What to Watch Verdict
Character, dramatic stakes and expert filmmaking combine for a signature episode of 1883.
The best balance and development of all characters of any episode yet
A beautifully crafted climatic sequence
No more preamble, the characters and audience are ready for the real journey to begin
This review contains spoilers for 1883 season 1 episode 4, “The Crossing.” Catch up with What to Watch’s previous recaps for 1883 here.
When there is so much TV to choose from, everyone hits a point where they must decide whether they are going to continue with a show or drop it. If you’ve made it through the first three episodes of 1883 and thinking that episode 4, “The Crossing,” could be that point, I’m willing to bet that more viewers than not will say they’re ready to hitch up with this wagon train for the long haul. After an enticing first episode and two picturesque but more setup-driven second and third episodes, “The Crossing” is easily the best 1883 has been thus far.
The episode starts, per usual, with Elsa (Isabel May) narrating, describing a war she believes the land is having with itself over what it will become, either beautiful or deadly. She relates to that kind of internal personal struggle but believes she has come to a conclusion for herself — she’s a cowboy. As such, she makes a decision to swap out her dress for some pants, bartering with a member of the wagon train.
Elsewhere in the camp, Dutton (Tim McGraw), Shea (Sam Elliott), Thomas (LaMonica Garrett), Josef (Marc Rissmann), and Wade (James Landry Hébert) meet to discuss how they will go about crossing the river that they have come upon. Josef explains to them that none of the immigrants know how to swim, explaining it was illegal in their homeland and that even drowned bodies would be wiped before they were buried. Ultimately, they come up with a plan and agree to forge the river midday the next day.
That bit of info Josef shares about his people not being allowed to swim is the first of a few examples we get in this episode of characters sharing why they are taking on this dangerous journey. Shea is surprised most of the immigrants haven’t turned around and gone back home yet, believing that the unknown is the scariest thing anyone can face. Thomas explains, however, that when you come from an oppressive environment that the unknown is often the better, more hopeful option. We see a few more of these interactions, including Thomas and the gypsy Noemi (Gratiela Brancusi) getting closer and dreaming of a land where the government can’t tell them what to do, while Josef and his wife hope Oregon is a paradise and the perfect place to start their family.
Though Dutton committed to helping the wagon train cross the river, he worries about getting his family stuck if they cross at the same time. He decides to have his family forge the river at night, with Margaret (Faith Hill) driving the wagon. They are able to do it successfully, but it was stressful, and Margaret says that Dutton wasn’t entirely truthful about what the journey would be like. He says he told her that it would take everything they had, she retorts that he should have explained what “everything” really meant.
Elsa didn’t make the trip with her family, as she continues to help out watching the cattle herd at night. Though her flirtations with Ennis got in the way of that in this episode, ultimately leading to the two sharing their first kiss.
The next day, Shea sees Dutton has already crossed and is a bit perturbed, but Dutton says he will be true to his word and help with the crossing. The one issue is the river rose overnight and Shea tells the travelers they will have to lighten their wagons. This means all of the things they brought from home — furniture, books and even a piano — must be left behind. As the wagon train prepares to cross the river, Elsa and the other cowboys come to all of the items left behind; Elsa begins to play Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” on the abandoned piano.
The music is used to score fragmented clips of the crossing, as horses go crazy, travelers fall into the river and Dutton, Thomas and Margaret attempt to save some people from drowning. Ultimately, Margaret is pulled into the river and is forced to separate herself from a traveler to save herself. She comes out of the river and screams in anger. Perhaps it’s not the most original thing to juxtapose a classical piece of music with something tragic like this scene, but when the execution is this good you can forgive it.
Elsa and the cowboys help the herd cross, only then to see the result of the wagon train’s efforts. This includes Elsa coming upon her mother, who looks truly shaken by the event. Elsa once again narrates as the episode closes, saying that while she loves the land, she has learned that the land will never love them back.
I referred to the last two episodes of planting the seeds for what 1883 will hope to become. While it can be frustrating to watch in the moment, it helps make for richer moments later on, some we see come to fruition in “The Crossing.” But what is so promising about this episode of 1883 is that as it starts to pay off its viewers it continues to plant seeds of character development for further down the line, a delicate but necessary balancing act. As a result, many viewers will likely be more than ready to ride along with this wagon train for the remainder of the season.
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 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.