You may already be aware of this, but Yellowstone precursor 1883’s season 1 finale saw the death of the main character. On the surface, that doesn’t seem that remarkable. Season finales are a perfect time to kill off significant characters in many TV shows. It wouldn’t be appropriate to make a big deal out of or write an article about the passing of just one important figure (though we probably would anyway because Yellowstone and 1883 are huge deals). However, there are several aspects of the deceased lead from 1883 that felt remarkably different.
The character we’re referring to is not, in fact, moody cowboy and Dutton family patriarch James Dutton, in case you haven’t watched the series and have just clicked on this headline out of a morbid curiosity as to how this series went down (Tim McGraw). McGraw makes it to the finish just well, despite appearing to be itching to die in a hail of six-shooter bullets in his bearded bear and torn Stetson. In “This is Not Your Heaven,” it’s actually his daughter Elsa (Isabel May) who bites it (albeit among many other nameless pioneers).
This comes as a bit of a shock considering that Elsa is not only a teenager but also the audience’s eyes and ears for the Dutton family and the European immigration caravan that is trying to reach Oregon. From the first to the last episode, Elsa provides narration, even after she has passed away to reassure us all that the Great Plain in the sky isn’t that horrible.
Although it is not unheard of for television (or really any other media at that), killing gorgeous young blonde women is, and neither is pulling a fast one by not allowing the narrator watch things through to the end. How little 1883 conceals Elsa’s impending demise is what makes it such an intriguing story choice. Elsa Dutton will die, 1883 repeatedly reminds us, and by doing so, it practically dares its audience to doubt it.
The penultimate episode of the season, “Racing Clouds,” determines Elsa’s fate. In it, a group of Lakota men are encountered by Elsa and the rest of the caravan, and they accuse Elsa’s people of raiding their camp and murdering all of their women and children (in fact, it was a group of horse thieves). Elsa is hit in the stomach by a Lakota arrow during the ensuing struggle, but she manages to drive the other assailants away before using some Comanche diplomatic skills to drive the remainder away.
At first glance, it appears as though we have dodged a disaster. Elsa’s adrenaline is rushing so hard that she isn’t even aware of the pain the bolt in her side is causing. Later, her mother Margaret (Faith Hill) and another pioneer are successful in both taking the arrow out of the wound and cauterising it. No harm was done. And yet… James Dut ton draws his wife aside after returning from a mission to the Lakota tribe in order to show her the arrow that struck Elsa. James takes a quick look at it and sees that it’s unclean and ready to infect.
James bluntly tells his wife, “She is going to die.” And it’s going to split us in half. She’s going to die in some fort with a doctor doping her up so badly she can’t see straight if we don’t accept it now. We will have stolen from her. She must witness each and every sunset. And we’ll deceive her. We’ll let her know she’s okay.
James Dutton is a blunt speaker. He fervently believes that the festering arrow wound will cause his daughter to pass away. There is little reason to doubt that his forec ast is accurate given that he was both a skilled survivor and a Civil War veteran.
Then, 1883 mercilessly offers its audience numerous opportunities for Elsa to survive and for James to be exposed as a liar. Initially, Margaret is adamant that Elsa will be OK because she is so young and capable. Since we’ve already seen how powerful Elsa is for eight episodes, her argument appears far more convincing than that of her husband. Elsa transforms into a fearless warrior in the American frontier after starting the story as an innocent young child. She seems to be a natural child of the earth, and what mother would murder her own daughter?
Elsa begins to feel feverish, just as James predicted she would, and that debate starts to lose some steam. But 1883 quickly adds another exit to deal with that. He races Elsa to Fort Caspar while claiming he doesn’t want his daughter to pass away on a foreign surgery table. Everything will work out fine! James was mistaken! Unfortunately, with the exception of its surgeons, Fort Caspar is a mere shell of what it once was.
However, the Duttons attempt to mount Elsa once more and ride her to the following army fort as they travel north. The year 1883 offers Elsa her last and best chance to recover while she is travelling. The surviving members of James and Elsa’s caravan come discover a tiny Crow garrison commanded by Spotted Eagle (Graham Greene). After taking one glance at Elsa, Spotted Eagle decides that the only way for her infection to be shocked by the cold is to be escorted by healers to the icy waters of a nearby river.
Up to this time, 1883 has treated its indigenous American characters with a lot of respect. As well-drawn as the show’s Europeans and white Americans are, Native Americans also appear in it. They aren’t depicted in the show in an insulting or abrasively reverent way. In a narrative like this, a tribe wouldn’t have a seemingly magical remedy developed via ancient ritual to a wound that the Western world and all its celebrated “science” wouldn’t have.
However, for a brief minute, viewers can’t help but wish that 1883 was that kind of program—that this river water would magically work as a Lazarus pit and revive Elsa. Sadly, it isn’t. The Lakota cover their arrows in dirt to ensure infection, Spotted Eagle says. Elsa’s situation is truly hopeless. It is done.
James asks Spotted Eagle where he can lay his daughter to rest after coming to terms with what he already claimed to have done. The spotted eagle suggests a lovely hunting location, and James takes Elsa there on his horse. There, on the grounds that will one day become Yellowstone ranch, Elsa passes away in his arms.
Again, the fact that Elsa Dutton dies in 1883 is hardly exceptional. From the very beginning of the series, when it begins in media res to depict her receiving what we now know was a fatal blow, the show has in many ways been teasing her death. It’s amazing how open the show was about its goals and how strongly that convinces the audience that it must be lying.
Optimistic readers can’t help but believe one of them will work out when a story offers excuses for a character’s demise, such as rationalisation (“she’s so young and so strong”), modern medicine (“the nonexistent surgeons at Fort Caspar”), or even something resembling magic (“the healing waters of a Montana river”). If none of the proposed remedies would be successful, why even present them?
The world doesn’t care about our last-minute halos, as the 1883 author Taylor Sheridan understood. The most we can do is carve out our own little bit of nature to tame when faced with its horrible and violent majesty. similar to how the Duttons manage Yellowstone in Montana.
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