Brutal, tense, and ultimately melancholy, “Racing Clouds” is one of 1883‘s finest episodes.
This recap of 1883 season 1, episode 9, “Racing Clouds”, contains spoilers.
A double dose of bad luck opens “Racing Clouds”, and the idea that there will be plenty more down the road is never far away. First, Josef’s wife, Risa, falls off her horse thanks to a rattlesnake, and then Josef himself is bitten by the snake. Then, the group happens upon a Native American camp and finds the women and children violated and butchered by, presumably, horse thieves. The problem is that the group’s tracks lead right to the site of the massacre, so when the men of the tribe return, they’re going to start hunting them.
1883 season 1, episode 9 recap
This is the penultimate episode of 1883, and it’s here that you can really feel the show catching up to that cold open in which Elsa, in a bloodstained white dress, seemed to be on verge of violent death at the hands of the Natives. When Margaret forces her to don that same dress so that the people in nearby(ish) Fort Caspar don’t get spooked by the sight of her dressed as a cowboy, her attire and the death of the Native camp spell out pretty clearly that the tail is about to reach the head.
Meanwhile, James, Thomas, and Shea have a plan to kill the horse thieves and deliver their scalps to the Natives in order to prove they weren’t responsible. They find them quickly and kill them, but while they’re away, the Native men return to camp and find their families butchered. They immediately set out to take their revenge, and the first person they come across is Cookie, trying to reach the fort. They run him down and kill him, and then set about the rest of the group, chasing Elsa on horseback and circling the immigrants’ wagons. Wade, Colton, and Margaret try to lead a counter-attack, but it’s hopeless. Elsa tries to lead the horsemen away from the wagons, but that’s hopeless too. The action cuts away before we see what happens, but it isn’t looking good.
When Elsa opens her eyes she sees fire. The horses are dead, as are most of the people. But the camera lingers on Elsa in close-up, only letting us glimpse the carnage reflected in her damp eyes. It’s a clever way to root the action in personal terms. And just like that, we’ve caught up to the beginning. The Natives round up the survivors and scalp them. Elsa plucks a gun from one of the corpses and manages to kill a couple before taking an arrow in the gut. When she explains who she is, who her husband is, and where her father is, she’s laughed at but left alive.
The aftermath of the carnage is arguably more quietly brutal than the carnage itself: Colton having to execute a hysterical woman, her brain exposed from the scalping; Elsa having the arrow removed and the entry and exit wounds cauterized. When James, Thomas, and Shea run into the Natives on the way back, their leader tells James that Elsa stopped the war they were making on his people, but is blase about having made that war in the first place, explaining how the tracks led from his dead family right back to the convoy. What else were they to do? This is a lawless land. When James explains that he killed the horse thieves, and left the bodies of the Natives untouched because he doesn’t know their Gods and rules, he’s told that their God “has no rules”, just like everything and everyone else on the trail.
When Shea finds a frantic Colton still digging that woman’s grave, Sam Elliott gets to deliver enough killer speech about what’s decent out here, and how the people themselves are the gauge for that — they have to do what they think is right, and then stand by it. With no rules to abide by, this is the only way to maintain some semblance of order and meaning.
“Racing Clouds” delivers a terribly emotional scene between James and Margaret, when the former lays out the real ramifications of a filthy arrowhead through the liver. Elsa is going to die. And while Margaret doesn’t want to accept it, James is adamant because it matters to him that she doesn’t die delirious in Fort Caspar, surrounded by strangers. She has to see every sunrise and sunset between now and the moment she dies, and James and Margaret will lie to her the whole while, they will tell her she’s fine until she isn’t anymore. And where she dies, that’s where they’ll settle; that’s where they’ll call home.