1883 Episode 1 Recap and Review: The Duttons Begin a Perilous Journey

1883 Season 1 Episode 1
Isabel May as Elsa in season 1 episode 1 (Photo Cr: Emerson Miller/Paramount+ © 2021 MTV Entertainment Studios)

Paramount+’s 1883 episode one immediately introduces one of the Yellowstone prequel’s key players. Elsa Dutton (Isabel May), daughter of James and Margaret, will provide narration throughout the first season, and the episode begins with Elsa explaining her current surroundings – known as either the American Desert or The Great Plains – must be experienced to be fully understood.

Elsa’s in obvious distress as she lies on the ground, tears dripping down her face while fire and smoke fill the air. “It is Hell and there are demons everywhere,” says Elsa in a voiceover.

When Elsa finally rises, it’s revealed the people she’s traveling with are under attack by Native Americans. Covered wagons burn as Elsa, the sole survivor, runs to retrieve a gun. One of her attackers warns her to put it down and confirms that even if she does, he’ll either sell her off or kill her.

He’s speaking English and that confuses Elsa. She asks how he could do this, and the man replies, “You speak English and all your people do this.”

She fires a shot and takes him down, but not before he shoots an arrow through her stomach. She doesn’t fall and instead continues shooting at the others who’ve killed her traveling companions.

The second 1883 major character to enter the scene is Shea Brennan (Sam Elliott). Shea’s seated outside his home, heartbroken, while inside lie the bodies of his wife and daughter. He sobs as he enters his house one final time to gently move his daughter’s body into bed next to his deceased wife. (The women succumbed to smallpox.)

Shea sets his house on fire and watches it burn.

Enter 1883’s third key player, Thomas (LaMonica Garrett). He’s a close friend of Shea’s and a fellow Pinkerton Detective, and he asks if Shea’s accompanying him or if he’s so devastated by the loss of his family he’s going to kill himself. Shea makes the decision to keep on living.

1883 Season 1 Episode 1
Tim McGraw as James Dutton in the Paramount+ original series ‘1883’ (Photo Cr: Emerson Miller/Paramount+ © 2021 MTV Entertainment Studios)

Later, Shea and Thomas sit on horseback and watch from a nearby hill as James Dutton (Tim McGraw) attempts to keep his wagon and horses ahead of armed bandits. Gunfire’s exchanged and James takes one of the men out, but there’s still a handful left as Shea and Thomas discuss the farmer’s situation. It’s their belief the robbers are after the horses but that they’ll kill them if they have to to get to the farmer.

James is highly skilled with a gun and he stops his wagon, grabs his shotgun, and heads for cover in the high grass. The three remaining bandits are confused but decide their best option is a full-on frontal assault. James takes his time, aims carefully, and kills the remaining thieves.

After they’re taken care of, Shea and Thomas ride up and confirm they’ve been watching the action from a distance. James is angry they didn’t help him and Shea says it appeared he had the situation taken care of. Thomas advises James not to take the thief’s horse because, as Shea explains, the man’s pack will spot it. That will just lead to another gunfight.

James takes their advice and sets the horse free, minus its saddle.

James eventually makes it to a town called Hell’s Half Acre in Fort Worth, Texas. It’s a bustling town where salesmen hawk their magical elixirs, preachers deliver sermons on the street, and weary cowboys procure food, drink, and women.

James makes arrangements for his wagon and horses, paying extra to ensure none of his possessions are stolen. Although it’s suggested he head to Dallas where it’s safer, he explains his family’s meeting him in this town. The safest of all the local hotels is pointed out and James is told it’s best he keeps a gun in his possession while in Hell’s Half Acre.

Prostitutes are hitting on him when James realizes the men who just bumped into him have stolen his wallet. He punches one and searches his pockets, quickly realizing it’s the man’s partner who actually picked his pocket.

James steps into the middle of the crowded street, takes aim, and shoots the thief as he tries to run away.

Townsfolk immediately pounce on the injured man after a young boy cries out, “Pickpocket!” It appears the entire town’s ready to lynch the thief as James makes his way through the crowd. He retrieves his wallet and leaves the man’s fate to the townsfolk. They drag him a short distance and hang him from a noose while everyone cheers.

Four men exchange gunfire and everyone panics…everyone except James who doesn’t flinch and continues to walk with purpose toward the hotel. Shea and Thomas witness this and make note of the fact James doesn’t appear to scare easily. They also realize he’s not shy about using his shotgun.

Shea and Thomas make it into the Pinkerton office, and Shea assures the dozens of men, women, and children assembled inside that their journey to Oregon will be incredibly dangerous. Shea’s shocked to learn only one man in the group of immigrants, Josef (Marc Rissmann), speaks English.

The group has wagons and oxen, and Shea instructs them to sell their oxen and purchase horses. Oxen won’t survive the trip. Shea’s flabbergasted to see how many personal possessions they’ve packed and tells them to get rid of what can’t be loaded onto a wagon.

