‘1883’ Season 1 Episode 2 Recap: “Behind Us, A Cliff”

1883 Season 1 Episode 2
Tim McGraw as James in ‘1883’ season 1 episode 2 (Photo Cr: Emerson Miller/Paramount+ © 2021 MTV Entertainment Studios)

Season one episode two of Paramount+’s Yellowstone prequel, 1883, opens with a flashback to September 17, 1862. The scene: The Dunker Church at the end of the Battle of Antietam.

(Reminder: This is a recap which means there are spoilers ahead. Don’t read this until you’ve watched the episode. You’ve been warned!)

Captain James Dutton (Tim McGraw) is the only surviving Confederate soldier remaining on the battlefield. Bodies of dead Union and Confederate soldiers lie strewn across the field outside the church. James is overcome with emotion and sits down as a troop of Union soldiers on horseback ride up. A Union officer (Tom Hanks) approaches and addresses James as Captain before taking a seat beside him.

Few words are spoken. James breaks down in tears at the loss of life during this battle that would become a turning point in the Civil War.

Elsa’s narration informs us James spent three grueling years in a Union prison and refuses to ever discuss the war.

Flashback over, James suggests Shea (Sam Elliott) and Thomas (LaMonica Garrett) hire a cook as the immigrants are burning through their food. Shea agrees and then requests James’ help moving cattle. James is leery of leaving the group – and his family – without protection, but ultimately agrees. He leaves but not before warning Elsa (Isabel May) to watch her brother and stay in camp while he’s gone.

1883 Season 1 Episode 2
Sam Elliott as Shea, LaMonica Garrett as Thomas and Tim McGraw as James in ‘1883’ season 1 episode 2 (Photo Cr: Emerson Miller/Paramount+ © 2021 MTV Entertainment Studios)

Shea, Thomas, and James aren’t able to pay for cattle but learn there are wild cattle to be had – if they can round them up. Shea spots two men who turned him down earlier and offers to pay them for helping herd cattle. The men – Ennis (Eric Nelsen) and Wade (James Landry Hébert) – know the location of some wild longhorns and after Shea confirms that even if they don’t find cattle he’ll pay them $10 each, they agree to help out.

Back at camp, Elsa’s wandering around – against her dad’s orders – when she spots a wagon wheel in the tall grass. She checks it out and discovers a skeleton riddled with arrows. The sight is so shocking that it briefly shakes her opinion of this beautiful land.

Margaret (Faith Hill), Claire (Dawn Olivieri), and Mary (Emma Malouff) are busy doing chores when they spot three men drinking water straight from the river. Claire believes the “only cure for stupid is reaching the gates of Heaven” and doesn’t think Margaret should warn them. Margaret, on the other hand, is much more charitable and doesn’t want the men to become ill.

Elsa rushes up and reveals she spotted people on the other side of the river. Claire insults her, Mary orders her to pick berries, and no one asks about the people she saw across the river.

Ennis and Wade join Shea, Thomas, and James as they ride back to camp before heading out to round up the cattle. James tells Margaret he’s taking Elsa with them since they’re short on riders, adding that they’ll be gone overnight. He reminds Margaret there’s a shotgun under the buckboard.

James gives Elsa a hat, a gun, and a warning to stay close to him as they ride out to find the wild cattle.

It’s not long into their ride that the group meets up with another group of men who Ennis and Wade recognize. A man named Grady’s in charge of this group and he agrees to have his men pitch in to help round up the longhorns.

They all settle down for the night, and Shea and Thomas debate whether they should continue the trip. The immigrants aren’t showing any indication that can handle themselves, and they’re still only five miles outside of town. Thomas isn’t sure, but Shea’s determined to see Oregon one final time before it’s ruined by people.

Before they fall asleep Elsa thanks her dad for bringing her along. James assures her she’s there because they need her.

Elsa’s ready to drift off to sleep but first shares a bit of history. On this day 18 years previously, Lee surrendered to Grant and the Civil War was over. Elsa was born a year later. Today is April 9, 1883 and it’s her birthday.

The newly formed group wake before dawn and set out to find the cattle. Wade gives everyone their orders and explains how they’ll set it up so the cattle will be pushed right toward camp.

1883 Season 1 Episode 2
Isabel May as Elsa in ‘1883’ season 1 episode 2 (Photo Cr: Emerson Miller/Paramount+ © 2021 MTV Entertainment Studios)

Hours pass and Elsa waits for the cattle to be driven toward her location. She’s been assigned the last position in the group and her patience finally pays off when she sees a longhorn. She works on merging it into the herd now being formed by some of the cowboys.

