As 1883 opens, it’s the Dutton daughter’s voice that brings us into this beautiful yet harsh and unforgiving world. Her words, written by the show’s creator, Taylor Sheridan, offer telling timestamps on the toll the Westward Expansion took on hopeful travelers.
Season 1, Episode 1: ‘1883’
In the series premiere, Elsa Dutton begins the show with her now-iconic monologue. It houses some of 1883‘s best quotes, to boot:
“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 witness to be understood. And yet, I’ve seen it. And I understand it less than when I first cast eyes on this place.
“Some called 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. Bleed until it’s dark. Drown in its rivers. Then its name becomes clear. It is Hell. And there are demons everywhere.”
“But if this is Hell, then I must be a demon, too. And I’m already dead.”
Then, Elsa ends the premiere by summarizing the dreams of her father, James Dutton (Tim McGraw):
“The road West is filled with failures. But failure isn’t what drove him. It was a dream. And the dream was coming true.”
‘1883’ Season 1, Episode 2: ‘Behind Us, A Cliff’
“Freedom is running wild through untamed land.”
As we catch up with Elsa in Episode 2, the young woman is still wildly hopeful for the journey ahead.
“The world here plays parlor tricks on your senses. I do not know what the word Texas means. But to me it means magic.”
“It seems even the trees are new to this place; scattered about in clusters like little villages. And everywhere: treasures. Everywhere a bounty just waiting to be scooped up.”
“18-years ago on this day, Lee surrendered to Grant in the home of Wilmer McClean in the village of Appomattox. A year later, I was born. It was Monday, April 9, 1883. And it was my birthday.”
“I looked to the right and saw my father somehow riding vertically towards the earth. Beyond him, cowboys and cattle pushed towards us; dust following them like a cloudy shadow. The light was soft and pale and pink, like God had decided to light this day with candles. And the whole of Texas spread out before me. It was the most magnificent thing I had ever seen.”
Then, Elsa ends 1883‘s second episode with a stirring reflection of the changing times.
“What began as a journey had become a retreat into the unknown. We were backing into the abyss; so worried our sins would follow us we didn’t bother watching where we walked. And behind us was a cliff.”
Season 1, Episode 3: ‘River’
By Episode 3, Elsa’s narration takes a darker turn as she witnesses the horrors of 1883‘s Westward Expansion.
“Death is everywhere on the prairie. In every form you can imagine. And a few your worst nightmare couldn’t muster.”
“Death hides in creek beds. Possesses animals. It hides in tall grass, waiting. With every death, our father moved camp a little further away. As if death was not the result of accidents and disease, but death was its own disease. And carelessness was contagious.”
“But of all the perils awaiting us – sickness and snakes, bad horses and bandits – there was one thing above all that sent terror through both man and beast… There was one word so feared it was barely spoken and barely whispered… River.”
Moments of levity still captivate her young mind, however. As Elsa watches her mother, Margaret (Faith Hill) herd cattle, she sees her as a woman – not solely a mother – for the first time:
“I watched her ride and I didn’t see my mother. I saw a woman. And the woman was magnificent.”
Season 1, Episode 4: ‘The Crossing’
“I knew that war. That war between what you should become, and what you could become.”
Elsa’s narration matures as the episodes do themselves. Episode 4 shows us a young lady on the cusp of womanhood; a transition that would fully take place by 1883‘s Episode 5.
“I had abandoned every memory of Tennessee as if I was born on this journey. But I wasn’t. We were leaving a place, and seeking another. And the journey was a necessary, miserable road between the two. Somehow I felt immune to the dangers of this place. As if the land and I had struck a deal. I could pass on heart so long as I loved it. And I did. I loved everything about it.
Through it all, Elsa Dutton’s most poignant 1883 quotes speak to the truth of man’s relationship with nature.
“But crossing the Brazos taught me there was no deal. No matter how much we love it, the land will never love us back.”
‘1883’ Season 1, Episode 5: ‘The Fangs of Freedom’
“We are in the land of no mercy now.”
By Episode 5’s end, Elsa Dutton is a changed person. To her mother, and some extent herself, she is a woman now. A woman changed by the heartbreaks of 1883‘s harsh reality.
“I think cities have weakened us as a species. There are no consequences there. Step into the streets without looking and the carriage merely stops or swerves; the only consequence an angry driver. But here? There can be no mistakes. Because here doesn’t care. The river doesn’t care if you can swim. The snake doesn’t care how much you love your children. And the wolf has no interest in your dreams. If you fail to beat the current, you will drown; if you get too close, you will be bitten. If you are too weak, you will be eaten.”
As Elsa and the man she’s come to love, Ennis (Eric Nelsen), become one, fate would reveal it had other plans.
