A major obstacle leads to a leadership dispute in “River”, while some ill-advised decisions threaten the group.
This recap of 1883 season 1, episode 3, “River”, contains spoilers.
The third episode of 1883, “River”, is so-called because a major plot point revolves around the crossing of a river. That’s the literal aspect, anyway. But there’s a metaphorical component too, the idea of an impassable obstacle driving a wedge between two stubborn men who refuse to see things any other way but their own. On the side of caution and perhaps a degree of sympathy is Shea, who wants to head East to the ferry at Dennison. On the side of efficiency and pragmatism is James, who wants to head West, and accept the losses to their traveling party of immigrants as acceptable – or, perhaps, inevitable.
1883 season 1, episode 3 recap
That “River” opens with a montage of various immigrants being killed in several different ways, from being crushed by a wagon to being bitten by a rattlesnake, is no accident. The point being made is that this landscape is harsh and hostile, and these travelers aren’t prepared for it. Whichever direction is chosen, many of them will die. How to cross the Brazos River isn’t even the thing being argued over, really; the question is how many losses either man is willing to tolerate to get where they’re going.
There’s also the matter that, if the various perils of the environment don’t kill the travelers, then they might end up killing each other. One of the essential conflicts in this episode is that of Noemi (Gratiela Brancusi), a Romani woman, and the rest of the group, who stole all her supplies after the death of her husband in the previous episode’s bandit attack. Even as strangers in a strange land relying on the expertise and protection of others, there is still a hierarchy among these people, and Noemi sits at the bottom of it. When Shea, who rejects the woman’s advances but takes a shine to her nonetheless, confronts the men who stole her stuff, they’re bewildered when their explanation – “She’s a gypsy.” – doesn’t justify their behavior to him. He and Thomas beat them, release their horses, and expel them from the group.
The contradiction here is obvious. Shea is willing to leave behind anyone who violates his personal code of ethics, but he won’t budge on the river issue. That, because the idea of pressing West is being pushed by James, has become a matter of principle, not pragmatism. Later, it’s Thomas who points out that James might be right, and Shea might have to admit it. “They’re dying pretty good as it is, Captain. And we haven’t even left Texas yet.”
This is all tough for Shea to admit. “River” is very much about his headspace over the matter, and really his headspace in general, particularly in the way he deals with the brewing rebellion that manifests after he turfs out the men who robbed Noemi. Recounting his experiences during the Battle of the Wilderness, he explains: “I fired my rifle so many times the barrel melted, just drooped like rotten fruit. So I killed with my pistol, and when I ran out of bullets, I killed with my sword and when my sword broke, I killed with my boots and bare hands. When the battle was over, I looked behind me, and the wilderness was gone.” It’s a great monologue, but what he’s saying, really, is that his mercy is a gift to them. He wouldn’t lose any sleep over killing them, but he’s choosing not to in order to set an example. The question for later episodes to answer will be whether or not that decision comes back to spite everyone. “I think they’re gonna go to Fort Worth and get drunk. Talk about all these wagons going north, find some men a whole lot tougher than they are, and come back for all of us.”
On the subject of ill-advised decisions, the cowboy Ennis (Eric Nelsen) continues to court Elsa, even despite Margaret’s objections, and he even gets permission from James to continue his advances just so long as he doesn’t “break her heart” or “get handsy”. The fact that Ennis asks James to define “handsy” isn’t a good sign – as Margaret said earlier, “There’s no gentlemen where we are and none where we’re going.” She’s probably right. Then again, at this rate, they might not even get where they’re going to find out.