In a voice-over, Elsa reveals watching her dad ride against the backdrop of a setting sun is a magnificent sight.

Back at the main camp, John’s kept awake by the music coming from the immigrants. Claire calls it godless noise and Margaret agrees, urging young John to try and get some sleep. Claire continues to be Debby Downer and says she doesn’t know what her brother’s hoping to find during this trip. They definitely won’t find civilization, houses, restaurants, schools, or churches on the path they’ve taken.

The following morning a group of five men approach the camp and ask for the wagon boss. Margaret lies that he’s nearby while Claire orders the men to leave. They make fun of her before heading down to the river to water their horses.

Claire throws rocks in their direction while their backs are turned and they fight back. Margaret whips out her shotgun warning the leader she’ll shoot if they don’t leave. The immigrants attack while everyone’s focused on Margaret and manage to drive the men off.

Unfortunately, it’s only a temporary reprieve as the men return seconds later and shoot up the camp before racing away. Margaret screams out for John and is relieved when he runs up from his hiding place. Claire’s not as fortunate. Her daughter is killed during the attack.

The cowboys are heading back with the herd and Ennis and Wade pass the time discussing Elsa. Ennis thinks she’s pretty, which she definitely is, and rides over to offer her water. He asks her to take off her hat so he can find out if she’s too pretty for him. They flirt a little and Elsa does as he requested. Ennis looks at her smiling face and says, “Yep, too pretty for me,” before riding off, laughing.

Word arrives of the attack and they return to the camp to witness the aftermath.

It’s decided Shea, Thomas, and James will accompany Josef into town to report the attack and search for the men who did it. The other cowboys will remain behind to protect the camp.

Even in her grief Claire is cruel and has a wicked tongue. She refuses to graciously accept Elsa’s apology.

Before James leaves Margaret informs him the men who attacked didn’t start the fight. She’s not sure there’s justice in going after them, but James disagrees. He will protect his family at all costs.

1883 Season 1 Episode 2
Tim McGraw as James, Sam Elliott as Shea and Billy Bob Thornton as Marshal Jim Courtright in ‘1883’ season 1 episode 2 (Photo Cr: Emerson Miller/Paramount+ © 2021 MTV Entertainment Studios)

They arrive in town and meet with Jim Courtright, City Marshal of Fort Worth, Texas. Marshal Courtright (Billy Bob Thornton) thinks if these men came to town they’ll be at the White Elephant. He deputizes James to protect him if things go sideways.

The group of lawmen stride down the main street and enter the packed White Elephant Saloon. Josef points out the men who attacked them and Marshal Courtright knows the crew and calls out the leader. The man’s barely said five words when Courtright shoots him. His friends and partners-in-crime are also shot dead by Courtright or other members of his group.

Josef is shaking like a leaf when he points to one man who’s thus far escaped death. Courtright takes care of that, shooting him in the chest after he declares he’s unarmed.

Shea’s decided everyone in town will come looking for them so they need to get back on the road and head north tomorrow. It no longer matters if the immigrants aren’t ready for a long journey.

Margaret’s still awake when James returns and confirms they killed the men who attacked the camp.

The following morning Shea instructs the immigrants how to cross the river with their wagons. Ennis and Wade have decided to continue with the group and assure Shea they’ll earn their keep.

The group is about to move out when Margaret finds Claire kneeling down next to Mary’s grave. Margaret attempts to comfort her but Claire swats her hand away. James speaks with his sister and she says she has nothing left to live for. All seven of her children are dead; her husband is dead. She’s done grieving and ready to die.

She refuses to return to the group and James says goodbye. “God damn you, James. God damn you and your dreams,” says Claire. James rides off and Claire reaches out to a dragonfly that’s alighted on the cross placed on Mary’s grave.

The wagons move forward and the longhorns follow behind. James rides up to his family’s wagon and warns Margaret not to look back.

Ennis and Elsa continue to flirt as they drive the cattle, and Elsa says Ennis doesn’t look like the picture of her husband she’s painted in her head. “I’m a cowboy, ma’am. We don’t look like nobody’s husband, but we’re the ones you think about when your husband ain’t around,” says Ennis, a huge smile lighting up his face.

A shot rings out and Claire’s grief ends. James remains behind to bury his sister. Shea joins him and helps dig the grave. Shea believes it took courage to do what she did. James disagrees.