The Fangs of Freedom
Episode 5 of 1883 Season 1 picks up with us back on the road to Oregon. Shea surveys the river, stifling tears as Thomas shows up. It turns out the wagon that perished in the river was actually holding all the food, and that’s a massive problem. They need to resupply – but that’s not what’s eating Shea up. He takes full responsibility for the river tragedy, believing he’s making too many widows, which obviously hits home for him given he is, himself, a widower.
There’s 43 travelers left and it seems the food wagon – stockpiling all their food in one place – is a direct result of a thief in their midst. Josef is quick to point out that all these travelers on the road are not a family, and barely know each other. Not only that, he knows exactly who the thief is.
Meanwhile, a rift begins to grow between James and Margaret. Given Elsa has been spending a week with the herd (and Ennis), she’s uneasy with Elsa drifting away from them. In fact, Margaret decides to ride out and see her.
With a motherly touch, Margaret discusses the notion of love and tries to caution her away from Ennis. When Elsa mentions feeling butterflies, and looks dreamily at her lover, Margaret realizes that they’re going t have to have “the chat”. As they bathe together in the river, Margaret tells her she needs to follow the rules of her heart – giving consent for the pair to be together.
In Margaret’s absence, Shea and Thomas call on James to help with the thief problem. They act as mediators, watching from afar as Josef tries to police the situation. As things start to get out of hand, James jumps in and clears everything up. Shea throws money back to the two thieves, demanding they find their own way. He promises to kill them both if they try and follow the caravan.
With strength in numbers, leaving behind this many travelers is certainly an ominous sign. Even more ominous however, is Wade’s dangerous warning. Bandits are following them, and that means Elsa needs to stay with James for her own protection. Inevitably, she ends up with Ennis outside that night. who admits he tried to sleep with a hooker back in town but she didn’t make him feel like Elsa does, and thus it “didn’t work.”
As the pair make love, Margaret awakens in the middle of the night and sees them together. This inevitably leads to Margaret having a stern talk with Elsa in the morning. She warns that if Elsa brings a child into the world, she won’t be raising it for her. Margaret obviously has trouble accepting her daughter isn’t a little girl anymore, but at the same time Elsa’s naivety is something that could cause big problems in the future. For Elsa though, she sees it as the freedom of choice and right now, things are looking up given she’s very much in love.
Elsewhere, Shea and James come to blows once more. This time it comes from Shea wanting James to give up his rations. The things is, James doesn’t budge and Shea knows he can’t risk fighting with him in front of the caravan, leaving them at something of a stalemate.
Wade’s warning comes to pass, as bandits show in the middle of the night and attack the thieves left behind. They come in numbers, with guns ready, and take everything. Black smoke rises on the horizon, signifying the bandits on their tail. James realizes he needs guns – and lots of them. They’re going to take the fight to these crooks, but that involves formulating a plan at camp. On the way, James sucker-punches Ennis and knocks him off his horse. He knows about him and Elsa.
As James looks set to beat him down, Elsa appears and stops him, pointing out how much she loves him. Ennis too remains devoted to the woman, pointing out how he’d even steal her if need be to keep their love alive. Eventually James realizes their devotion is true and tells Ennis to cradle Elsa’s heart like an egg and make sure it doesn’t crack.
Back at camp, the gang make a plan and lure the bandits out to attack a solitary wagon left behind while the caravan rides on. This belongs to Josef, and he’s well-aware of what’s happening. With a shotgun in hand, he takes a deep breath and prepares to hit back with the others.
In the ensuing fight with the bandits, Ennis is killed. As he drops off the horse, right at the end of this battle, he turns to James and tells him that he “loved her.”
It’s a heartbreaking moment and one that sees Elsa hurry up and see her lover for the last time. As she narrates, “death’s rotten finger” touches her and with it, her view of the world changes. The naivety and hopeful innocence fades and in its place, hot, blood-fueled rage.
Grabbing the pistol from earlier, she kills the final bandit in cold blood.
The Episode Review
Following last week’s devastating river crossing, 1883 returns with an episode centered on Elsa. And specifically, how this journey has changed her from a girl to a woman.
The tragic love story between Ennis and Elsa was perhaps always going to fail and both James and Margaret are well aware they can no longer shield their daughter from the horrors of the world. Those extreme close ups at the end, during the harrowing final 7 minutes or so of this episode, really help to show Elsa’s transformation. The acting from Isabel May at this point is brilliant, and she definitely holds her own playing this character.
Episode 5 also works to show how there’s strength in numbers and with the bandit attack at the end, it was perhaps unsurprising that someone ended up as a victim. The fact that it was Ennis hits that much harder, especially after making his intentions known and showing that he truly loved Elsa and intended to be with her.
Good men are hard to come by and James clearly knows this, hence his little moments of sadness at the end.
Speaking of which, one of the more refreshing parts of 1883 is how each of these characters have been crafted realistically and with enough nuance to allow even the most rugged, strongest members of the group moments of weakness, even if just for a few seconds. This helps to empathize with these characters, and this chapter in particular boasts an awful lot of growth for many people.
1883 looks set to really lean into its drama in the next episode. Whether Elsa will ever be the same again though, remains to be seen.