Behind Us, A Cliff
Episode 2 of 1883 opens with a haunting scene of dead soldiers, as a black and white image turns to colour. We’re a year earlier than our current timeline, at the Dunker Church during the aftermath of the Battle of Antietam. Much like the first chapter, we open with one of the Dutton family awakening; close-up shots of James’s face that soon pave way for showing numerous dead bodies lining the floor.
Back in the present, the caravan makes camp at Trinity River in Texas. Unlike the harsh, inhospitable world of Fort Worth, Trinity River is heaven by comparison. Elsa’s narration is poetic and beautiful, with one line mentioning how the trees are dotted about like little villages.
However, that beauty is a facade given the horror hidden in the long grass. A destroyed carriage plays host to several skeletal bodies while the threat of smallpox and other nasty illnesses loom ever-nearer.
In camp, some of the Germans ignore the advice given and begin drinking from the river. Claire scoffs at this when she notices, “Better to die out here than on the trail.”
While she stays quiet over its effects, Elsa tries to talk with them. When James shows, he simply tells her to saddle Lightning, their horse, allowing the travelers to succumb to their fate (and stupidity.)
We’ve known for a while that Elsa isn’t like other women here, and James’s nicely worded dialogue about decent men typifies this nicely. He sees his daughter not as a stay at home girl but as one of the riders – and more than capable to hold her own.
Out in the wild, as the sun pokes its head lazily above the horizon, the horse riders all join together to round up some wild cattle. There are some absolutely gorgeous shots here, and for anyone who’s been there to watch a sunrise over the horizon, it really is an amazing experience.
Anyway, in their absence, things take a horrible turn. Back in camp, a whole bunch of arrogant cowboys show up. After allowing their horses to drink by the river, Claire appears and throws rocks at them. Margaret eventually pulls a shotgun when things turn violent, leading to a big fight around camp. I say fight, it’s a bit of a massacre in truth, as many of the Germans wind up dead.
When Shea, Thomas, James and the others ride back to camp, they scoop up Josef, the English-speaking German, and head to Fort Worth to find those responsible – and speak to the Marshall.
In the saloon, a shaky Josef points out the culprits, who are subsequently killed for their actions. This singular action is bound to spark some backlash, and Shea knows that. He warns that there’s going to be heat on them now and they best be ready to move out in the morning.
One of the big casualties this episode is Mary, Claire’s daughter. She dies in the earlier shooting, and her ill-temper and cold demeanor now make a lot more sense.
James tries to convince her to join them on the road, but this is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. She’s had 7 children and all 7 have died before her. It’s too much for anyone to bear and Claire is now done. She’s going to stay at Trinity River.
While the rest of the caravan move on, James stays behind as Claire takes a gun and kills herself. James does the noble thing and digs a grave for her. Shea shows and admits he admires her courage, joining him in digging the grave.
The Episode Review
1883 has been a really solid watch so far, and there’s some beautiful imagery throughout. That sunrise, with the silhouettes of Elsa and James, is absolutely magnificent and the show is chock full of these visual treats.
What’s particularly interesting here though is how that juxtaposes against the evil and horrors off the world. Elsa’s walk through the woods for example, looks like a tranquil paradise of trees until she gets closer and notices corpses on the floor.
Likewise, the poetic opening of showing James rather than Elsa this time looking upon the horrors of war is such a great juxtaposition.
This contrast between beauty and horror typifies 1883 as a whole and this episode we see both Claire and Mary perish. It’s perhaps been a delayed inevitability, although it’s nice to finally understand Claire’s hostility right at the end. Her tough love toward Elsa now makes a lot more sense; bearing witness to 7 children dying must be one hell of a burden.
The ending hints that the caravan are moving into uncharted territory now and there’s also the faint hint of some romance brewing between Wade and Elsa. We’ll have to wait and see on that front though!