What to Watch Verdict
After a so-so first half, "Racing Clouds" is paid off with a strong, potentially series-changing ending.
A fantastic final 30 minutes
Lots of exciting questions heading into the season finale
Josef and the other immigrants feel inconsequential again
This review contains spoilers for 1883 season 1 episode 9, "Racing Clouds." Catch up with What to Watch’s previous recaps for 1883 season 1 here.
The first scene of 1883’s episode 1 premiere was Elsa (Isabel May) waking during an attack by a tribe of Native Americans — a flashforward glimpse of the dangers that lay in store for these characters. Well, after eight episodes the bill is due — and the narrative catches up with this moment in "Racing Clouds."
Things pick up as the wagon train moves on from the plains but, as Elsa points out in her narration, the land is no less forgiving. "This place doesn’t want inhabitants at all … This land hates. It hates us," she says. On cue, a rattlesnake pops out, causes Josef’s wife Risa (Anna Fiamora) to be thrown from her horse and then bites Josef (Marc Rissmann). They need medical attention, but that’s only part of the problem.
Dutton (Tim McGraw), Shea (Sam Elliott) and Thomas (LaMonica Garrett) find a group of murdered Lakota women and children. They know Lakota warriors will come searching for the people responsible and, now that their tracks are at the scene, they’ll likely be blamed unless they can find the killers. The trio agrees to hunt down the murderers themselves.
Before riding off, Dutton tells the wagon train to stay put. Cookie (James Jordan) has other ideas, heading to the nearest fort for protection. With the fort also having the benefit of a doctor, the immigrants decide to go with them. This forces Margaret (Faith Hill) to take Elsa and John (Audie Rick) with the rest of the wagon train. Before they leave, Margaret tells Elsa to put on a dress — the white dress she puts on is recognizable as the one from the flashforward scene.
Dutton, Shea and Thomas find the murderers, who admit they killed the Lakotas to draw the warriors out and kill them too. They won’t get the chance. Dutton, Shea and Thomas, despite being outnumbered, easily kill them all.
As we head back to the wagon train, the episode kicks into high gear. Cookie starts to pull ahead, which is a problem since he’s the only one who knows where they’re going. Elsa rides up to tell him to slow down but finds that his wagon has been set on fire by the Lakota warriors, who have caught up with them. After killing Cookie they chase after Elsa. Wade (James Landry Hébert) tells the wagons to circle up and get ready to fight — a few scatter though. Elsa decides to ride away from the circled wagons to draw some Lakotas away. But she doesn’t get too far, as a Lakota swings a club at her and the scene cuts to black.
The next scene plays out almost identically to the opening moments of the first episode — Elsa wakes, gets a gun and kills a Lakota but is shot with an arrow in the process. She continues shooting at the other warriors even though it’s clear she can’t kill them all. What's new is that as they are about to kill her she speaks some of the Comanche that Sam taught her, which stops the Lakotas. Elsa explains what happened with their families and that her father is after the men responsible. The Lakotas accept this answer and leave.
Margaret, Wade and Noemi (Gratiela Brancusi) help remove the arrow from Elsa's arm, while Colton (Noah Le Gros) looks for any other survivors. He finds one, a woman who has been scalped but is still alive and screaming. He says aloud that she deserves peace and shoots her, then immediately starts digging her grave. Shea finds him later, distraught, but tells him whether right or wrong he has to stand by his decision.
Dutton ran into the Lakotas and both sides filled each other in on what has happened. He watches over his wounded daughter, explaining that the danger for her is getting an infection, the key sign being her having a fever. Though Elsa says she feels fine, Dutton talks with Margaret and is brutally honest with his wife — Elsa is going to die. He says they will leave the wagon train and keep her alive as long as they can (opting not to go to a doctor so she can enjoy her final days rather than be doped up). Wherever she passes away will be the place the family settles. Dutton promises Margaret that he will find a place worthy of this decision.
The next morning, Elsa says she feels a little feverish, but Margaret tells her she is fine, not even attempting to put any kind of restrictions on her daughter. If that wasn’t a red flag enough, Elsa says in narration that looking at her father she can tell by his look — she knows she is going to die.
The first half of "Racing Clouds" is all about getting us to the back half of the episode — even making Josef and his wife an afterthought almost immediately (one of 1883’s most consistent issues). That back half, though, presents what could be a massive change for 1883 before it heads into its newly ordered season 2. Will the show pull a Game of Thrones and kill one of its main characters this early? If they do, where will the show go from there? There are some exciting options in-store, for viewers, that will make the wait for the season finale even more difficult.
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.