‘1883’ Review: Earnest ‘Yellowstone’ Prequel Is an Incomplete Chronicling of America’s Expansion Westward

Taylor Sheridan's Paramount+ drama series offers little intrinsic value to the narrative chronicling of one of the most transformative periods in U.S. history.
Pictured: Tim McGraw as James of the Paramount+ original series 1883. Photo Cr: Emerson Miller/Paramount+ © 2021 MTV Entertainment Studios. All Rights Reserved.
Tim McGraw as James of the Paramount+ original series "1883."

A prequel to Taylor Sheridan’s Paramount Network drama series “Yellowstone,” “1883” unfolds more than a century prior as contemporary Montana is replaced by a journey through the Great Plains, chronicling one family’s story during the great American Western migration. However, an opportunity to disrupt present-day comprehension of a transformative period in U.S. history is wasted on yet another narrative from the point of view of white settlers.

The Western Frontier narrative is one that can’t be told without including the Native American experience, yet it’s a perspective from which these particular stories are rarely expressed, especially in the mainstream. Even the official synopsis for “1883” uses the phrase “the last bastion of untamed America” to describe this final destination. But what does “untamed” mean for the civilization that populated those lands for centuries? It is this lack of consideration that almost singlehandedly renders “1883” disappointing. At best, it’s reductive, offering little of value to progressive discourse — nor does this family drama have anything new or profound to say about family; at worst, it’s intentional. In either scenario, the series is rendered toothless.

The first episode opens with a young white woman, bruised and battered, in the midst of armed Native Americans on horses, burning covered wagons, and dead bodies strewn about. She’s Elsa Dutton (Isabel May), the “purty,” blonde, teenage daughter of James Dutton (Tim McGraw), patriarch of the Dutton family whose exploits are central to “Yellowstone.” Clothed in a brightly colored gown — as she is throughout the series, sharply contrasting against the grungier, “darker” surroundings — Elsa is, for all intents and purposes, the embodiment of Columbia, herself the historical personification of the United States as illustrated in John Gast’s 1872 painting “American Progress.” It depicts Columbia as the “Spirit of the Frontier,” a white, blonde, feminine figure, cloaked in a white gown, heading westward to fulfill what was believed to be a divine mission: “civilize” the wild West.

A necessary context that “1883” does not provide: From around 1840 (following the U.S. victory in the Mexican War, the California gold rush, and the abolition of slavery) to 1900, widespread changes transformed the American West. At the beginning of that period, a great variety of Native Americans, whose cultures were already many thousands of years old, dominated most parts of the region. By the end of the era, the West had become populated by new immigrants of all kinds, an expansion that profoundly affected the indigenous population. Resistance by the tribes often led to wars with the U.S. military, which the tribes usually lost, as western lands came under white control.

Is knowledge of this history necessary to position Sheridan’s “1883”? The simple answer is yes. Maybe not a scholarly understanding of it, but it’s been well-documented that the American education system has generally failed its students, especially when it comes to elucidating the most damning periods of the country’s past, including the harsh experiences of Natives well into the present. The media has certainly helped perpetuate neglect of the Native American narrative, with maligned characterizations in film and television from the start.

Is it Sheridan’s responsibility to tell stories about Indigenous people? Of course not, but given how imbalanced the scales of power and control in American media are, in terms of who decides what stories are told and an awareness of one’s own privilege (as the man says, “With great power comes great responsibility”) could be a first step towards a necessary empathy.

In a meshing of past and present, there’s a key flashback in the first episode of the current season of “Yellowstone,” when former Confederate officer James Dutton (McGraw) encounters Native Americans on his land. The optics illustrate the power relationship: Dutton, confident, high on horseback, looking down on the beleaguered Natives (the European-invented “noble savage” myth looms large), who are ultimately at his mercy. They are there to bury one of their dead on what used to be their land. Dutton asks whether they’ve come to reclaim it, and is stern in his stance that he’s not personally responsible for what they lost.

While Dutton’s supposition may be argued, if he’s at all aware of the history that eased his family’s struggles, or empathetic to the plight of those who were forcefully and violently supplanted so he could lay claim to that land, it doesn’t show.

Sheridan’s résumé as an auteur isn’t extensive enough to gauge his politics, but the native of a small Texas town (Cranfills Gap) has demonstrated an interest in foregrounding the heartbeat of “rural America” — a loaded term that has incorrectly become synonymous with “white, agrarian heartland”; his Oscar-nominated 2016 film “Hell or High Water” (which he wrote) is one example as is the recent Paramount+ series “Mayor of Kingstown.” In “1883,” Dutton, an obstinate former Confederate officer, is quite possibly an ideological vessel.

