Starring: Isabel May, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Sam Elliott, LaMonica Garrett
Mood: If you want to know what it would be like if Taylor Sheridan turned the Oregon Trail computer game into an epic Western family saga.
Taylor Sheridan is doing what no one in their right mind ever would have thought possible, and making mad bank on the Western genre in 2022. Back in season 1 of Yellowstone, could you have imagined THREE spinoff series? And the best part is that 1883 is really f*cking good.
This show has taken me through every single emotion in the past week. I laughed. I cried. I didn’t hurl, but I did feel queasy in the final episode’s amputation scenes.
I was expecting something very Yellowstone, like the O.G. cowboy mafia: lots of bloody revenge killings over land and cattle. Instead, what you get is an unflinchingly authentic piece of heart-wrenching pioneer storytelling – and it’s narrated by a teenage girl.
It’s a huge departure from Yellowstone’s political drama for sure, and yet the theme of family still rings true. The tough, weather-beaten Duttons of 1883 will reach their goals or die trying, just like the vicious, privileged Duttons of the current Yellowstone Ranch. You don’t need to have watched Yellowstone to enjoy it, either. There’s just an added layer of reward in the later episodes for those who have seen it.
I can pick little holes in 1883 (and I will), but honestly I’m obsessed with this show. It delivers every single thing I want and need from the genre.
1883 takes Yellowstone fans way back to when a different Dutton family patriarch, James Dutton (Tim McGraw), embarked on a fateful journey West from Tennessee to seek a new land – and a new life for his family.
But what it opens with is actually a scene from the end of the season – a young blonde woman wakes up on the ground as Native men on horseback circle the remains of burning wagons, the girl gets up and runs for a gun off a dead body, and as she shoots one of the Native men he shoots HER with an arrow.
Right away you know this show isn’t f*cking around.
From his first scenes, James Dutton is shown to be extremely capable at defending his family. His wife, Margaret (Faith Hill), is no delicate flower either. The trouble is that their 18-year-old daughter, Elsa (Isabel May), is a magnet for danger and the Oregon Trail is already hazardous enough. James agrees to throw in with ex-army men Shea (Sam Elliott) and Thomas (LaMonica Garrett) as they guide a wagon train of immigrants from Texas to Oregon.
Despite the diary-like narration by young Elsa as she rebels against all things ladylike by galloping around on horseback, this is no horse girl rom-com. Elsa is charmingly wild, but neither she nor anybody on that wagon train is prepared for the wilds beyond the Texas border.
Every episode is full of frontier life misery: wagon accidents, river drownings, dysentery, snake bites, harsh weather, and bandit attacks. White people and fellow immigrants are the first threats, well before you meet the first Native characters halfway through the season. This delay surprised me, given that Indigenous characters make up such a huge portion of the modern Yellowstone story, but it does give you lots of time to think about how it’s a miracle anybody survived the Wild West.
Will any of them make it to Oregon? The season pushes bravely onward, and the Oregon Trail’s pile of wagon and human bones grows larger with every passing day.
There are so many great performances in 1883, I’m actually afraid I won’t do them all justice. I legit didn’t expect to be so blown away by a cast of people when faced with the glory of Sam Elliott and his moustache, yet here we are.
At first I was almost a bit offended that the top-billed stars were Tim McGraw and Faith Hill. I was like, what, being a country singer now qualifies you to lead a historic Western series? Were there no real actors?
I didn’t know they’d both done movies, give me a break.
But I’m here to say that they both blew my mind. Their on-screen chemistry, aided by their real-life marriage, is fantastic. McGraw is absolute perfection as James Dutton. There’s no hint of country superstar in this fully realized performance – it’s pure, raw Western greatness, much like his massive Western beard.
And guess what? Faith Hill is also pure perfection. While McGraw is all stoic man of action, Hill gives you a whole other kind of true grit. Some moments she’s a vulnerable mother, others she’s a tough pioneer who will defend her family to the death. She has 100% made my list of the top women in Westerns.
Isabel May busted her ass before shooting started to learn her accent and learn horsemanship, and even though sometimes the accent was questionable and so is her Western riding, she makes up for it with her authenticity. May is shockingly talented at delivering what doesn’t feel like acting, and I dare you to watch her cry and not find yourself bawling along with her.
Sam Elliott is commanding from his first scenes, delivering a deeply wounded man who has to bury his wife and daughter and starts most days debating whether to kill himself. He can be brutally gruff, but his eyes always tell you that it comes from a place of trying to do right by people. Throughout the season his character also reveals dedication, kindness, and soul.
LaMonica Garrett has perfect chemistry with Elliott, to the point that their relationship feels symbiotic. Where Elliott often seems angry or mean, Garrett gives you a quiet, approachable man who balances his partner’s tirades with calm logic and empathy. He’s a Black man who has faced countless challenges, seen war, and is still trying to help others.
Even the supporting cast of 1883 is totally f*cking brilliant.
- Marc Rissmann excels as the unlikely leader of the immigrants, starting out cowardly but growing into a role of impressive perseverance
- James Landry Hébert and Eric Nelsen are achingly memorable in what could have been basic supporting roles as trailhands
- Martin Sensmeier is utterly disarming as Sam; I could watch that man ride a horse across a field for days
- Dawn Olivieri is so righteous as Claire Dutton that it’s painful to watch, because it’s completely realistic
- Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Hanks contribute strong cameos, especially Mr. Thornton
- I waited all damn season long to see Canadian icon Graham Greene make his appearance, which was an appropriately warm (brief) sidebar in the wholly depressing final episode
I have a long-standing issue with annoying kids bringing down Westerns, so it pleases me to say that Audie Rick is IMMENSELY more enjoyable as the Dutton family’s kiddo (he plays John Dutton Sr.) than Brecken Merrill is in Yellowstone.
1883 is a roller coaster mix of love and sadness, death and hope. And the production value is here every f*cking step of the way. From gritty closeups of dirt and snot and sweat and smallpox, to wide scenic shots of empty plains, galloping horseback chases to intense human pain, it’s all captured extremely well.
The score is powerful. The extras are all as committed to their roles as the main actors. It’s just an excellent piece of Western cinema all around.
Episode 2 gives you this Tombstone vibe when Sam Elliott and Billy Bob Thornton gather a posse, and they walk slo-mo down the main street of town, ready to take down their prey.
The storytelling is also on point. I mean, I was a little doubtful about how quickly everyone accepted Elsa wearing pants, riding with cowboys, and waking up naked next to the men getting ready to ride out after she clearly slept with a Native man… but I wasn’t there on every wagon train. Maybe at a certain point you just focused on survival.
And if you want to get technical, okay, there’s a scene where they round up ‘wild’ horses and several are wearing halters. That bugged me, and felt lazy.
But in the final episode, if you can see through your damn tears, you find out why the Dutton ranch is located where it is. There’s a great piece of prequel foreshadowing about the Duttons and their Indigenous neighbours, which pays off so well for anyone who loves Yellowstone and plans to keep watching both series.
Although apparently 1883 won’t actually be a series. Taylor Sheridan wanted to tell that story and feels that it’s done. We should instead shift focus to the next chapter in Dutton family history, 1923, and to 1883: The Bass Reeves Story, which is about the famous Black lawman and not the Duttons at all.
Fingers crossed for at least one more success.