The '1883' Yellowstone Prequel Proves That Bigger Actually Is Better

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·4 min read
The '1883' Yellowstone Prequel Proves That Bigger Actually Is Better
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The opening shot of 1883—a close-up of the face of actress Isabel May, who plays Elisa Dutton—reveals an unfortunate, blunt end to what was once a beautiful journey. By the time the opening credits roll, she's got an arrow skewering her torso as she fires her gun back at American Indians on horseback. Roaring flames close in and it's then that you know: the story for Yellowstone creator Taylor Sheridan's new crop of characters is less about if they'll die, than when. In the first five minutes of the prequel series to his Montana-set epic, there are no winners or losers, just devastation. But damn if that sprawling landscape doesn't serve as a beautiful backdrop as the world burns.

That vibe might sound familiar to those who are fans of Sheridan's other work, particularly those loyal to Yellowstone. I mean, the man has turned inter-family tragedy into must-watch television. But this new show, starring Sam Elliott, Tim McGraw, and Faith Hill, is much more unforgiving. Here, as the opening flash-forward suggests, ruin is inevitable. While some parts of 1883 (select acting, in particular) require a touch of finesse, the series proves that with the right vision—and one hell of a budget—Sheridan has the capability to make television feel even bigger than the movies.

Photo credit: Emerson Miller
Photo credit: Emerson Miller

1883 follows the Dutton family as they make their way from the heart of Texas to the Montana ranch where the set-in-present-day series is based. Leading the way is James Dillon Dutton (McGraw) and Shea Brennan (Elliott), accompanied by the Dutton matriarch, Margaret, played by Hill. But as anyone halfway familiar with the unrelenting conditions of the Oregon Trail knows, the journey is not an easy one. With the expedition's initial desired destination being the Oregon coast, the first mystery quickly becomes, how exactly do the Duttons end up hundreds of miles off of their course? Flanked by family as well as a group of immigrants hoping to make the trek, the first two episodes made available to critics confirm that not everyone who begins the journey will make it to the end. Hell, some won't make it across the Lone Star state border.

But what makes 1883 so intriguing is that even with all the weight and looming danger, there's a constant reminder of why they're on this journey: the West, which gets captured grandly and gloriously with Paramount's reported $10-million-an-episode budget. You'd be hard pressed to find another drama as breathtaking in scope as this. Whether it's the elaborate townscape developed for the scenes shot in Texas or the sweeping shots of the land to come, the series spares no expense, financial or creative, when creating this world. (Sheridan and company also pulled the stops to include cameos from the likes of Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Hanks, so it's a party.)

But it's not the impressive effects that sell it—the series flat out wouldn't work without Sam Elliott. The veteran actor steps into the role of Shea Brennan and, in the course of only a couple of episodes, he brilliantly paints a portrait of a man broken by the very world at which we marvel. It's Elliott and LaMonica Garrett (who plays Shea's Civil War buddy, Thomas) who make this story worth watching. And they have to, as performances from McGraw and Hill can occasionally feel a bit wobbly and over the top. There's a solemnity from Elliott and Garrett that gives the series an authenticity that tamps down any campiness.

Photo credit: Emerson Miller
Photo credit: Emerson Miller

The timing of its release isn't hurting this project either. Over the past couple of years, our itch to break out of our homes and shake off that cramped feeling that comes from being housebound in a pandemic has waxed and waned and waxed again. Without the option to explore, we've seen the TV and movie Western come back en vogue as Sheridan has met that desire, creating something so vast and overwhelming and unfamiliar that it's a nearly worthy substitute for our own wanderlust.

That open landscape draws us in, but what will keep us returning is this careful exploration of a piece of our history that is so long gone that most of us haven't bothered to remember it: the sickness, the role of Black cowboys, the fight between colonizers and indigenous populations over land. It's as mysterious to us in 2021 as the terrain was to the Duttons of 1883. Instead of trying to bonk you over the head with the point, Sheridan simply tells it like it is, whether you like it or not. (Though we're guessing a lot of people are going to like it.) And fortunately for us, the history and the snakes and the smallpox all stay behind the screen.

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