In its opening two episodes, 1883 proves itself very much in Taylor Sheridan’s wheelhouse, providing a growling prequel to Yellowstone that hits all the expected beats in style.
This recap of 1883 season 1, episode 1, “1883”, and 1883 season, episode 2, “Behind Us, A Cliff”, contains spoilers.
Virtually every film and TV show Taylor Sheridan has ever made has been a Western in one way or another. Some have horses and cattle, some don’t, but the framework is there all the same – drawling, macho men roaming the frontier (whether that’s the Montana wilderness, Ciudad Juárez under the thrall of Cartels, or a prison town in present-day Michigan) dispensing rough justice and growling earthy tough-guy wisdom. The time period is irrelevant. All the hallmarks remain.
1883, then, is the prequel to Yellowstone, in narrative terms, but it’s really just the next installment in Sheridan’s throwback oeuvre, with the same themes, the same cliches, the same advantages and disadvantages as everything else he makes, and presumably, everything he’ll ever make, content as he is to endlessly entertain dads and uncles who are sick of the state of the current media landscape and want to watch something transplanted directly from the “good old days”, whenever they were.
1883 season 1, episode 1 & 2 recap
Since I’m not a particularly serious critic, I’m typically an easy sell for this kind of thing, and even though I can appreciate why it’s divisive, it also feels like it’d be a waste of my time and yours to lament 1883 adhering too closely to the traditions of the Old West. That’s the point, isn’t it? That’s what the genre and Sheridan fans are both looking for; that’s what one expects from a show billed as a prequel to Yellowstone, sold on the promise of being the good, old-fashioned Western that Yellowstone is proudly a present-day version of. It’s enough to say that 1883 is everything you’ve come to expect from Taylor Sheridan, who’s playing a greatest hits compilation of arch macho melodrama on the Oregon Trail, and some of the characters have the surname Dutton.
Quite a few characters are Duttons, actually. James (Tim McGraw), the patriarch, has decided to drag his wife Margaret (Faith Hill), daughter Elsa (Isabel May), and son John (Audie Rick) to some unsettled ranching land in the middle of nowhere. Margaret is dragging her sister Claire (Dawn Olivieri) and Claire’s snooty daughter Mary (Emma Malouff) with them – the women and children arrive by train a little while after James has shown up in Ft. Worth, Texas, and proved his leading-man bona fides several times over by shooting outlaws and duffing up pickpockets and such. Interestingly, though, it’s his daughter Elsa who is the focus of an in medias res cold open – depicting Native Americans scalping people, obviously – and who subsequently picks up narration duties, teeing up plot beats and character turns and expressing profound wonderment over the landscape and the era, if we’re being frank, a distractingly overwritten way.
It’s Elsa’s story then, technically, for better and worse. I like the idea of someone other than the likeliest candidate being the real focal point, but I’m also not sure how well the device works in practice since by necessity the show must keep being about James anyway because all the interesting action happens to him. I also can’t say I trust Sheridan’s development of female characters – someone tries to rape Elsa in the very first episode, and in a laughably contrived way, and she brushes it off so easily that it’s obvious Sheridan isn’t totally sure about how to actually tell Elsa’s story beyond imperiling her for cheap thrills and having her flirt with cowboys.
But the setup to 1883 is a very promising one, even if it’s a classic. James, being the only remotely capable man in town, attracts the attention of Shea (Sam Elliott) and Thomas (LaMonica Garrett), two long-in-the-tooth Pinkerton agents who need help escorting a group of useless German immigrants to Oregon. James agrees to travel with them, along with his family, and the three enjoy every opportunity to teach these soft travelers the hard ways of the West. Elliott is particularly wonderful as a deeply wounded man having lost his family to tragedy, looking for an end on the plains, and he’s the weathered old heart of a show about a changing world that has little place for him anymore.
But even though change is very much at the backdrop of 1883, it’s really about how things stay the same; how the travelers will inevitably run afoul of every pitfall that the strong, capable men predicted they would, and how the worst of their impulses will divide them, and how the only way to survive this land is to learn and love it, as Sheridan so obviously does. His target audience is well-served here. His detractors, meanwhile, will have plenty to complain about, though admittedly nothing new.