‘1883’ Premiere Introduces Fans to a New Side of Tim McGraw + Faith Hill [Spoiler Alert]
The premiere of 1883 on Sunday (Dec. 19) really pulled out all the stops, and it put Tim McGraw and Faith Hill in a whole new light for fans who were most familiar to them through their family-friendly music.
As previous trailers have suggested, the Yellowstone prequel is even darker and more violent in tone and content than the Kevin Costner-led smash on Paramount Network ... in fact, McGraw's character of James Dutton stacks up a body count of six men by the end of the very first episode as his character is forced to fight time and again for his life and for his family.
Hill portrays James Dutton's wife, Margaret Dutton, and the show tracks the family's long, arduous journey from Texas to Montana, where they will end up establishing the Yellowstone Dutton Ranch that serves as the setting for Yellowstone.
Episode 1 of 1883 begins with a flash-forward to action we'll presumably see in full later as the couple's daughter, Elsa (Isabel May), comes to on the ground after some of the indigenous population have attacked a wagon, set it on fire and killed a number of people. She ends up trying to fight her way out of the situation armed with a pistol, killing several men and taking an arrow in a scene that leaves viewers wondering whether she will make it to the end of the journey.
Sam Elliott plays Shea Brennan, a Pinkerton agent who has been hired to shepherd a group of immigrants who are making the same trek, and his first scenes in the show set up a tragic story arc that is certain to color the rest of the season as he loses his wife and daughter to smallpox and is forced to burn his house to the ground with their bodies inside to prevent the further spread of the disease. He's sitting with a gun pointed up under his chin, deciding whether or not he's going to take his own life, when we meet Thomas (LaMonica Garrett), his friend and longtime business associate, who appears to save his life.
They then encounter James Dutton as he outruns and outguns a group of bandits who are trying to rob him and take his wagon, and they keep running into each other subsequently in Fort Worth, where Dutton is meeting his family to set off in hopes of a better life. He once again displays his mettle and prowess with a gun when a man tries to steal his wallet, and when Brennan and Thomas are unable to muster enough men to protect the wagon train of immigrants, he decides to throw in his lot with them, believing that there is safety in numbers.
James Dutton is an often grim, violent man with a dark view of the world, but May's portrayal of Isabel offers some light to offset the inherently dark themes of a show that's set during a period of time when day-to-day life was difficult, often violent and each day was a headlong struggle to simply survive. Her character, along with Hill's and the character of their son, John (Audie Rick), bring a little joy to a character who is otherwise quite a brooding man.
Hill is a revelation as Margaret Dutton, whom viewers first meet as she's hitting a man on the train who's paying too much of the wrong kind of attention to her daughter with her purse. Hill is remarkably believable in the role, which requires her to be simultaneously authoritarian and harried in her role as the mother of a very willful Elsa. The country superstar undertakes the role with little makeup and none of her usual glamor, immediately dispensing with any preconceived notions fans of her music might have had for her acting. There's also a sexy bathtub scene between her character and McGraw's that adds a little fun to the proceedings, though it's fleeting.
May is also very strong in her role as Elsa, who is quite a handful for her parents, but also just young enough to remain naive to many of the ways of the world. She watches a couple in a romantic tryst in the street outside her hotel room in one moment, but runs up the hall crying for her mom just minutes later when her father shoots a man who drunkenly staggers into the wrong room and then tries to assault her in one of the most affecting scenes in Episode 1.
Dawn Olivieri also gives a well-drawn performance as Claire, James' sister. She is a widow, and she is joining her brother's family in the trek reluctantly and not without a great deal of complaining. Claire is a moralistic, bitter woman who appears to need to feel superior to others, and it's a trait she's passed on to her daughter, Mary Abel (Emma Malouff), which poses additional challenges for a journey that's already going to be hard enough if everyone was on the same page.
1883 shoots very big in a number of ways; the show films on an epic scale that's unusual for television, and it does not value entertainment over authenticity. In a way, it's a reinvention of the Western genre, featuring female characters that are just as strong and complicated as the male leads.
Elliott would be a welcome addition to any cast, and his gravitas as Brennan helps anchor McGraw's energy. Garrett's role of Thomas offers a portrayal of a Black man traveling with a white man as an equal during a time when that would have been rare, and with additional plotlines centering on immigration and a smallpox pandemic, one wonders if the show isn't asking viewers to consider whether 1883 and 2021 are quite as different as we'd like to pretend they are.
1883 returns every Sunday via Paramount+. The first two episodes are already available via the app. The first episode premieres after Yellowstone on Paramount Network on Sunday night (Dec. 19), while the second episode will air on Paramount next Sunday (Dec. 26) after Yellowstone before the show moves to its streaming-only permanent format.
Stay tuned to Taste of Country as we provide week-to-week coverage of both Yellowstone and 1883, including episode analysis, news on the shows, cast interviews and more. As part of our comprehensive coverage, check out the Dutton Rules podcast on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.
Subscribe to the Paramount+ streaming service to make sure you don't miss out on future episodes of 1883.