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‘1883’ season 1 episode 1 review: ‘1883’

‘1883,’ a ‘Yellowstone’ prequel series, hitches up the wagon for an epic journey in its first episode.

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

Our Verdict

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

For

  • - Taylor Sheridan trades in new West for old West but keeps his in-depth characters, world building
  • - Sam Elliott and Isabel May are early standouts
  • - The show looks epic and features a fantastic score worthy of the trek

Against

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

Taylor Sheridan is already the king of the modern western, with prime examples being movies he wrote and/or directed like Hell or High Water, Sicario and Wind River or the TV show he created, Yellowstone. The latter has been a major hit on cable and is currently nearing the end of its fourth season. Yellowstone is also the show that serves as the basis for Sheridan creating a show set in the time frame generally thought of when talking about the western genre, the late 19th century. 1883 is the highly anticipated prequel show to Yellowstone and we have our first official taste of it with the premiere episode.

Yellowstone follows the Dutton family in the modern day as they run and protect their cattle business and land in Montana amid numerous outside pressures. 1883 will tell the story of how the Dutton’s came to settle in 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 of the show in a flash forward. While providing narration (which continues throughout the episode and, presumably, the season), 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 that is 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? To which he responds that Elsa’s people also speak English and do the same thing to his people. Elsa decides to pull the gun anyway and shoots the Native, though he manages to shoot her with an arrow in the stomach before dying. Elsa isn’t dead, though, as she continues shooting other Natives that were part of the attack and cuts away before resolving the scene.

Heading back to the start of the story, we first meet Shea Brennan (Sam Elliott) as he tragically burns his home after his wife and daughter have died from smallpox. The next scene takes place at an undetermined amount of time afterward, but Brennan is still grieving and puts a gun under his chin. 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 of the gang the men he killed belonged to before riding off.

1883 Sam Elliott as Shea Brennan and LaMonica Garrett as Thomas

Sam Elliott as Shea Brennan and LaMonica Garrett as Thomas in '1883' (Image credit: Emerson Miller/Paramount+)

While 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 and with only one man who 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 that 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.

1883 Isabel May as Elsa

Isabel May in '1883' (Image credit: Emerson Miller/Paramount+)

That night, Elsa learns some of the dangers of what 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 new 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 appear to be 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 for 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 is streaming exclusively on Paramount Plus. The first two episodes are available now, with new episodes releasing weekly.