To be fair, Sheridan does insert a foil for Dutton in the form of Sam Elliot’s imposing Union military man, Shea Brennan, a former captain of a Buffalo Soldier unit (a division made up of African-American servicemen). Brennan is tasked with guiding a group of mostly non English–speaking Germans along the Great Plains. He’s in mourning, after leaving behind a family stricken by smallpox, all dead from the viral disease.

Brennan is accompanied by Thomas (LaMonica Garrett), the only real African-American presence in the series. A former Buffalo Soldier, he’s now Brennan’s right-hand man — an optimist to Brennan’s pessimist. Hardened by war and death, they’re “good” people, something the series seems to want to make clear.

Fate introduces the traveling duo and their entourage to the Dutton family, after a skirmish or two lands them all in the kind of transitional western town where the unarmed are the most vulnerable, yet the gunslingers are often the first to die.

However, any hints at a power struggle between Brennan and Dutton are quickly quelled whenever the former acquiesces to the latter. For example, at a crossroads, Brennan proposes a longer path that would avoid confrontation with Natives, but a singularly-focused Dutton is willing to risk conflict, and maybe even desires it. It’s clear that a violent encounter with Native Americans is coming, as is winter. Both concerns are raised often. But suffice to say that Dutton’s way wins. It’s rarely, if ever, the reverse.

Isabel May as Elsa Dutton in "1883"
Isabel May as Elsa Dutton in “1883”Paramount+

Regardless of where one’s sociopolitical allegiances lie, a good story requires a clear narrative voice, compelling characters, insightful themes, conflict that stems from varied viewpoints, and, most importantly, empathy. It’s a trait that fuels curiosity, which then opens the door to understanding and more nuanced ways of observing the world. “1883” is anything but nuanced.

It’s an R-rated “Little House on the Prairie,” even though that heavy-handed 1970s–’80s series, as problematic as it was, handled storylines about settler prejudices and gender inequality more adroitly than it’s given credit for. But both are dramatic tellings of a white family’s struggle to build a new life for themselves on the American Frontier of the latter half of the 19th century, with a “family values” conservatism that still resonates among many Americans today.

The evolution of rural American political ideology could probably be traced back to James Dutton’s implied meaning of self-reliance. As a middle-aged white man, Dutton, like many of his peers, likely scoffed at government relief programs, especially those that assisted newly freed African Americans, insisting that his family endured hardship without handouts, in making the treacherous trek westward, planting seeds for the apparent wealth that would come a century later, as showcased in “Yellowstone.”

But the U.S. Congress did enact laws to encourage settlement, including the Homestead Act of 1862, which, for hundreds of thousands of predominantly white people, meant capitalizing on what was a large-scale, if not ill-conceived government initiative that prompted 50 years of violent conflict and brutal struggle, leaving Native Americans at a distinct disadvantage.

For whatever it’s worth, “1883” is earnest in its crafting, thanks to Sheridan’s writing and the performances of his cast, notably real-life couple Tim McGraw and Faith Hill as James and Margaret Dutton. Theirs is a family that operates on mutual respect and affection, and they rely on their devotion to each other to see them through the daily trials of early settlement life.

A cloying narration by Dutton’s daughter Elsa is sprinkled throughout each episode.

“How cruel and uncaring this world could be,” she says in a southern drawl that sounds put-on. “The world doesn’t care if you die. It won’t listen to your screams. When I meet God, it’ll be the first thing I ask him: Why make a world of such wonder and fill it with monsters?”

It’s not clear who she believes the “monsters” to be.

“If ‘possible’ could describe a feeling, that’s how I felt,” she says. “The whole world felt possible and I was ready for it.”

Native Americans, as well as the formerly enslaved, probably felt the same.

Eventually, her naïveté starts to grate.

The series’ own Scarlett O’Hara, Elsa is testifying about events that have already happened. Eventually, episodes will catch up to the deadly confrontation with Natives depicted in the early minutes of the first episode. And how that ends, before it rewinds to tell the story of a past when the Duttons began their journey, will likely be answered.

The America of today was borne out of the many battles fought, lives lost, cultures overrun, lands claimed, and treaties broken, all a result of that Western expansion many believed was divine and destined. Stories of those who sought better futures are certainly worth telling; a problem is that they’ve been chronically incomplete. And in what has been described as a global historical reckoning, as statues and monuments to racism, colonization, and legacies of injustice continue to fall around the world, “1883” just feels like a series out of time.

Grade: D+

“1883” launched with a two-episode premiere Sunday, December 19, on Paramount+.

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