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The Best And Worst Moments From 1883's Premiere Episode

A prequel to the hit drama and neo-Western "Yellowstone," the new Paramount Plus original "1883" is less a political family drama and more a somber period epic. The series boasts an all-star cast led by western stalwart Sam Elliott as gunslinging cowboy Shea Brennan, real-life country star couple Tim McGraw and Faith Hill as James and Margaret Dutton, and big-screen legend Billy Bob Thornton as a ruthless lawman. Promising to chronicle the first Dutton family as they make their long journey towards a new life, "1883" will show how the family founded the ranch and traditions that have become a central part of "Yellowstone."

Though the connections to "Yellowstone" are clear, "1883" is a very different series — a bold, solemn drama punctuated by wild west gunfights and classic bar brawls, peppered with the best characters a western has to offer, from a sharp shooting ex-soldier to a no-nonsense U.S. Marshal. Authentically told and gorgeously shot, it's a gritty, realistic depiction of life in the 1880s, full of as much beauty and hope as danger and death. The first two episodes were released on Paramount Plus and were packed full of moments both exciting and sobering. Here's a list of our favorites.

Best: that epic opening scene

When the first episode of "1883" opens, we're greeted by a young girl laying in the grass under a soft, even narration describing her awe at the sight of the new lands — the so-called "great plains." But as her words continue to drone on, we quickly realize this is not the serenity of a beautiful fair-haired maiden basking in the sun, but an imperiled Elsa Dutton, another forebear of the "Yellowstone" family, as she has become the victim of a Native American attack. Her wagon burns and her people lay dead, dying, or attempting escape. As she rushes to pull a gun from a downed man to defend herself, we also learn that she is no damsel and is as tough as any man.

As she fires a pistol at her attacker, she is shot through the belly with an arrow but hardly stops, marching forward despite her grave wound in a rage-filled fury, firing again and again until the opening credits roll. It's a breathtaking scene that sets the stage perfectly for what will be a dark character drama as much as it is a period western and establishes Elsa as a young woman unafraid to go toe-to-toe with the older, tougher warriors and outlaws she encounters on her road north.

Worst: sickness and death on the plains

Sam Elliott, the acclaimed character actor who made a name for himself as the quintessential frontiersman and cowboy in classic western movies like "Tombstone," "The Quick and the Dead," and hit TV series like "Justified," once again impresses as American pioneer and crusader Shea Brennan. Surprisingly, our first introduction to Elliott's latest cowboy is not an exciting, rough-riding shootout but a sad moment that sees him return home to find his wife and daughter victims of small pox.

Unable to do anything for his family, Brennan has no choice but to put the past behind them and burn his house to the ground. We then see him contemplating ending his own life before he's approached by Thomas, an agent of the Pinkerton Detective Agency — a real-life private service that helped keep order in the West — who enlists him for a job. Together, the pair set out to help a group of recently arrived German settlers make their way north to begin their American dream. But Brennan's first moment makes it clear that violent bandits and Native Americans won't be the only enemies they'll face along the way.

Best: introducing James Dutton

Though we don't know who he is when we first meet him, James Dutton shows himself a capable rider and a formidable gunman in his introductory scene, as Brennan and Thomas watch from afar as the stranger riding a wagon across the plains becomes the target of a group of bandits. Attempting to steal his horses, the bandits surround Dutton, who manages to evade them and take one out with his rifle before they regroup. Hiding in the grass, Dutton pulls out a scoped long-range firearm and picks off the rest of the men one by one.

Thomas and Brennan are suitably impressed, and so are we. Whoever this tough hombre is, he's not to be trifled with. Though the premiere episodes don't showcase Dutton's gunfighting skills much after this first time in the spotlight, it's enough to let us know that he is more than a match for anyone who wishes to do him — or his family — harm. Heaven help anyone who tries ... but we're hoping they do, because seeing James single-handedly fight off five bandits is one of the most exciting sequences of the episode.

