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‘1883’: The Tragedy of Elsa Dutton Explained

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With its opening moments, 1883 offers a stirring glimpse of Elsa Dutton’s tragedy. But it would take the entire season to reveal the truth. Be warned of significant spoilers for 1883 ahead.

As the premiere of prequel series 1883 hit, audiences were expecting a historical Western akin to Yellowstone. But what we got instead would prove far more powerful.

At the heart of it all is Elsa Dutton (Isabel May), daughter to James and Margaret Dutton (Tim McGraw & Faith Hill). And it is her words that pull us immediately back into the past:

“Some called it the American Desert. Others, the Great Plains. But those phrases were invented by professors at universities. Surrounded by the illusion of order. And the fantasy of right and wrong. To know it, you must walk. Bleed until it’s dark. Drown in its rivers. Then its name becomes clear. It is Hell. And there are demons everywhere.”

From the epic’s first scene, Elsa cast us into this Hell that was the Westward Expansion – a time scarred by the war between Indigenous Peoples and the continuing onslaught of European settlers. Behind her, a wagon we assume to be her family’s burns fiercely. Elsa herself is face-down in the field; her freckled skin caked with dirt and ash.

She gathers her strength, dragging herself up from the dry grass. Carnage unfurls around her as Indigenous warriors shoot down her immigrant party. As she comes to, she is met with a fierce Indigenous warrior. He aims to sell her. But if 1883 shows us anything, it’s that Elsa Dutton was never going down without a fight.

‘1883’s Premiere Opens On the Tragedy of Elsa Dutton, But It Takes the Entire Series Before We Learn the Truth

The Dutton daughter scrambles for the gun of a fallen man. She aims the pistol at her attacker in protest. A bow and arrow is raised from his horseback to match her.

“I said no!” he shouts to her.

“Will you let me go?” Elsa asks.

“I will sell you. Or I will kill you,” he spits in return.

“You speak English! How can you do this?” she screams amidst the smoke and falling bodies.

“You speak English. And all your people do this,” the warrior replies.

In a rage, Elsa manages to right herself, landing a fatal blow through the skull of her attacker with the revolver. But as she does, an Indigenous arrow lets loose, piercing the girth of her torso.

A blood-curdling scream escapes her lips as she marches into her attackers – arrow intact -firing wildly at those who remain. This is how 1883 begins. And it is the beginning of Elsa’s end.

8 Episodes Later, ‘1883’ Shows What Truly Happened to Elsa Dutton

“But if this is Hell, then I must be a demon, too. And I’m already dead.”

Through this captivating opening, audiences are left wondering for the remainder of the season. Will Elsa Dutton die? Or was this simply some sort of fever dream, and not premonition?

As the show races on, it becomes clear that 1883‘s opening scene was, in fact, to come true. And the details are laid out for all to see.

By Episode 9, ‘Racing Clouds,’ the Duttons are in Comanche territory. There, Elsa’s father, Shea Brennan (Sam Elliott), and Thomas (LaMonica Garrett) come upon a Comanche camp made up of traders their wagon party has traded with peacefully prior. Or so it was. Every Comanche – women and children – is dead.

“Whoever did this did it for sport…” Shea scowls. James Dutton surveys the area, but Shea rages for him to stop.

“Whoever sees this now is going to think we did it!” the old captain curses. Comanche horses ride un-horseshoed. Settlers do not. And now, the horseshoe tracks of the white man’s horse are all over the Comanche camp.

As Shea predicted, the Comanche warriors come for their slain women and children. They hold nothing back, and in the carnage, flashes of Elsa’s horrifying Episode 1 opening come true. It is in this moment that 1883 comes full circle to the tragedy – and fate – of Elsa Dutton.

As the Wagon Burns…

The Comanche unleash utter Hell onto 1883‘s wagon train, and all Elsa Dutton knows. A familiar sight takes hold as the warriors set fire to a wagon, but it is not the Duttons’. Instead, it is their party’s cook, Cookie (James Jordan), who is shot aboard his wagon before it is set to blaze.

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Vengeful Comanche cut down every immigrant they can find, scalping them. What little of the wagon party is left is decimated as the warriors lash out. And then they come for Elsa.

Spotting her over the horizon, the full band of warriors come for her lightning yellow hair. Brandishing a mallet, a painted-face burning with fury comes directly for Elsa as they both race on horseback. The blunt stone mallet strikes her in the back of the skulls, and 1883 goes black with her consciousness.

When Elsa awakes, it is to a familiar scene. We’ve seen this before. We know how it goes. Carnage unfurls around her as she comes to. Regaining her strength, Elsa runs for the gun of a fallen warrior, but she’s stopped as she readies the pistol. And 1883 drops us right back into the premiere’s riveting opening moments.

“You speak English! How can you do this?” she screams.

“You speak English. And all your people do this,” the warrior replies.

And the Comanche arrow pierces her stomach. But now, the rest of the story is to unfold.

Elsa Dutton Proves the Defining Tragedy for The Dutton Family

Elsa’s rage takes her directly into the rest of the Comanche warriors as she fires every last bullet from her revolver. Yet before she can be gunned down, she screams the words her Comanche husband, Sam (Martin Sensmeier) taught her. It is this that saves her life. For now.

“You fight like Comanche! What is your name?” the Indigenous warrior facing her asks. She tells him “Lightning with the Yellow Hair” in Comanche. For this, they spare her. And the warriors ride off, leaving her broken and fatally wounded.

“I felt no pain. Perhaps it was the fever of the fight. But it didn’t hurt. I thought of pushing it through. I thought better of it. As my father would say, ‘The one good thing about problems, is they’ll still be problems later. Don’t have to deal with them right away.’”

What follows is one of the most moving finales ever to grace the small screen. As Episode 10 Finale, ‘This Is Not Your Heaven’ unfurls, Elsa’s condition only worsens. Her father, James, is able to bring her to the healers of a separate Indigenous tribe. But as their leader, Spotted Eagle (Graham Greene) tells him, Comanche warriors lace their arrows with the dung of buffalo. And Elsa’s arrow pierced her vital organs. The “rot” of Comanche arrows aim to kill any they pierce. And Elsa’s will be her end. There is nothing that can be done.

But Spotted Eagle offers the Duttons one last salvation. It is a piece of “paradise” in a nearby valley; one where they can lay her to rest and settle along side her.

And it is to this very place James takes his daughter to breathe her last.

Elsa Lives to Choose the Dutton Family Ranch

After saying her final goodbyes to her mother and friends, Elsa rides off into the distance with her father – until she can ride no more. Beneath a canopy of golden trees, Elsa asks him to stop.

“This is the spot,” she cries to her father.

James gently removes his daughter from Lightning, and together they walk to a fine old tree of her choosing. There, her father places his back on the tree, cradling Elsa in his lap.

There, these two Duttons who share a soul, will breathe together for the last time. A father and daughter share their earliest memories of life as their tears meet the soil.

“I know what it is. I’m not scared. I’m not scared, daddy,” Elsa says as the light leaves her eyes. And the Dutton daughter breathes her last.

There, on the future site of the Dutton Yellowstone Ranch, Elsa dies in her father’s arms.

And the stage is set for one of television’s most powerful legacies.

The story of 1883 will continue with spinoff 1932.

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