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‘1883’ season 1 episode 2 review: ‘Behind Us, A Cliff’

Some additional prep work for ‘1883’ before the series embarks on its true journey.

1883 season 1 episode 2
(Image: © Emerson Miller/Paramount+)

Our Verdict

Episode 2 of '1883' is a classic table-setting episode example. While we get some necessary developments, its wanting in pure entertainment value.

For

  • - Director/cinematographer Ben Richardson sure does paint a pretty picture
  • - Billy Bob Thornton shows up for a brief, but fun guest appearance

Against

  • - A bit of a slog as the show puts its main pieces into their proper places
  • - Elsa’s narration still looking for its balance

This review contains spoilers for 1883 season 1 episode 2, “Behind Us, A Cliff.” Catch up with What to Watch’ previous recaps for 1883 here.

Sometimes new shows want to impress audiences so much with their first episode that they leave a little bit of work to do for the second episode before the real story can get going. The most famous example of this may be the second episode of Game of Thrones, “The Kingsroad.” Feels like 1883 took a page from that playbook with its second episode, “Behind Us, A Cliff.”

Before we pick up where the main story ended in the series premiere, this episode starts with another jump around in the timeline. This time we go backwards to 1862 and the Battle of Antietam, one of the bloodiest of the Civil War. We find James Dutton waking on the field after the battle, banged up but not seriously wounded, a fate much better than those of his fellow Confederate soldiers around him. As Dutton surveys all the deaths, he is met by Union General George Meade, who commiserates with Dutton not as an enemy but as a fellow human. Narration by Elsa reveals that Dutton spent three years as a prisoner of war after this event and avoids talking about his service with others.

Tom Hanks is a surprise addition to the episode 2 cast as Meade, but the cameo is just an “Oh hey” moment of recognition. Would have been fun to see Hanks pair up with Sheridan in a more meaningful way (as we’ll see an example of later), but maybe on another project.

Back to 1883, the wagon train is still preparing and teaching the immigrants key survival tricks, but the language barrier and their inexperience makes it difficult as they fail to understand the importance of rationing their food or the need to boil water from a river to avoid getting sick. To help on the food part, Dutton, Brennan and Thomas set out to get some cattle to take for the journey, opting to wrangle wild cattle. Dutton recruits Elsa to help as she is one of the few qualified riders the wagon train has.

Recruiting some additional cowboys, including a pair named Ennis (Eric Nelsen) and Wade (James Landry Hébert), the group sets out on the kind of subplot that you would have found in the Red Dead Redemption video games. The only real bits of crucial plot development that comes from this sequence is Elsa proving herself and establishing a rapport with Ennis, who decides to stay on with the wagon train. It also provides some gorgeous cinematography and a lovely bit of narration from Elsa.

Let’s quickly talk about those two things right now. First, hats off to Ben Richardson, who served as the cinematographer and director for this episode. The show looks absolutely gorgeous, particularly the ending of the cattle herding sequence at sunset with Elsa looking over an open vista that she uses to help describe the true meaning of freedom in her narration.

1883 season 1 episode 2

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

The narration is the other thing. The first two episodes of 1883 are working to find a balance in the use of narration. There are fantastic bits like Elsa’s description of freedom, but then there are portions that are on the nose and clunky, like when she finds a skeleton shot up with arrows and says she now realizes the dangers. This certainly seems like a narrative choice that is going to stick, so hopefully we get more lyrical and deeply personal narrations than the blatantly obvious moving forward.

Back in the camp, Margaret and Claire argue over their different expectations for the journey, with Margaret hopeful and trusting in Dutton’s vision, but Claire believing they are leaving civilization to chase a fool’s dream. When Margaret suggests Claire didn’t have to come, Claire reminds her that without a husband she and her daughter Mary Abel had little chance to provide for themselves, so what real choice did she have.

The next day a group of riders come to the camp and try to intimidate Margaret and the others. Claire yells at them and begins to throw rocks to try and get them to leave, but this only angers them. Though the immigrants help fight them off, the riders quickly return and shoot and kill a number of the travelers, including Mary Abel. When Dutton and the others return they head off into town to go after the riders.

It’s there they team up with the town Marshal, played by Billy Bob Thornton. This is an example of a great cameo. When they find the riders, Thornton’s character shoots first, killing all in the group and reminding everyone that he, as the law, is going to be the only killer in town. His ethically dubious lawman is reminiscent of Gene Hackman’s Little Bill in Unforgiven, but more hard-edged and less charismatic. This could be the only time we see the character though, as Brennan tells Dutton they are leaving the next morning to avoid anyone in the town from coming after them again.

1883 season 1 episode 2

Billy Bob Thornton in '1883' (Image credit: Emerson Miller/Paramount+)

We’ve seen Dutton use violence when necessary to protect himself and his family, as he values them over everything else, including true justice. But as we saw in the opening sequence, it doesn’t mean he enjoys it.

The wagon train embarks on their journey, all but Claire. After burying Mary Abel, Dutton speaks with her and they argue over whether or not he will find the Garden of Eden he’s after. Dutton believes gardeners build and tend to gardens, but Claire rebuffs him, saying that he is not a gardener. With nothing left and having buried many children before Mary Abel, Claire opts to take her own life; Dutton and Brennan bury her.

Elsa’s narration closes things out, with her saying that they are walking into a darkness and there is a cliff behind them, meaning their only way to go now is forward into the unknown. That is where hopefully 1883 will find the promise its characters are looking for and the TV adventure the first two episodes attempted to set up.