Best: catching a pickpocket

After arriving in town, James makes his way through the streets before being bumped into by a gruff stranger who warns him to watch his step. Keenly aware, James knows he's just been pickpocketed and proceeds to assault the stranger before realizing he's got the wrong man — the real pickpocket was the squirrelly man quickly making his escape across the street. Pulling out his rifle, he takes aim and shoots the man in the back. Viewers might at first wonder how the townspeople might react to the brutal daylight killing, but a child points out the pickpocket, and to our surprise, the people surround him and beat the already-wounded man.

Stringing the thief up and hanging him, frontier justice has been done, and James walks off to continue his business. It's an abject lesson that the world of "1883" is not going to be any picnic, and James is not a man to resolve his disagreements with anything other than his gun. But can he survive in this world that way? That's just what Brennan is wondering. But he and Thomas need good men to protect their wagon train and may just have found the perfect man for the job.

Best: looking for a reason

Looking for a respite before the wagon train departs, we next head into a saloon and brothel where Brennan is approached by an alluring prostitute who makes her intentions clear. Though he allows her to make her pitch, he never lets his guard down, and when the woman suggests she role-play as his dead wife, he's had enough. Pushing the woman down, Brennan's short temper is revealed as he threatens her for trivializing his feelings for the woman he loved. When he's confronted by the woman's protector who begins to threaten him, Brennan shows just what kind of man he really is and how dangerous he might be, inviting him to "give him a reason" to get violent.

Sam Elliot's cold stare and intimidating presence make it clear that despite his advanced years, Brennan is every bit the fighter as the toughest cowboys half his age. A scene dripping with classic Western atmosphere, it establishes Brennan is a tough-as-nails but complicated man with little to lose.

Best: attack on Elsa

After a drunken hotel guest stumbles into Elsa's room by mistake and notices the young girl in what he thinks is his bed, the young Ms. Dutton ushers her little brother to safety and tries to fight the man off herself. The man is too strong for her, though, and despite getting in some nasty licks, she is brutally beaten. But just as the man is about to have his way with her, Elsa's father surprises him with a shot to the back of the head. After Elsa rushes to her mother's comforting arms, James Dutton makes sure to let every other guest know what will happen if they mess with his family.

It's one of the scariest moments of the premiere and serves several purposes: it lets the audience know the dangers that lurk around every corner and teaches James Dutton a lesson that it might not be best to go it alone. The attack convinces him that joining Brennan's wagon train will help them both, as there is safety in numbers. It also illustrates that, like his descendent, "Yellowstone" patriarch John Dutton, there is nothing more important to James than his family.

Worst: prepping the settlers

Many may have assumed that "1883" would be the story of the Dutton family's first days on the Montana cattle ranch that is the center of the TV series "Yellowstone." And while this new period Western may get there, the pair of premiere episodes tells us that at least this 1st season will be about more than the Duttons, beginning with Shea Brennan and Thomas recruiting James to help escort a group of German settlers north.

The settlers are out of their element, though, and are so ill-prepared for a long journey that Brennan, Thomas, and James nearly refuse to take them. They don't speak English, have far too much cargo, and don't know the rules of this new land. After teaching them some basic survival rules, Brennan's next job is to see if anyone is physically unfit for the road, and he finds one man infected with smallpox. Though it brings him no pleasure, Brennan coldly exiles the man and his wife from the group and tells him to "find a river, lay down beside it, and die in peace." It's an intense moment for Brennan, who lost his family to the same disease, and yet another reminder of how different a world we are now in from the show's parent series "Yellowstone."

Best: that surprise cameo

The second episode of the first week, "Behind Us, A Cliff," opens in the aftermath of the Battle of Antietam in 1862, 21 years before the events of the series. There we meet a younger James Dutton, who is seen recovering from the battle, rising from the grass amid scores of his fellow dead or dying Confederate soldiers. As the younger Dutton sits on a crate to rest, a line of Union soldiers marches in on foot, paying him almost no mind until a Northern general stops to sit beside him. Seeking to console the Confederate survivor, the two exchange knowing looks but few words.

