Yellowstone writer and creator Taylor Sheridan introduced his next project, 1883, before it even began, prefacing the show with a series of flashbacks nested into that previous work. Before 1883 began, we already knew what would happen just ten years later. The Duttons, led by James Dutton, would reach and settle Montana. There would be four of them—James, Margaret, their son John, and another son. One winter, they gather around a dinner table set for four, and we notice the absence of James, away tracking thieves. But the family departing Texas in 1883 included another member, Elsa, who in 1893 represents another absence. 1883 is very much Elsa’s story, and both seem to be coming to an end.
Episode 9 follows a brutal stretch of the journey that saw the majority of the migrant’s wagons wrecked by a tornado. Now, as they pass through the grasslands of Wyoming, they are forced to ride horses. At the very beginning of the episode, Elsa remarks how this land is especially cruel, how winter waits in the mountains to bury them. Her observations foreshadow the most brutal episode yet, which leaves a dozen migrants dead and Elsa shot through the liver with an arrow. We may have just seen the reason for her absence in 1893, the reason for Margaret’s sternness at the dinner table: Elsa will die.
That said, there’s no reason to think Elsa can’t survive. Her absence in 1893 could simply be due to her age—she will be almost 30 by then and likely away from home. Perhaps she’s living with Sam, paralleling Kayce’s later flight from the family’s Yellowstone home to live on the reservation with Monica.
But for now, things aren’t looking good.
Here’s how episode 9 unfolded.
A Slaughter Is Discovered
The unraveling begins with a snakebite. A rattlesnake bites Risa’s horse and then Josef who jumps down to help. The wagon train stops to aide the two migrants.
Meanwhile, Shea, Thomas, and James come across a native camp which has been overrun, leaving the women and children dead. The group agrees they were attacked by outlaws who then took the horses. The warriors of the tribe, they conclude, must still be out hunting.
Shea, however, realizes their mistake too late. The three of them, coming upon the slaughter by horse, have now left tracks leading back to the wagon train. When the warriors return, they will assume the wagon train killed their families. James says they should set off to find and kill the thieves in order to avoid retribution.
They tell the wagon train to stay put until they can return—and to explain to the returning war tribe what happened. Upon Shea, Thomas, and James, riding out, however, the chef and many other migrants decide to head to a military fort nearby instead of waiting. Margaret and Elsa are forced to follow or else be left alone and vulnerable. Margaret asks Elsa to change back into her dress so that the men at the fort won’t think she’s somehow a turncoat. Elsa, however, feels as if she’s betraying her newfound identity.
Meanwhile, Shea, Thomas, and James find the thieves, who ride to meet them. They are dressed as sheriff deputies and claim they are defending settlers from the tribe’s warriors. When they realize the thieves killed the women and children to bate the men, Shea, Thomas, and James kill all the thieves.
At this time, the returning members of the tribe discover the slaughter of their family and ride out chasing the wagon trail. They find them and begin to attack. The wagons ride into a circle formation for defense, but Elsa is caught outside on horseback and decides to lead several riders away from the others. As she gallops away, the wagon train is attacked. Elsa is hit and falls off her horse.
A Slaughter Finds Them
When Elsa awakes, she sees several members of the wagon train slaughtered, including one woman shot through with arrows and scalped. (This scene was the series’ opening sequence in episode one, meaning we have finally come full circle in the narrative.) Elsa runs to a body for a pistol and kills one of the tribe’s riders. Another shoots her through with an arrow. Before she is killed, she yells the words Sam taught her, which stuns the tribe’s leader. Elsa then explains that James is hunting the real killers, and the tribe rides off.
Shea, Thomas, and James later come across the tribe. James approaches to tell them where the bodies of the thieves are located.
Back with the remaining wagons, Elsa’s wound is treated, though the severity of the injury is only apparent later when James speaks with her. He says the dangerous part is only beginning, when the wound becomes infected. Elsa will know the infection has begun, he says, when she feels signs of a fever.
Outside the wagon, James tells Margaret that Elsa will die. He says they must accept this fact. If they ride to the fort and seek medicine, she will still die, he says. He proposes they don’t tell Elsa, but allow her to live her final days in piece—riding in the land, looking out through her eyes with wonder.
The eyes—and how one looks through them temperamentally—has been a common motif in the series, with Margaret’s attempts to stem Elsa’s growing cynicism following the death of Ennis; James’ attempts to stem the hate in Elsa’s eyes; and Shea’s attempts to rid them of his own grief and sadness. Elsa has been the vehicle for all their desires, which are also the desires of a young American people: to be free, to remain innocent, to harbor no sin. (Whether we believe these things, seems to be a question the series asks of its viewers.)
James proclaims that they will no longer ride to Oregon; they will stay wherever they bury Elsa. Margaret then makes James promise that they will find a proper place to burry her, that they will keep riding until they find it. (We know this place to be the Yellowstone.)
As the wagon train leaves once again, Elsa swaps her dress for her riding clothes. When she looks into James’ eyes, she realizes that she is going to die. We learn this once again through Elsa’s voiceover, a device we aren’t yet sure how to read—if it is a journal entry (but we have not seen her write), or a story told later (if she survives), or simply her thoughts made audible.
One more episode to find out.
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