Violent, Depressing, Engrossing: 1883 Sets Foundation for Yellowstone

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Taylor Sheridan's Yellowstone has been an unmitigated success with fans. And with that fandom eager for more content, Sheridan took one of the riskiest moves a franchise creator can ever take -- he produced a spinoff. Specifically, in this instance, a prequel.

1883 takes the story back to the Dutton family patriarch, James Dutton (Tim McGraw). When we first meet him, we see a man who doesn't hesitate to defend what's his, and will pull a trigger before entering into a negotiation. His grit doesn't go unnoticed by two men, Shea Brennan (Sam Elliott) and Thomas (LaMonica Garrett), two scouts hired to lead a band of German settlers to Oregon along the infamously perilous Oregon Trail. If you remember playing the computer text game, and got frustrated at how often you would die, brace yourself: the real thing was much harder, and much more fraught with danger. A good many of the settlers don't survive a short distance -- and some of them don't even get to leave on the journey in the first place!

Shea approaches James to join his men to help lead and defend these settlers, but James wants nothing of it. His path is a different one, even though he only has a nebulous idea of where he plans to homestead, and that's to the north. But when the rest of his family (wife Margaret, played by Faith Hill; John Dutton Senior, played by Audie Rick; and Elsa Dutton, played by Isabel May) arrives by train to begin the rest of the adventure by covered wagon, James has a change of heart, after discovering how dangerous it is for his family in a so-called civilized town. He strikes a shaky deal with Shea to join them, but makes it clear he'll depart from them when he's good and ready.

While the story is about the journey, the focus -- underscored by the narrations -- is squarely on James' daughter, Elsa, who is crossing that border from child to woman, with all the curiosity that comes with it. She forms a handful of relationships along the trail, but tragedy and loss are never far away. As their numbers dwindle to bandits, Indian raids, and disease, it's only the fact that we know Yellowstone exists as a series that lets us know the Dutton family survives this trip. Well... the ones important to the story do, anyway.

This is a long binge, that feels even longer than the actual time invested. But once you start, you just can't look away. Every single actor is fully immersed into their roles, and the costume and set designs are period perfect. Even if you know nothing about Yellowstone but enjoy a good American Old West story, you'll be glad you gave 1883 a viewing.

5.0 / 5.0