Thomas notices Josef doesn’t carry a gun, and Josef explains no one does because it’s against their laws.

1883 Season 1 Episode 1
LaMonica Garrett as Thomas and Sam Elliott as Shea in ‘1883’ season 1 episode 1 (Photo Cr: Emerson Miller/Paramount+ © 2021 MTV Entertainment Studios)

Shea and Thomas decide they’ll need to hire more men to protect these people, but Josef argues they’ve already spent as much as they can on travel. They’re completely unprepared for a 2,000-mile trip and Shea tells them they’ll need to take the train to Portland or stay here in Texas. Josef pleads their case, explaining they only know mountains. This area is too hot and dry; they’ll die if they try to settle here.

Shea and Thomas attempt to recruit men to help protect their passengers, but the first two they approach turn them down. They spot James settling in for a meal and offer to pay for his supper. Shea attempts to question James about his plans, but James refuses to disclose anything personal. Thomas explains they need some capable men and James finally says he’s waiting for his family and then they’re heading up north. More than that, he won’t say – mostly because he’s not sure where they’re heading.

All James is certain of is that the Duttons will head north until they find the perfect spot of land to settle. Shea suggests they can help each other on the trip, but James turns him down.

The two remaining main characters – Margaret Dutton (Faith Hill) and young John Dutton (Audie Rick) – arrive via train along with Elsa, James’ sister Claire (Dawn Olivieri), and Claire’s daughter, Mary (Emma Malouff). It’s apparent Elsa doesn’t like her aunt or cousin; they treat her like an ill-mannered, spoiled child.

It’s nighttime when the train pulls into the station and Elsa escapes to look outside before the rest of her family departs. She describes feeling everything is possible as she gets her first look around. Elsa spots her dad and is the first to greet him, grabbing him up in a big hug. Margaret’s the next to pull James into a hug, and then John grabs his dad’s attention. James has a quick moment with his sister, telling her he’s sorry about the death of her husband.

As the family heads to the hotel, the new arrivals are shocked to see just how wild and lawless this seedy part of Fort Worth is. They check into the Calhoun Hotel and Elsa has apparently gotten on her mom’s last nerve. Margaret’s happy to have James back at her side to help keep the teenager in check. She’s also happy to have her husband back in her bed (or bathtub, as is the case in their first few minutes alone together).

While James and Margaret are getting reacquainted, a drunken pervert makes his way into Elsa’s room. He plops down in bed beside her and is attempting to rape her when John runs from their room and wakes his dad. James arrives before the rapist can get actually do anything and shoots him in the back. He then warns everyone within earshot not to mess with his family or else.

Shea and Thomas make a deal to swap the oxen for a mix of mules and horses. They continue to educate the immigrants about the dangers they’ll encounter…poison ivy, poison oak, rattlesnakes, unsafe water…with Josef translating.

The attack in the hotel convinces James he needs to join forces with Shea and Thomas. He arrives in the Pinkerton office as the lesson’s going on and explains he won’t be their employee, but he will work with them to keep these immigrants – and his own family – safe.

Shea asks for one of James’ female family members to help check the women in the group for smallpox. One couple is discovered with evidence of the disease and is kicked out of the group. Shea advises them to find somewhere to die in peace and warns he’ll kill them if he sees them again.

Shea and James make plans for where to meet up on the road, and James heads off to prepare his family for the trip while Shea and Thomas get the immigrants ready to move out.

Season one episode one ends with the two groups merging by the oak tree that looks like an old woman bent over in grief.

1883 Episode 1 Review:

The first episode of 1883 set up the main characters and confirmed this show’s going to be gritty, dark, and full of hardship and death which makes sense given the time period. Unlike Yellowstone with its biting banter and occasionally funny scenes (mostly courtesy of Kelly Reilly as Beth), 1883 rarely served up a lighter moment and instead kept the level of tension high throughout the entire episode.

Fans of Westerns are going to appreciate the extent to which Taylor Sheridan and his team recreated the late 1800s. Decent Western dramas are few and far between, and 1883 has the potential to pull in an audience outside of Yellowstone viewers. The cast is certainly fully committed, and Sam Elliott was born for this sort of drama.

Paramount+ made the first three episodes available for review and each of the episodes provided capture the same tone as the show’s premiere, with no character safe and the journey becoming increasingly perilous. Much of 1883‘s success will depend upon audiences forming attachments to these Dutton ancestors similar to how they’ve embraced John Dutton the 3rd and his adult children. Sheridan’s Yellowstone prequel works best when it focuses on Tim McGraw’s James and Faith Hill’s Margaret rather than the show’s designated narrator, Elsa, played by Isabel May. The character hasn’t really found her footing in the first three episodes and the narration feels intrusive rather than informative.

Despite the rough spots, 1883‘s first three episodes are intense and compelling. 1883, a completely different beast from the series that spawned it, is a worthy – and entertaining – addition to the Yellowstone universe.