1883 episode 1 recap: the Duttons head west

1883, a Yellowstone prequel series, hitches up the wagon for an epic journey.

1883 Isabel May as Elsa
(Image: © Emerson Miller/Paramount+)

What to Watch Verdict

As 1883 sets off, viewers meet an intriguing cast of characters and prepare for an epic journey.


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    Taylor Sheridan trades in new West for old West but keeps his in-depth characters, world building

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    Sam Elliott and Isabel May are early standouts

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    The show looks epic and features a fantastic score worthy of the trek


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    Pretty standard first episode introducing characters and previewing what's in store

NOTE: this post contains spoilers for 1883 episode 1, "1883."

Taylor Sheridan is already the king of the modern western, see Hell or High Water, Sicario and Wind River and of course Yellowstone for proof of that (Yellowstone season 5, the show's final season, is currently on hiatus). Yellowstone was the jumping off point for 1883, which takes us back to the time period we generally think of with the western genre, the late 19th century, and introduces us to the Dutton family that came to settle Montana and build their empire.

While the destination is known, the journey promises to be perilous and epic, as the first episode — simply titled "1883" — shows in clear detail.

We see just how dangerous the journey will be in the first moments via a flash-forward. While providing narration (which continues throughout), Elsa (Isabel May) explains that no matter what the scholars call America's Great Plains, they can best be described as Hell. To back it up, we see Elsa awake underneath a wagon set on fire and a group of Native Americans killing her fellow travelers. 

Elsa tries to protect herself by grabbing a gun off a dead man, but one of the Natives tells her, in English, not to do it. She asks him if he can speak English, how could he be doing something so heinous? He says Elsa's people also speak English and do the same thing to his people. Elsa goes for the gun anyway and shoots the Native, though he manages to shoot her with an arrow in the stomach before dying. Elsa doesn't die though, and shoots at the other Natives present. The scene cuts away before we see what happens next.

Heading back to the start of the story, we first meet Shea Brennan (Sam Elliott) as he burns his home after his wife and daughter have tragically died from smallpox. The next scene takes place at an undetermined amount of time afterward, but Brennan is still grieving. He puts a gun under his chin, debating whether to pull the trigger. When his partner, Thomas (LaMonica Garrett), asks him if he is coming along for their next job, Brennan holsters the gun and joins him.

As they ride through the fields they see a wagon being pursued by a gang of thieves. The driver is James Dutton (Tim McGraw). He proves himself quite adept with a gun as he kills all of his pursuers. Brennan and Thomas give Dutton a quick tip of the cap and warn that he'll need to be careful, as friends of the men he killed belonged to a dangerous gang.

1883 Sam Elliott as Shea Brennan and LaMonica Garrett as Thomas

Sam Elliott and LaMonica Garrett in 1883. (Image credit: Emerson Miller/Paramount+)

Arriving separately, Dutton, Brennan and Thomas all head to Fort Worth, Texas. Dutton's family is arriving that night, while Brennan and Thomas are leading a wagon train of German immigrants that are wholly unprepared for the journey. Only one of the immigrants speaks English, Josef (Marc Rissmann). Brennan decides they need extra men to help them and after bumping into Dutton again offers to hire him. Dutton refuses, saying he and his family just want to head north on their own until they can find a land that is worth the dangerous journey they're embarking on.

Speaking of the rest of the Dutton family, it is made up of James Dutton's wife, Margaret (Faith Hill), teenage daughter Elsa, 5-year-old son John (Audie Rick), Margaret's widowed sister Claire (Dawn Olivieri) and her daughter Mary Abel (Emma Malouff). Riding on the train, we see Elsa is a free spirit brimming with hope, which certainly makes her a handful for Margaret and draws the ire of the strict Claire.

Staying in a hotel that night, Elsa learns some of the dangers that they face, as a drunken man stumbles into her and her brother's room and tries to rape her. She is saved just in the nick of time by her father. This convinces Dutton to team up with Brennan and the wagon train. 

After Brennan does a quick inspection for smallpox among the immigrants — he finds a husband and wife and kicks them out, which paired with his interaction with a prostitute that brings up his wife's name further details his powerful grief — they leave Fort Worth to begin their journey.

The episode ends with Elsa wading into a river on the first morning they are on the trail; coupled with her narration here it shows that even after the assault in the hotel she remains optimistic about the transformative power of this journey. The episode's flash forward proved the trip would be transformative, but not exactly how Elsa believes it will be in this scene. 

"1883" is a very promising start for the series. While the episode is all about introducing our main group of characters and getting them together, it effectively achieves this and gives us glimpses into their background and hopes that will play out over the course of the season. Sam Elliott and Isabel May are early standouts. In addition, 1883 has an epic sense thanks to a number of beautiful shots showing the vistas of the plains and a fantastic score. Just as our main characters take the journey with the hope of a new life, viewers should be getting excited about the journey this new show could take them on.

1883 Tim McGraw as James Dutton

Tim McGraw as James Dutton in 1883. (Image credit: Emerson Miller/Paramount+)

1883 episodes are airing on Paramount Network Sundays at 8 pm ET/PT from June 18 to August 13. All episodes of 1883 are now available to stream on Paramount Plus.

Michael Balderston

Michael Balderston is a DC-based entertainment and assistant managing editor for What to Watch, who has previously written about the TV and movies with TV Technology, Awards Circuit and regional publications. Spending most of his time watching new movies at the theater or classics on TCM, some of Michael's favorite movies include Casablanca, Moulin Rouge!, Silence of the Lambs, Children of Men, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest and Star Wars. On the TV side he enjoys Peaky Blinders, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Saturday Night Live, Only Murders in the Building and is always up for a Seinfeld rerun. Follow on Letterboxd.