What to Watch Verdict
Though some storylines could have gone a little deeper, 1883 concludes its first season as good as fans could hope for.
Despite all the hardships, the show’s journey west looked stunning
Isabel May gives a star-making performance
Just about everyone gets a moment to shine
A completely satisfying season of TV
The opening sequence is repetitive of last week’s ending
Josef’s storyline could have been richer
NOTE: This review contains spoilers for 1883 season 1 episode 10, "This Is Not Your Heaven." Catch up with What to Watch’s previous recaps for 1883 season 1 here.
Throughout 1883’s first season, Elsa (Isabel May) has been most comfortable in the saddle of her horse. She’s driven cattle, ridden from a tornado, and proved the equal (if not superior) to every cowboy she met along the way. This is why it’s so foreboding when she falls from her horse in the opening moments of the 1883 season 1 finale.
As we know from the penultimate episode, Dutton (Tim McGraw) believes his daughter will die after being shot in the gut by an arrow and Elsa can see that fear in his eyes. In her opening narration, she asks the question “What is death?” before falling from her horse as they reach a fort, hoping to get her some help. However, the doctor says there’s nothing he can do for Elsa.
The doctor gives Dutton and Shea (Sam Elliott) one more nugget of knowledge — the fort is owned by the bosses of the men they killed in the last episode, meaning Wyoming is no longer safe for them. Dutton and Shea agree they should head to the Bozeman trail in Montana. Save for this new bit of information, the opening covers all the same ground as the penultimate episode did, which is a bit frustrating but thankfully doesn’t last long.
Shea tells the immigrants the plan, but some decide they can make their own way to Oregon. Josef (Marc Rissmann), still recovering with his wife, opts to continue with Shea. This proves to be a wise decision, as we see later the other immigrants killed by robbers.
This is also where Wade (James Landry Hébert) and Colton (Noah Le Gros) depart. The pair say their goodbyes to Elsa, who teases them one last time. As they ride away, Elsa wonders if they’ll settle in Wyoming or make their way to Oregon, but deep down she knows the truth — their future will be as unmarked graves along the Oregon Trail.
On their way to Montana, Thomas (LaMonica Garrett) tells Josef the venom from the snake bite in his leg will kill him if they don’t amputate. They get Josef good and drunk for the procedure, which allows him to reveal more of his backstory from when he was a foot soldier in a battle and the horrors of that. This paints an even deeper picture of why he would choose to leave his homeland for America.
Elsa begins to feel a bit better as they make their way north, well enough to ride again. Perhaps optimistic by her change (or hoping to not worry her), Dutton tells her she isn’t dying, even if she should be; that Elsa pays the same respect to the rules of nature that she does to his rules.
However, Elsa takes another turn the next day, falling again as she tries to ride away after spotting a group of Native Americans. When Shea catches up with her, he finds the Native Americans to be peaceful. Their elder, Spotted Eagle (Graham Greene), offers to help treat Elsa. They perform a ritual, but ultimately even they realize Elsa cannot be saved.
Dutton explains to Spotted Eagle he has to find a place for Elsa to be buried and for his family to settle. Spotted Eagle tells him of a valley that he doesn’t know the word in English for, but after describing it Dutton says “paradise” and he agrees. For their help, Dutton promises to let the Natives hunt on the land. Spotted Eagle also says in seven generations his people will rise up and take the land back, to which Dutton responds they "can have it."
There’s just one problem, getting to Paradise Valley by wagon would take a week, and Elsa doesn’t have that long; Dutton and Elsa will have to make the trip alone. The next morning Elsa says her goodbyes to Margaret (Faith Hill) and Shea, saying she’ll see them again.
Dutton and Elsa reach Paradise Valley and Elsa picks the spot. Sitting under a tree, she says she now understands death and is not afraid of it, passing away in Dutton’s arms.
Things jump forward one year. Josef, alone as his wife died from her injuries, sets off to build his new home, though it's unclear if he's in Oregon or still in Montana. Thomas and Noemi (Gratiela Brancusi) definitely make it to Oregon and find a place to settle.
Shea makes it to the beach. A hummingbird flies by him (perhaps a symbol of Elsa meeting him on the beach like she said). Having seen the ocean for his wife, Shea kills himself to join her.
The episode ends with narration from Elsa explaining what heaven is, calling it a place where dreams and memories merge and that it’s unique for everyone. In her heaven she meets up with Sam back in the plains, where it will be filled with good horses, wild cattle and it will always be sunrise. “I know death now, I’ve seen it,” she says. “It had no fangs. It smiled at me, and it was beautiful.”
Even though many predicted Elsa would die (including us), 1883 made her departure a powerful and emotional one. Isabel May helped bring to life a fantastic character that will be hard to replace as the show moves forward.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the finale though was it concluded just about every character’s story. Shea made it to Oregon one last time; Josef, Noemi and Thomas set about their new lives; and Wade and Colton appear to have had their books closed. Though it tried at times, it would have been nice to see 1883 give the stories of the immigrants like Josef and Noemi a little more depth, but can't complain about how everything ended for them.
That’s what ultimately made this a great season of television — it was a complete and satisfying journey. The only loose ends are the Duttons getting ready to build the Yellowstone ranch, but something has to be saved for the confirmed 1883 season 2.
Elsa said for some people the journey is the most important thing, for others it’s the destination. 1883 season 1 got to be both, giving viewers an entertaining journey and then reaching a truly satisfying destination.
All episodes of 1883 are now available to stream on Paramount Plus.
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 Only Murders in the Building, Yellowstone, The Boys, Game of Thrones and is always up for a Seinfeld rerun. Follow on Letterboxd.