a combination of firearms.
After a few lessons in the Wild West, the three men size each other up before heading to the same destination: Fort Worth, Texas.
The Duttons Arrive in Hell’s Half Acre, Fort Worth, TX
We size up Hell’s Half Acre with James; a dusty, hot place that lives up to its name.
“You don’t want your family here,” he’s told as he gets his affairs in order. James is waiting on the arrival of his family by train, and they’re heading into a town unlike any other.
Before he can even make it to Hotel Calhoun (the only place “safe” enough to hold his family), James is pickpocketed. He busts the bandits, taking both down in the middle of the street. Fort Worth erupts into an all-out brawl, and James heads about his business.
As he goes about his way, Shea and Thomas size up the group of immigrants they’ll be shepherding to Oregon. Soon, Shea discovers only one of the 30-ish immigrants speaks English. It becomes immediately clear that these German and Russian travelers are woefully unprepared for 1883. They have oxen, not horses, no guns, no protection, nothing but household goods to be stolen.
Through an intense exchange, Shea makes it clear these men and women will need to come up with more money to hire more men for hunting and protection. Then they can leave, and only then.
Meet the Dutton Family of ‘1883’
The train comes rollin’ in, and Elsa Dutton reveals her family is actually from Tennessee; where all their roots began amidst the “pines.” Now, however, they’re heading out West for a new life. A 19th century creeper gives Elsa a full look-over throughout this conversation, and Elsa’s rebellious nature shines through as she begins to enjoy the attention. But right before she can make any mistakes, her mother, Margaret, beats this strange, well-dressed man back into his first-class seat.
Back in her family’s coach car (establishing their class difference from the gentleman at the front of the train), we see Elsa and Margaret’s relationship unfold. Sitting with them is her widowed aunt, Claire, and her cousin. Claire slaps Elsa multiple times – hard – in the face so she “learns her lesson.”
“You had it comin’,” her Nellie Oleson-esque cousin, Mary Abel, tells her. Elsa is indeed a rebel; one set to thrive or die in the freedom of the Wild West.
Back in Fort Worth, her father is drinking at the same bar where Shea and Thomas are attempting to gather men for their immigrant’s wagon. Two local cowboys, Ennis and Wade, are sized up for the journey, but decline initially. This is promising to Shea. Then they spot James, a man they’d like for the same purpose.
James declines, too, however. “Whatever you’re sellin’ I ain’t buyin’.”
All parties are heading north, though, and eventually their paths will align. But now is not that time. Instead, James is waiting anxiously for the arrival of his daughter, wife, son, and the rest of his family. Off the train come Elsa, her tiny brother John, Margaret, Claire, and Mary Abel.
It becomes clear James hasn’t seen his family in some time; enough for Elsa to have grown as much as his beard. The true love he shares with both her and Margaret shines through in full, too.
The Hotel Calhoun
Soon, the entire family is experiencing Fort Worth for the roughneck place it is via stagecoach. They’re heading to Hotel Calhoun where the Duttons will bunk for the night.
Once there, Elsa and John are put in their own room, as are Claire and Mary Abel. James and Margaret take their own (far nicer and equipped with a bath) room for a bit of long-overdue intimacy. This, however, is a grave mistake in this town.
Meanwhile, Shea has a soda water in the saloon. A breathtaking gal dressed for a particular profession takes a strong interest in him. She asks for the name of the love he is so clearly missing.
“Helen,” the 1883 stalwart replies. But Shea isn’t to be swindled, no matter how hard the saloon girl tries. He pushes her off, and a brawl almost ensues with the saloon’s owner.
“You know what I’m doin’ here? Lookin’ for a reason. You wanna be my reason?” he tells the man with the same revolver to his chin that almost took his own life.
Back upstairs at the Calhoun, a wildly large and drunk man stumbles into the Dutton’s hallway, then Elsa’s room. He plops himself into bed with her, then on top of her. But she fights back furiously.
Finally able to scream, her father answers her cries; blowing the man’s head open from behind. Elsa, covered in blood, runs for her mother.
Oxen, Cattle, and the Terror of Smallpox in ‘1883’
Before their northern journey can begin, Shea and Thomas set out to trade in the immigrant’s oxen for horses they can use. We see the optimism still left in Shea as he does what he can to ensure these travelers get a shot at a new life. But Thomas isn’t nearly as hopeful.
Shea gives a full lesson in rattlesnakes to the Germans who’ve never seen one before. Their only English-speaking member, Josef (Marc Rissmann), translates the viper’s danger alongside others: poison ivy, stillwater, and the like.
Then James walks through their doors as the lesson continues, finally offering his help. “I’ll take it,” smiles Shea. And through this, their journey towards a dream can finally begin. With one caveat: Smallpox.
Shea and Thomas check every immigrant traveler for the lethal virus. The ones that have it are ostracized and told to “die in peace by the river” before infecting everyone else.
With this done, the Duttons, Shea, and Thomas head out to build their first camp of the journey. A long, treacherous, and terrifying road lies ahead. But at this moment, Elsa is free.
“The road West is filled with failures. But failure isn’t what drove him. It was a dream. And the dream was coming true.”