“The whole world faded away. No stars or moon, no sky at all. No earth between my feet; no rock against my back. There was only us.”
‘Today My Eyes Died’
The tragic death of Ennis is the turning point for Elsa. A whimsical, hopeful child becomes a hardened, wary woman.
“I’d known death since I was a child. It’s everywhere. But it had never touched me. It had never placed it rotten finger on my heart. Until today. Today my eyes died. I see the world through my mother’s eyes now. Yes, freedom has fangs. And it sunk them in me. I chose to love him. He chose to love me back. Then chose to protect me. Then a man we’ve never met chose to kill him. And made me colorblind.”
“Maybe killing this man will get my eyes back. Maybe it won’t. But I chose to find out.”
With these words and brilliant 1883 quotes, the rest of Elsa Dutton‘s life begins.
‘1883’ Season 1, Episode 6, ‘Boring the Devil’
Then, in “Boring the Devil,” 1883 indulges Elsa’s heartbreak through new experiences.
“We moved towards Dome’s Crossing and the Red River, and tragedy’s next opportunity to ravage what’s left of us. My mother says the pain will fade and the good memories return. I suppose that’s true. Every person on this planet will endure this pain, until they are the cause of it for another. Someday I’ll die and shatter hearts, too. But that is not today. Today I am living. And I am a shadow.”
Learning to move on from Ennis’ tragic death, Elsa begins to open up to the world again by Episode 6’s end.
“We were leaving Texas, entering the Indian territory and redefining our meaning of unknown. Far from the cities that have paved the world away, and the farms which had turned it into a resource. We were no longer under the cloud of civilization. Only sky above us now. No more walking over bridges. Out here, we swim horseback through rivers. There is nowhere to chain love to vows and ceremony. Out here, love burns through you like a fever. And when the devil comes to strip that love from you, there is no funeral or song or speeches that dull our senses and deaden our hearts. Out here, you turn towards the pain as it tears into you. And you let it. When you do, the devil gets bored. He sees another soul to eat.
“And you get to live again.”
‘1883’ Season 1, Episode 7, ‘Lightning Yellow Hair’
With the Duttons firmly out into the Wild West, Elsa’s eyes open to the truth of nature and horrors of man.
“The best way to know if land is truly undiscovered is to seek words to describe it. When you can’t, you know it’s virgin land. Untouched by our dirty hands. To see it is to be silenced by it. Made speechless by its endless uniformity… One must read the sun and stars like a sailor to navigate this place. We’ve seen nothing but grass for over a week. No grass, no birds. No snakes. Not even a lizard. And no evidence the human race still exists. But the plains are littered with bones.
“The dirty man of hand can go unnoticed in a city. because his dirty hand made the city. But in this place, where innocence is a mineral in the soil, the filth of our touch is an apocalypse.”
And after her mother, Margaret (Faith Hill) is forced to kill a horse thief, Elsa sees this horror through her mother’s eyes.
“She wouldn’t speak when she got back to camp. Wouldn’t look at my father. Wouldn’t look at me. I heard her crying by the fire before dawn. I sat beside her and asked her what was wrong. She said she killed a man over a horse, and now John was the only hope our family has of reaching heaven.
“I didn’t have the heart to tell her there’s not heaven to go to. Because we’re in it already. We’re in hell, too. They coexist right beside each other. And God is the land.”
Season 1, Episode 8, ‘The Weep of Surrender’
As Elsa forges an unbreakable bond with Sam (Martin Sensmeier), she realizes that nothing will ever be as important to her as freedom.
“This is our third day here, the longest we’ve stayed in one place since the journey started. One trait all animals share, people included, is no matter where we are or where we wish to be, if we’re there longer than a day, we try to make a home of it. But the plains are not for home building. Not enough resources. No shelter. The plains are for vagabonds, wanderers, and cowboys. Their home is a saddle. The sky is their roof. The ground is their bed. What’s lacked in material comfort is regained in the knowledge that they are always home. To them, the journey is the destination.
“Should they find gold at the end of the rainbow, they would leave it there and seek another; choosing freedom over the burden of the pot. I haven’t thought once of Oregon. No dreams of the ocean or snow-covered mountains. I only dream of the journey. That is all. No gold for me. Just the rainbow.”
‘To import the traditions of the place you fled, the place that failed you, is to condemn the place you seek to the same failures‘
“I understood my mother’s worry. My choices made no sense in her world, where customs and prejudice rule where law cannot reach. There will be customs and prejudice here, too, I’m sure. But they were born of this world, and belong here. To import the traditions of the place you fled, the place that failed you, is to condemn the place you seek to the same failures.”
