1883 Rips the Veneer Off the American Frontier to Tell a Unique Western

AbraxasDecember 19, 2021

Centering the voices of women and Black cowboys, the Yellowstone prequel series, 1883, tells a poignant story that stands on its own.

After the impressive success of Yellowstone, creator and director Taylor Sheridan branched out to tell the Dutton family’s origin story. 1883 follows the Dutton’s earlier relatives from Texas after the Civil War to their eventual home in Montana. The series uses Sheridan’s signature style of drama and authentic imagery to show the American West in a unique light.

1883 follows the Dutton family of James and Margaret and their children as they make their way out of Texas to where they’ll eventually build the Yellowstone Ranch. The Duttons join with local Pinkerton agents who are escorting a band of German immigrants along the same Oregon Trail. Together, the rag-tag group must work to ensure their survival on a journey that seems to be trying to get them killed.

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While 2021 may seem a strange year to tell a story about America’s history, 1883 hits hard. The Yellowstone prequel series strips the time period of its veneer, reminding viewers the frontier was a place of hardship and violence. 1883 hammers this idea home in a compelling way, grabbing viewers’ attention with twists and surprises — both pleasant and dreadful.

1883 shows off what Sheridan does best — his attention to detail. The world of 1883 feels lived in, which allows the show’s storylines to resonate even more. In part, this is thanks to the cast and crew working in the wilderness and learning how to herd cattle and drive covered wagons. It’s hard work. The effort and exhaustion are highlighted, not glossed over. But while 1883 may at times be dirty, that grit lends veracity to the show that sells its message.

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More than anything, it’s the importance of 1883‘s message that makes the series worth watching. Sure, it’s a story about Yellowstone‘s Dutton family. However, 1883 is more focused on telling the story of western colonial expansion, warts and all. Notably, 1883 prioritizes the voices of people usually left out of such stories. First and foremost is the lead character Elsa Dutton, played brilliantly by the young Isabel May, whose voice lends a narrative frame to the series. After moments of extreme violence, Elsa’s poetic voiceovers still make you fall in love with the West.

Joining May is Faith Hill’s Margaret Dutton. The two of them show the strength and resilience of the women of this period. Not only do they herd cattle and share the responsibilities of the long journey, but they also unflappably navigate the social expectations thrust on them. But 1883 doesn’t try to sell the story that all women of the period were always confident and capable — other prominent women characters are collapsing under the grief of what they’ve lost and learning to shoulder the new responsibilities of the frontier. The women of 1883 alone showcase the poignant dialogue and banter, the straining interpersonal drama, and the showy equestrian work that make the show worth watching.

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Elsa walks away from a burning wagon

It’s not just women’s voices that make 1883 compelling — it’s also the series’ focus on Black cowboys, especially in the wake of the Civil War in the South. LaMonica Garrett’s Thomas is a Buffalo Soldier-turned-Pinkerton Agent helping to escort a group of immigrants alongside the Duttons. It’s Thomas’ charismatic leadership that holds everything together. Westerns too often ignore the role and experience of Black people, and 1883‘s insistence on sharing this view is a welcomed change.

However, Taylor Sheridan’s storytelling style doesn’t always play in the show’s favor. 1883‘s premiere begins with Indigenous assailants attacking a caravan of pioneers. While such dangers may have been a hazard on the Western frontier, this scene in the series’ first half is the only scene that shows any Indigenous people. This approach may change later in the series, and the presence of Graham Greene in the cast suggests there might be a future focus on Indigenous characters. However, for a show focused on American colonization, depicting Indigenous people in such a violent light is a shocking and unpleasant start.

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Sheridan’s violence isn’t limited to Indigenous people either. While 1883 is told from the perspective of Elsa, giving a young woman agency in a time where they’re often forgotten, the series highlights violence perpetrated against women. While 1883 isn’t the first show to include scenes of sexual assault, the series solves these assaults through gun violence and little dialogue. It feels as if 1883 wants to drive home how violent the American West truly was: it’s an important point to take the shine off of Westerns. However, Sheridan does this in ways that are often unpleasant at best and damaging at worst.

Despite these shortcomings, 1883 is still a powerful story. Sheridan’s meticulous attention to detail and the show’s stunning design make each scene a visual joy. Sheridan’s writing reminds viewers of how dangerous such an environment could be. Coupled with outstanding performances from the ensemble cast, 1883 is not just a good prequel for those interested in the Duttons but a worthy view on its own merit.

1883 premiered Sunday, December 19 on Paramount+. New episodes will release weekly on Sundays.

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