This review contains spoilers for 1883 season 1 episode 3, “River.” Catch up with What to Watch’ previous recaps for 1883 here.
For anyone that played the great old computer game Oregon Trail, you’ll know that forging a river was always the most difficult part of the game (if you didn’t die from dysentery early on). 1883 knows it too, as with all the other things that can kill you as part of a wagon train, a river is the one thing people are scared to talk about (according to Elsa’s narration). So of course, a river is what our characters come up against in 1883‘s third episode.
Unfortunately, we don’t have anyone actually cross the river. Rather, the body of water serves more as symbolism this week as it presents a difference of opinion between Dutton (Tim McGraw) and Shea (Sam Elliott), which becomes further amplified throughout the episode when they are shown to deal with violence. Elsewhere, Faith Hill finally gets a chance to showcase her character, Margaret, and we meet another traveler as the cast starts to expand.
As mentioned, there are plenty of ways to die on the wagon train, and the opening scenes show you a handful of them. Even in the early days of their journey, many of the travelers have died, and with each death, Dutton pulls more and more away from the group. It comes to a head when he and Shea discuss what to do about the river they come upon. Shea thinks that it’ll be best for the wagon train to head east and look for an easier passage over the river. Dutton reminds Shea that he doesn’t work for him and tells him flat out he’ll be heading west with his family.
Camped for the day as they figure out what to do next, Dutton takes his son, John (Audie Rick) hunting. When they snag a deer he tells him that every time a man kills something, they lose a bit of their humanity and become more animal, but that it is important for a man to maintain balance as best he can between the two sides. Heady stuff for a 5-year-old to try and grasp, but of course this is truly meant to further enlighten us to Dutton’s views on violence.
We’re seeing Shea giving in more to his animal instinct as this journey is already taking its toll on him. When he sees a gypsy (Gratiela Brancusi) whose husband was among the travelers who has already died struggling, he and Thomas (LaMonica Garrett) help her. This includes confronting a group of men she said stole from her. Shea destroys their wagon and tells them they can no longer travel with the group. Later, when the men argue about this judgment, Shea threatens to kill them but opts not to, letting it be a warning to all the other travelers that this is how he’ll police them if they don’t do it themselves.
We’ve seen Dutton kill a number of people in the first few episodes, but there is always a reason (they are threatening him or his family) and we know that he does not take any joy in it. Shea, while letting cool heads prevail, has shown to have a bit more of a temper and it looks like it is starting to boil over. Will Shea be able to maintain the balance that Dutton preaches as they continue west?
The other plot of this episode involves the Dutton woman. While the men are hunting, Margaret and Elsa (Isabel May) go and help the cowboys take care of the cattle. For Elsa (and us viewers), this is the first time we really see Margaret in action. Elsa is amazed to see a new side to her mother, realizing that she gets her passion as much from her mother as her father. It’s also nice to see Hill get a little more to do than sit around a camp fire and drive the wagon.
The only other bit of note is that Elsa and Ennis are continuing their flirtation, which is given the OK by Dutton at the end of the episode.
Introducing the river and not crossing it was a bit of a disappointment for this episode of 1883. However, the show continues to set the pieces for what will hopefully be richer interactions later on because of it. Most notably, will Dutton and Shea continue to butt heads and could that culminate into a major confrontation? The breadcrumbs are there, you just hope it isn’t too long until we get a more hearty meal.