What to Watch Verdict
1883 builds out more of its world in entertaining and exciting ways.
Never a dull moment
Easily the funniest episode so far (at least first 20 minutes)
Fantastic chemistry between Isabel May and new addition Martin Sensmeier
This review contains spoilers for 1883 season 1 episode 7, “Lightning Yellow Hair.” Catch up with What to Watch’s previous recaps for 1883 season 1 here.
The wagon train has spent a week in the plains seeing no other living things, according to Elsa’s opening narration in the latest episode of 1883, but that quickly changes when a pair of Native Americans are spotted on the hill. Elsa is told that they are Comanches here to collect a tax in order for the wagon train and cattle to go through their land. It is the first Native American character we see in the series since the flash-forward that started episode 1. But considering this episode takes place before that in the story, it serves as an introduction to a larger world for Elsa (Isabel May) and us as an audience, leading to a fantastic, jam-packed hour.
Stopping to camp after meeting their visitors, Cookie (James Jordan) gets a proper character introduction as he goes on a rant telling the immigrants how he expects them to line up for dinner, using the F word to help make his point. However, Josef (Marc Rissmann) reveals that they don’t know what that word means. Little John Dutton (Audie Rick) also asks Margaret (Faith Hill) what it means, and she says a spanking if he ever says it again. Throw in a slap for Cookie from Margaret and this is easily the funniest sequence 1883 has had yet; a nice change of pace.
While eating, one of the Comanches (Martin Sensmeier) is eyeing Elsa and asks her what her horse’s name is. She says Lightning because of how fast he is, which causes him to challenge her to back it up in a race. Elsa does, winning by a hair. He says that he will call Elsa Lighting Yellow Hair, then introduces himself as Sam, having taken the name after killing the man that killed his wife. Elsa tells him she has also killed a man. The characters are clearly meant to have this strong immediate connection that allows them to be so easy and honest with each other, and May and Sensmeier have the chemistry that prevents this from feeling forced.
That night, Shea (Sam Elliott) and Sam talk, with Sam warning him that a storm is coming. Apparently, Cookie knew it too, as he’s gone the next morning to beat it. He was right to do so because the storm turns out to be a tornado.
As everyone tries to find low ground to protect themselves, Elsa, Wade (James Landry Hébert) and Colton (Noah Le Gros) are saved by Sam. As the tornado is on top of them, the only thing Elsa can do to stop screaming in fear is kiss Sam.
The tornado passes, and Elsa and Sam go and find the others’ horses. They are silent but convey their growing bond and attraction. It is only as Sam leaves that he speaks, saying that this land is his home and that she, Lightning Yellow Hair, will always be welcome on it.
Back with the wagon train, while no one was killed, supplies and wagons were destroyed. Shea wonders if they will need to turn back. To make matters worse, he learns that the cattle, who scattered during the storm, have been rounded up by a group of thieves. Shea, Dutton (Tim McGraw), Thomas (LaMonica Garrett) and Elsa (against Dutton’s better judgement) go to confront the thieves and get the cattle back. When Margaret hears that both her husband and daughter have done this, she grabs a gun and a horse and rides off too.
There are more thieves than Shea thought, and once they are spotted it is the quartet that become the hunted. Dutton tells Elsa to keep riding no matter what as he, Shea and Thomas make a stand against the thieves. A few do get by them, however, and ride after Elsa, who is ultimately saved by Sam once again. The trio of men, meanwhile, are able to hold their own and are eventually aided by Sam and a friend of Shea’s, Charlie (who came out of nowhere and is played by series creator Taylor Sheridan). All three are shot, but not seriously wounded. Thomas and Shea say they may have just used up the last of their luck. With everything over, as Sam and Elsa pass by on horseback, they discreetly, tenderly touch hands.
Margaret comes across the last thief on her way to Elsa and Dutton, killing him when he threatens to take her horse. Margaret looks rattled by this, and Elsa confirms it in her narration, revealing Margaret now believes that John is the only hope in the family to make it into Heaven. Though Elsa says she didn’t have the heart to tell her mother, she believes the world they are in now is both Heaven and Hell, coexisting at the same time, and that God is the land.
1883 has truly found its stride. If there’s anything to nitpick is that Josef and the other immigrants have been so much on the sidelines lately; hope their storyline picks up a bit. But otherwise, “Lightning Yellow Hair” finds a way to balance pure entertainment (both humor and thrills) with impactful character moments, while also expanding the world with new characters. Top-notch TV right here.
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.