"“I remember the first time I saw it. Tried to find words to describe it. But I couldn’t. Nothing had prepared me, no books, no teachers, not even my parents. I heard a thousand stories but none could describe this place. It must be witnessed to be understood. And yet... I’ve seen it, and understand it even less than before I first cast eyes on this place. Some call it the American Desert. Others the Great Plains. But those phrases were invented by professors at universities surrounded by the illusion of order and the fantasy of right and wrong. To know it you must walk it. Bleed into its dirt. Drown in its river. Then its name becomes clear. It is hell, and there are demons everywhere.”"- Elsa Dutton
The first episode of 1883 starts off with battle cries surrounding Elsa. In the background is a raging fire. A native is down on the ground plunged with arrows. Elsa is clearly upset and stands in a rage. They either want to sell her or kill her. She by no means accepts the option and pulls out her gun. Firing at every last one she can. In the process, she is struck with an arrow straight through her abdomen.
"“But if this is hell, and I’m in it..then I must be a demon too. And I’m already dead.”"- Elsa
Isabel May does a fabulous job narrating 1883. We see 1883 in her character's eyes. Her experience and even her burden. She may be young but she holds one of the strongest stories for the line of the Dutton family.
Quickly we meet Shea Brennan (Sam Elliott) who is sitting outside his house, rattled with the devastation of losing his entire family to smallpox. He lays his daughter and wife side by side in bed and that’s where they remain in history. Setting his home ablaze with his deceased family in it. He stands there watching as we see a flashforward of the cowboy who now works as a high-ranking member of the Pinkerton Detective Agency.
To know Shea is to know Thomas (LaMonica Garrett) who works closely with him for the Pinkerton Detective Agency and is set out to team up with Shea to guide a European group across the Oregon Trail. Thomas was a former slave at just 12 years old who then joined the United States Army as a Buffalo soldier. Shea Brennan was the captain of his division and now he works alongside Shea as his secondhand man but you can sense the relationship between them is equal.
We have the privilege of meeting James Dutton (Tim McGraw) he is being gunned down by a group of bandits as Thomas and Shea watch on from the high ground. He gets out of trouble unscathed with no help from Beau or Thomas and James has no problem on letting them know his annoyance over their lack of help.
In his wagon, he is carrying precious cargo for his family’s future and it becomes evident quickly that James is no ordinary farmer. Highly skilled with guns in a combat situation. He makes his way to the tall grass and takes out the bandits one by one. Shea and Thomas are more than impressed and know they could use a man like that out on the trail. Being saddled with transporting these inexperienced immigrants would not be easy.
From the start, we can already see just how intelligent Shea is. Right when James was going to make the mistake of taking the bandits' horses Shea tells him to let them go. Anyone connected to those bandits could recognize them and go after him which will only lead to more fighting. That is the quick wit of Shea which you will see throughout the episode.
1883 Episode 1: Welcome to Forth Worth
James is waiting in a rough town for his family to arrive in a place called Hell’s Half Acre in Fort Worth in the great state of Texas. This is a tough no-nonsense farmer who takes no kind of business from anyone. We see that right off the bat when he becomes the victim of a pick-pocketing scheme. He wastes no time in getting his wallet back walking through the group already on their way to ending the thief’s life. Gunfire quickly ensues but James just walks away unphased by it all. Not caring what they did to him almost as if he already knew his fate. There was no place for thievery in this world.
Prior to that event, we can see James is a stand-up man giving no care about the prostitutes who try to hit on him. This town is everything you think of when you think of the Wild West.
1883 Episode 1: What have I gotten myself into?
Shea Brennan is not impressed with this group of Europeans in the slightest. Only one of them can speak English and that man’s name is Josef(Marc Rissmann). Along with his wife, their goal is to make it across to Oregon and settle a life there. Shea doesn’t actually think a single one of them will be able to make it across the trail. For the moment none of the immigrants carry a gun because it’s against their laws according to Josef. But this is the Wild West and if you want to survive shooting is one thing you have to learn. There is danger at every turn, and not just from people.
Shea already knows the numbers are getting stacked against him with this job. They are unprepared and ill-equipped. He knows they will need to bring in more qualified people to help protect them because at this moment he has no faith in this group. He tells them it would be better to either stay in Texas or take a train to Portland, but they have exceeded all their funds and Josef knows they wouldn’t last in this Texas dry heat. They are accustomed to the mountains and not made for them.
As James is trying to enjoy his supper after a stressful day of trying to protect his belongings, in comes Shea and Thomas again. This was never going to start well but Shea is a very confident man. Thomas and Shea both explain that they need some help getting these people across the trail and they like the way that James can handle himself. Soon they are questioning James about what he’s doing and where he’s going. The farmer is not too keen on answering. He’s a guarded man and trusts nobody but his family.
James does reveal his goal is to go up North in search of a nice place to settle for his family. Which is something that Shea can understand and respect. Shea offers for them to help each other. You scratch my back and I scratch yours.
Soon we see the rest of James’ family on a train car making their way to him. Among those are Margaret Dutton(Faith Hill) their young son John and the beautiful Elsa Dutton (Isabel May). Joining them is James' sister Claire who has sarcastically put a breath of fresh air, along with her protege daughter Mary. They are not impressed with Elsa at all who seems to come off as a spoiled entitled brat in their eyes.
When we first meet Elsa she’s entertaining the flirting of a much older man. Though common in those days it comes off as very creepy but fortunately shows you just how much times have changed. Margaret finally catches up to her wild child daughter and gives the man a piece of her mind aka several hits for his despicable behavior.
Finally, the train comes to a stop and we see the Dutton family reunion. Elsa of course decides not to exit the train as a lady would and wastes no time bear-hugging her father. You can see the deep and loving relationship between the two of them. She by no means has any daddy issues.
We quickly see the rapport between real life and the fictional husband and wife of Margaret and John (Faith Hill and Tim McGraw). Sweetness, sarcasm, and love. Margaret’s first words to her husband are that is your daughter. Of course, Claire’s dark and cruel humor is not as impressed with her brother but you can tell there is some love there. Somewhere deep deep down. Claire is someone who has dealt with a lot of loss and that may be the reason for her snide demeanor. When James remarks the words that he is sorry for the loss of her husband, “He was a patient man.” Tells you all you need to know about Claire.
1883 Episode 1: Chaos continues in Fort Worth
The family is soon at the Calhoun Hotel in Fort Worth. James and Margaret share some much needed adult time in their room but the loving doesn’t last long when Elsa finds herself in trouble. A drunken man enters Elsa’s room and tries to rape her, drunk or not that’s the last thing the man ever did in life. James shoots him just in the nick of time.
Shea warns the Europeans about the dangers they will be facing along the way. It’s not just bandits and horrible people they will come across along their journey. It’s going to be perilous the entire way battling the elements of the weather, the land, and the animals. Josef basically becomes the leader of the immigrants as he’s the only one who can speak English and be the go-between between them and Shea and Thomas.
Ultimately, James does decide to accept Shea’s offer and join forces to keep his family protected. As much as he wanted to do it all on his own he was starting to learn that he can’t be everywhere at once. He still didn’t trust these men yet but his family’s safety was his main concern. He couldn’t let another instance happen like what did at the hotel with Elsa.
Not only will they have to battle all the elements but they are already battling disease before the trip even begins. They have to kick out a couple who contracted smallpox. It’s highly contagious and Shea knows that all too well. He knows the devastation it causes.
Soon but Shea and Thomas are moving their group out and James is moving his group out. They will eventually meet up down the ride but it’s time to set off on the great Oregon Trail.