1883 season 1, episode 5 recap – “The Fangs of Freedom”

By Jonathon Wilson
Published: January 16, 2022
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1883 season 1, episode 5 recap - "The Fangs of Freedom"


The road only gets harder for the travellers in “The Fangs of Freedom”, as another character falls to the perils of the West.

This recap of 1883 season 1, episode 5, “The Fangs of Freedom”, contains spoilers.

Elsa has always provided the narration in 1883, but “The Fangs of Freedom” is the first episode that really feels as if it’s about her, despite being about many more things besides. As she says herself by the hour’s end, having experienced a profound sense of loss for the first time in her life, she has lost her own eyes and sees through her mother’s now; a vision of the world no longer filtered through a lens of childlike naivete and innocence. For much of its runtime this is typical coming-of-age stuff, though admittedly playing on fast-forward, but its ending is a reminder of how, like the immigrants traveling the long, hard road to Oregon, we’re in different, more dangerous territory here.

1883 season 1, episode 5 recap

Following the river crossing, which cost many lives, the travelers are suffering from the loss of not just their family and friends but most of their supplies. The survivors are starving, and if they stop moving, they’ll be killed by the elements, the wildlife, or the bandits rapidly approaching behind them. The hard part is only just beginning – this land is lawless, and there’s a steep price to pay for the freedom it offers.

The first impulse of the immigrants, through Josef, is to blame the leadership. But Shea and Thomas remind him that they haven’t been working together, they haven’t been listening to instruction, and that, technically, it’s Josef who’s the real leader. He must act like one, which means stamping out the lingering thievery in the group – again. This whole sequence does feel reiterative of the earlier one in which basically the same thing happened, but Sam Elliot is just so good in this role that I could watch him smack people around and threaten to kill them all day. Also, his earlier conversation with Thomas about his pain over how many widows and orphans they’re creating on the journey is wonderful. His, “The hell I didn’t,” when Thomas claims he never shed any tears for the many soldiers who marched to their deaths during the war, is delivered perfectly.

But, as mentioned at the top, the bulk of “The Fangs of Freedom” is about Elsa and her relationship with Ennis. As Margaret realizes, she’s becoming a woman, and quickly – she’s going to have some serious decisions to make, and if she doesn’t make the right ones, she’s going to have to be prepared to face the consequences herself. A lot of this relates to sex, but it’s really about the larger issue of her being headstrong and impulsive in a place where such things can change your life forever, at best, or get you killed at worst. Of course, Elsa doesn’t heed Margaret’s warnings and has sex with Ennis that very night and proposes to him the next day. Even when James gives Ennis a slapping – the whole camp knows they slept together because they weren’t subtle about it – they’re so adamant about their love that James has no real choice but to accept it.

Plus, there’s also the matter of the bandits. All throughout the episode, a gang of highwaymen get closer and closer to the travelers until their exploits attract the attention of James, Shea, and Thomas, who take Ennis and Wade with them to trap the robbers, using Josef and his wife as bait. The latter earns his stripes, and his wife, after being forced to commit murder, bellowing about the horrors of this place that was supposed to provide a better life for them is particularly striking.

When James, Shea, Thomas, and Wade arrive, they force the bandits in the direction of the camp, where Margaret and some of the others are waiting with shotguns. The last of them heads towards the cattle, and Ennis heroically rides out to protect Elsa. Naturally, he’s shot dead. In the aftermath of the battle, Elsa is so devastated by his death that she executes his killer and then lays down with his corpse, sobbing, forever changed.

The point is the same as it always is – these things are going to happen. They’re going to continue to happen. They can’t be prevented, even for all the teamwork, skills, and love in the world. The most experienced fighters among the group couldn’t dispatch the bandits without losses; Ennis’s heart being full of love for Elsa didn’t stop a bullet ripping through it. It’s a bleak theme, but at least it’s an honest one. As Shea has consistently reiterated, the worst is yet to come. One must wonder quite how much worse it can get.

You can stream 1883 season 1, episode 5, “The Fangs of Freedom”, exclusively on Paramount+.

Paramount+, TV, Weekly TV
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