Through the love she shares with Sam, Elsa is given another heartbreaking goodbye. But unlike Ennis, this one won’t be forever.
“I felt their eyes move over me. Felt their pity and disapproval. And it meant nothing to me. The only thing that mattered was riding away. Just as I was riding away from him. As I pondered the new journey before me – making it back to him – they watched the tears run my cheeks. And I let them. I didn’t turn my face or wipe them away. Tears became control. Sobs and weeps are little surrenders. And I will surrender nothing to the pain. Tears may flow, but I will not weep. I am the wife of a warrior now. Which is to say… I am a warrior. And warriors don’t cry.”
‘1883’ Season 1, Episode 9, ‘Racing Clouds,’ Seals Elsa Dutton’s Fate
“I had convinced myself of the world’s ambivalence towards its inhabitants… Until I came to this place. This place doesn’t want inhabitants at all. Every plant is inedible. Every creek bed is dry. Though only September, snow covers the mountain peaks. Winter can’t wait to have at us. Can’t wait to join with the land and run us off or kill us. If land can have emotions, this land hates. It hates us. And everyone can feel it.”
“The dress felt like a prison built just for me, choking me by the neck and digging into my underarms. Flattening my breasts against my ribcage. It disguises everything that makes me a woman from the glares of jealous women and rapacious men; as if their lack of self-esteem and willpower should be my only concern. I will never live in that world again, where the weak would rather guilt the strong than become strong themselves. No, I will stay in this world. This world doesn’t care what the weak want. This world eats the weak.”
And the arrow may very well be the one that takes her life.
“I felt no pain. Perhaps it was the fever of the fight. But it didn’t hurt. I thought of pushing it through. I thought better of it. As my father would say, ‘The one good thing about problems, is they’ll still be problems later. Don’t have to deal with them right away.'”
‘That’s when I knew… I was going to die.’
Yet her parents do everything they can to help her feel alive. James saddles up Lightning for her, and she gets on her horse, delivering her most powerful narration to date:
“I looked at my father, looked past his smile. Saw his worry. Saw something deeper. As if he were already in mourning. As if I were already gone. I felt different, too. Felt as though my soul had been dislodged from… Whatever cavern in our chest the soul is lodged to. It felt loose; disconnected. I looked out at the sagebrush, the colors looked different. Sharper. Looked up at the sky, the clouds seemed to race above us as if new laws applied to time and space above me.
“I looked back at my father, and I studied his eyes. Looked deep into them. That’s when I knew… I was going to die.”
‘1883’s Heartbreaking Finale Gives Elsa Her Final Goodbyes
“The numbing shock of war is behind me now. Pain has taken its place. Hurts to move. Hurts to breathe. The back of my head throbs with every step of my horse. I look at the world through the hazy lens of fever and somehow see it clearer.”
“What is death? What is this thing we all share? Rabbits, birds, horses, trees. Everyone I love. And everyone who loves me. Even stars die. And we know absolutely nothing of it.”
As she rides with her family, Elsa says her final goodbyes to Wade (James Landry Hebert) and Colton (Noah Le Gros):
“I wondered what became of them. Wondered if they staked their claim in Wyoming and built sod houses, bought cattle, and tried to scratch a life from this place. Perhaps they fought the winter and braved their way to Oregon; laying stakes in the emerald fields of the valley. But I’d seen too much of this world. Knew too much about the nature of man to think either would be their future. Another future awaited them, and it laid in the abyss of unmarked graves along the Oregon Trail.”
A Father Losing His Daughter
The next morning, Elsa rides out with James. As they discuss death, they take in the breathtaking scenery that is the edge of Montana.
“You look at me like I’m dying,” Elsa tells her father as they look upon the home their Dutton descendants will inhabit.
“I look at you for what you are: the most important thing to me on this planet. That comes with a lot of worry. Cause I can’t replace you,” James tells his daughter.
“We never spoke of death or dreams again. We never spoke of the pioneers, either. Because there was no need… To survive the frontier, you must learn to recognize those who won’t, and be weary of their doomed decisions. They are to be avoided at all costs. Because their fear is tragedy’s closest cousin. And tragedy is contagious in this place.”
And as the sun rises over another day, we see Elsa’s heaven. It is a race with Sam (Martin Sensmeier) along the valley they were to reunite. And it is beautiful.
“There is a moment where your dreams and your memories merge together and form a perfect world. That is heaven. And each heaven is unique. It is the world of you. The land is filled with all you hold dear. And the sky is your imagination.
“My heaven is filled with good horses, open plains, wild cattle, and a man who loves me. It is always sunrise in my world. And there are no storms. I am the only lightning. I know death now. I’ve seen it. It had no fangs. It smiled at me. And it was beautiful.”