1883 continues to raise the bar for modern Westerns with Episode 3, “River”; a somber, poignant look at the perils of the Westward Expansion.
“Death is everywhere on the prairie.”
As “River” begins, 1883 shows how treacherous a wagon train’s journey is. Even the most straightforward tasks -like getting your wagon unstuck from a hole in the ground – could prove fatal.
Such is the case for one immigrant traveling with this train. He’s crushed by his own belongings and is no more. Elsa and Margaret (Isabel May & Faith Hill) watch as it happens, both far wearier of this journey than they were at the start.
A montage of death and loss follows as elements of this perilous journey take further souls. One little girl is bitten by a rattlesnake. Another man is taken by a wolf down by the creek. A wagon falls apart, claiming more lives. And through it all, 1883‘s heroes watch, grieve, then move on.
But one peril would remain paramount. One that, as Elsa narrates, the travelers would dare not speak but in a whisper.
The True Journey Begins
As Thomas (LaMonica Garrett) tells Shea (Sam Elliott) “there are no good options” to move forward on their journey. Such is the case as the train needs to either brave the river in front of them or lose two weeks by traveling back east to a ferry crossing. But James Dutton (Tim McGraw) isn’t having it either way and informs Shea he will not be wasting time going backward. He intends to take his family west as intended.
Back at the Dutton camp, Margaret and Elsa saddle up to help wrangle their beef-bearing herd. James is left to hunt with his tiny son, John (Audie Rick). “How am I supposed to hunt with a 5-year-old?” James asks.
“Teach him to be quiet. Or find a dumb deer,” Margaret replies before riding off with her daughter.
As for James, his dynamic with Shea is changing. The two men disagree greatly on how to move forward. “When there’s two leaders, there ain’t no leader,” Thomas tells Shea.
To distract from the issue, they begin helping an immigrant woman who’s lost her husband how to water her horses and set up camp. Through a desperate display, the woman tries her best to seduce Shea into marriage, but he isn’t having it.
‘1883’ Introduces Noemi
It’s through this that we meet Noemi (Gratiela Brancusi). After a heart-to-heart with Thomas, Noemi reveals that other immigrants in camp took her supplies.
Shea and Thomas immediately deal with the thieves in camp, resulting in one of the episode’s best scenes. LaMonica Garrett shines as Thomas within, giving the show’s most gripping performance.
Shea informs the rest of the train that anyone who steals will be left behind. He frees the bandit’s horses and cripples their wagon. But Thomas is more concerned with these immigrants trusting them. He’s hoping for a better way to bring them all together; something they haven’t found yet.
The weight of everything is taking its toll on Shea, too. Thomas tries his best to help his friend, but Shea believes “The world ain’t getting any better.”
Margaret and Elsa, Wade and Ennis
Meanwhile, Wade (James Landry Hebert) and Ennis (Eric Nelsen) continue to prove they’re 1883‘s welcomed comedic relief as Margaret and Elsa ride up to help them herd their beef cattle.
“One for me, one for you!” Ennis hollers.
“I think that one’s taken,” Wade replies. “And her husband don’t look too fun to fight. I’d keep that in mind while you’re chasin’ his daughter.”
Margaret shows how horse-handy she is (understatement), and puts these two “boys,” as Elsa calls them, in line. Their work begins after Ennis and Elsa get in a bit more old-fashioned “flirting.”
Father-Son Bonding in ‘1883’
Another highlight of the episode comes as James takes his tiny son, John, hunting. As hard as James tries to be patient, the little guy is simply too full of questions to stop asking them. They’re pretty good questions, too.
Eventually the duo spot deer, and we see this crucial father-son relationship begin to unfold. James talks his son through the importance of hunting, showing him how to use their rifle. But John already knows enough to ask if the rifle kicks.
“You won’t remember the kick in a week, son. Just the kill.”
Together, John is able to take down his first deer, a buck, and off the duo goes to claim his trophy. To mark his first kill, James then “bloods” his son, smearing the deer’s own on his rosy cheeks. “You took a life to give us life. Now we say thank you,” James says.
But when the duo makse it back to their camp, Shea is there waiting for them.
From ‘1883’ to ‘Yellowstone’: ‘The Only Family I Give a Sh*t About is My Family’
James is quick to offer Shea some of their fresh kill, and Shea already has water boiling for the Duttons. But the peace doesn’t last long.
“You said you’d help. And you’re not helping.”
James and Shea are at an impasse. Shea wants to make sure their wagon train recognizes him as the leader, and unquestionably so. But James will not listen to him.
“The only family I give a shit about is my family,” James says, setting the precedent for the Dutton mantra from 1883 all the way down to Yellowstone. And as their conflict concludes, no resolve is offered before Shea leaves camp. Just James laying down his compromise: he’ll help herd the cattle into the next part of their journey, but that’s all.
Back at those very cattle, Elsa is discovering the true strength, spirit, and skill of her mother as Margaret rounds them up.
“I watched her ride and I didn’t see my mother. I saw a woman. And the woman was magnificent.”
The Journey Continues…
At the main wagon camp, Shea comes back to find the immigrants shouting at Josef (Marc Rissmann) about their affairs. They believe they do not need Shea or Thomas to police them. But they could not be more wrong.
Shea spares the two who stole from Noemi earlier, showing his capacity to lead with empathy. He gives the party the choice to follow, or not, he doesn’t care. But those who do ride in the morning.
Back at 1883‘s Dutton camp, Elsa bids her mother a goodnight after being forced away from further flirting with Ennis. The cows are all bedded down for the night, too.
As James and Margaret talk about their “baby girl” becoming a woman, James asks her what she would change about their lives. “Nothing,” she replies at first. But that’s before she requests “A house. A big one.”
“I’m going to build you a house so big you get lost in it,” James smiles. And he’s most certainly talking about the Dutton Manor (or real-life Chief Joseph Ranch lodge).
The next morning, the wagon train is getting ready to roll on for the next part of their perilous journey. As his family holds up the caboose with the cattle, he gives Ennis permission to “court” his daughter. After a lesson in what this means (and scaring the living daylights out of the young man), James gets to work.
Through this, a love story buds through Elsa and Ennis as her narration continues. Things are changing in a big way for 1883 by Episode 3’s end, and we can’t wait to see where it all leads.