“This Is Not Your Heaven” delivers a beautiful, melancholy finale, as 1883 reaches a bittersweet conclusion.
This recap of 1883 season 1, episode 10, “This is Not Your Heaven”, contains spoilers, including for 1883’s ending.
The journey isn’t over, but it feels like it is. Across countless miles, several states, and ten high-quality episodes, 1883 has dragged a party of pioneers through Hell and then some. Most of them are dead. The rest are dying. At this point, Oregon or Montana are meaningless, far-flung concepts, just somewhere to plant an anonymous headstone. A feverish Elsa contemplates all this in narration as the group finally arrives at Fort Caspar. She has enough energy to sass the young boys who insist she states her business when she arrives, but she promptly collapses and falls from her horse. It’s a reminder that along with everyone else, the show’s most beloved character is also dying.
1883 season 1, episode 10 recap
Elsa’s fate isn’t ambiguous. Sometimes, there are a couple of suggestions that she might make it, perhaps if this were a typical show, but they’re always quickly quashed. Fort Caspar has been abandoned and is running a skeleton crew, but the man who remains in charge reiterates that she doesn’t have long. Another nearby fort might have more medical supplies and personnel, but it’s likely none of that will help. As James says to Shea a little after, when the liver is damaged, it either fails or it doesn’t, and if it doesn’t, that’s only an extra week for the rest of you to die. The question stops being if Elsa will die and starts being if she’ll make it to a place she’s happy with before she does.
Speed is of the essence either way since the fort is owned by a ranch whose owner was the employer of those deputies the group killed a while back. If they stick around, they’ll likely be hung. As ever, nobody can agree on the direction. Many of the immigrants want to head straight to Oregon rather than camp out the winter as Shea suggests. From this point, they’re willing to go alone. Wade and Colton, without cattle to drive, leave too. They say their goodbyes to Elsa, and she dares to imagine a happy fate for the two of them, but can’t imagine it’ll be anything other than two more headstones on the Oregon Trail. From what she’s seen of life, and what she knows of man, it’s basically inevitable.
Inevitable! That’s the word that hangs over “This Is Not Your Heaven”, a deeply melancholy finale in which all of these things happen despite how much everyone would prefer they didn’t. The immigrants who go their own way are raped, robbed, and killed. Josef, who was snakebitten in the previous episode, watches his infected leg get bigger and yellower until everyone gets him drunk and pins him down while Thomas hacks it off. As he heals, he cuddles up to his wife and finds her dead.
Elsa’s death becomes a ticking-clock device. When the group runs into some more Natives, their elder insists that Elsa be seen to by his tribe, and while she’s bathed in the ice-cold water of the creek and broiled by hot stones and steam, it does little for her. As he explains to James, the Lakota dip their arrowheads in manure to ensure a kill. One of those through the liver is death, plain and simple. She has less time to live than it’ll take the wagons to travel into Montana, to Paradise Valley, where the Native elder tells James to go. It’s harsh land, but promising land for a man who plans, land that can be built on. The elder warns James that in seven generations people will rise to reclaim it, but as James says, in seven generations, they can have it. It will have fulfilled its purpose.
So, James takes Elsa there. But since he gave Elsa his word that she could pick the spot she died in, that means leaving Margaret and John behind — news that, in a rare moment of weakness, James asks Shea to break for him. These two have come a long way since the start of the season, and their warm understanding makes for a touching moment, vulnerability finally breaking through the machismo. Shea asks, and Margaret accepts it, and she sees goodbye to her daughter. James takes her to the valley where the Yellowstone Dutton ranch will eventually be built, and they sit against a tree together, sharing their earliest memories. Eventually, Elsa dies, but moments before she slips away she says she understands, and she isn’t afraid.
It’s one year later. Some things have changed, and some haven’t. Josef survived his amputation and is now alive but alone. Perhaps he’ll never quite get where he’s truly going. Thomas, Noemi, and her children make it to Oregon, and when they get there, with the journey finally over, her kids speak to her again, as Thomas predicted they would. And Shea makes it to the beach. As he sits on the sand and stares tearfully out at the ocean, a hummingbird flutters close to his face. As the camera pans away, he shoots himself.
We end as we began every episode — with Elsa’s narration, this time from beyond the grave, from the plains of her personal heaven, where she and Sam race across the open land and the sky is cloudless, and the sun is beaming, and the only lightning is her.