It's an emotional scene that gives history and heart to Dutton, but audiences were probably more surprised to see that the general was played by none other than Hollywood icon Tom Hanks. Though he only gets one scene and is uncredited for his part, he appeared as a personal favor to good friend and series star Tim McGraw, according to an interview with Entertainment Tonight. "Tom and [his wife] Rita and Faith and I have been friends for a long time," the country star said. "So I gave Tom a call and just asked. He goes, 'Tell me when to be there.' And he showed up and did it, and he killed it."

Worst: attack on the camp

Back in the present of "1883," the details of the wagon train have been settled, but Brennan needs horses, as the settlers have only ox. Stopping to camp by a river, the group gathers food and makes final preparations for their journey while the men ride out to collect wild horses with the help of some young ranch hands. All of the men go, and they take Elsa too, as she's a capable rider. James makes sure to leave his wife with a gun in case of trouble — and we suspect that she'll need it. It's not long before we're proven right, as the women, children, and untrained German settlers are soon invaded by a group of ruffians looking to start trouble. Unfortunately, it's Claire — James' shrew of a sister — who gets more than she bargained for when she gets violent in a bid to get the men to leave.

Not taking her aggression kindly, the men pull no punches in firing into the group, killing Claire's daughter in the process. Though James' wife Margaret proves handy with a gun, and several of the men in the group do what they can while unarmed, the attack is a slaughter and leaves several women and children dead.

Best: only one killer in Fort Worth

Once the men return to the camp and witness the carnage, they head back to Fort Worth to talk to Marshal Jim Courtright, played by Billy Bob Thornton, who wastes no time in deputizing James Dutton and seeking justice ... frontier justice. The head of the German group, Josef, agrees to come into town with them and point out the men who attacked them, and it plays out in a chilling sequence that illustrates that even with the presence of the law, the frontier was an unforgivingly lawless place.

Entering the saloon, Josef begins pointing to the men he recalls invading their camp, and Courtright claims to recognize them as a troublemaking crew. Wasting no time, Marshal Courtright calls out the name of their leader, asks for an explanation, and coldly guns him down mid-sentence. A wild gunfight ensues between the rest of the man's crew, but it's a short fight, as Brennan, Thomas, James, and Courtright quickly dispatch every man involved. The last one of them raises his hands in surrender before being shot through the chest by the marshal, who reminds every other patron in the saloon that "there's only one killer in Fort Worth, and that's me."

Best of the worst: don't look back

The morning after the marshal serves justice for the attack on their camp, Brennan prepares the wagon train for departure. Riding up and down the line, he shouts instructions to the settlers to stay in formation, not let the children on the buckboard, and other basics. The three ranch hands who helped them rustle horses decide to stick with them for at least a little while for their own reasons but also warn Brennan that this journey may not be what he expects. It's a hopeful ending with the promise of the American life seeming to stretch out endlessly before them — a future where anything is possible.

Still, it's tinged with the painful reminder that the future they seek may not be a dream but a nightmare. Sitting over her daughter's grave, the episode closes with Claire ending her own life as the wagon train sets out north, with James' burying his sister's body in the dirt before telling his wife, "don't look back." 

Best: Elsa's story

Throughout the first two episodes of "1883," viewers were struck by an unexpected twist: This series isn't just going to be the story of James Dutton's journey to Montana to start a new life and begin the tradition and family that we have seen in "Yellowstone." Narrated by the wisdom and words of a young Elsa Dutton, the series is also the story of a young woman's journey from the innocence of childhood into the harsh world of adulthood. It's the story of Elsa's slow realization that the frontier — and her dream of a bright future — will be a tough road filled with as much strife and struggle as promise and wonder.

Though Elsa is in some ways the equal of any cowboy, it's clear she's not yet ready for the challenge that awaits her, despite her fearlessness. "1883" appears to be setting the stage to show us how that road will harden her and perhaps even make her into one of the west's next great women heroes.