1883 is possibly the finest Western of the last 20 years, a revisionist take on the genre that writer-director Taylor Sheridan feels is a more authentic, tragic, and elegaic depiction of the frontier and the Oregon Trail. It features the Dutton Family joining the trail to head out West to find a new life. Instead of optimism and triumph, it's a saga of failure and survival.
Everyone on the trail is marked by loss. James Dutton (Tim McGraw) still reels from the trauma of his years as an officer in the Civil War and prisoner. His wife Margaret (Faith Hill) and children live in the shadow of his loss. Shea Brennan (Sam Elliot) is hollowed out by the death of his family and has decided to do one last noble thing, to lead a group of hapless immigrants to Oregon. The immigrants have all left their lives in Europe to find freedom in the untamed plains of the American West. Only Dutton's daughter Elsa (Isabel May) begins her journey bright-eyed and optimistic, eager for adventure but will suffer her share of loss as she tastes the harsh freedom the frontier offers.
Everyone you see in 1883 is a ghost. They are echoes of people long gone, lost to history, revived by Sheridan to re-enact their stories as myth and legend. There is an aching sense of loss in their story. They suffer from the losses they incur, and we feel the loss of them to time. 1883 is an elegy, a lament for these people driven by desperation, not romance or glory to seek new lives out west. This is the true story of the American West, suggests Sheridan. This is not about Manifest Destiny, only people desperate to live, and what they lose trying to live, including their very lives. 1883 is about the promise and the tragedy of the American West. It is a deconstruction of the romantic dreams of destiny and glory in the Old Hollywood Westerns of John Ford. Its romance is one of loss, grief, and tragedy. Sheridan loves America and the dream of America but is aware of how deeply unfair, brutal and sad America is. He combines the romance of the Western with the fatalism of Noir.
1883 can stand alone as a 10-hour novel for television but also serves as the origin of the Dutton Family Saga introduced by Sheridan's first show Yellowstone. That show features the Duttons in the present-day holding onto their land and guarding it jealously, murderously against the forces of gentrification and Capitalism that seek to seize it to turn into urban development, and from the Indigenous people who want to reclaim it as their ancestral birthright.
By the end of the first season of 1883, Sheridan's intentions become clear. Elsa Dutton is the true heart of the Dutton Family Saga. Her final resting place is where her father settles the family and eventually turns into Yellowstone ranch. Elsa Dutton is a dream, she embodies the promise and freedom of America: free-spirited, kind, fearless, and clear-eyed about the risks and dangers that come with that freedom. She is her father's daughter and his dream for the best they can be. This means she's too good, too pure for this world, and that is why the world claims her. It is not the land that kills her but the bloodlust of men. She is more than a feminist fantasy or an anachronistic modern woman implanted in a story of the Old West. She is an ideal remembered through tears and loss. She becomes the dream of the Dutton family whose absence presides over Yellowstone Ranch. She is James Dutton's beloved lost daughter, the embodiment of his love and his soul. We realize at the end of the first season of 1883 that Elsa's loss endures through the Dutton family history, the lost dream that has curdled into future generations of warfare and revenge as her father and his descendants jealously guard the land where she is buried. She dies averting a massacre. She is the lost dream in whose place and name evil deeds are committed.
1883 might be the finest Western of the 21st Century. The Westerns of their era are reflections and examinations of the times. 1883 is no different. It is a Western that was made after 9/11 & the "War on Terror," and at a time when questions about what America truly stands for are being asked. In all his shows, including Yellowstone and Mayor of Kingstown, Sheridan's big question has been "Is America sustainable when it is full of factional warfare? Can America be saved? Is America worth saving?" Sheridan's vision of America is tragic, his love for the country unblinded by the failures of its promise. By the end of 1883, Elsa Dutton only becomes one with the land through death, if she's the embodiment of America, she can only exist in legend. 1883 is an elegiac, tragic poem of America.