I have been blown away by watching the Yellowstone prequel “1883” in the past week or so. I did not know a “western” could be so poetic, authentic and full of heart. I loved it so much I watched it again after I got back from Christmas and loved it even more!
First, a little background. I was raised in Kansas near the prairie where my ancestors arrived many decades before me. When I first started reading books, I loved stories about the pioneer West. The first stories I ever wrote were about Native Americans and their ponies. Then I started reading everything by Laura Ingalls Wilder and the personal journals of westward women. I only wanted to play “pioneer woman” as a kid. I guess you could say I have been unconsciously searching for the perfect “western” my whole life. I finally found it in “1883.”
First of all I love that the main character and narrator is a teenage woman. The whole story is told from Elsa’s perspective, with just the right combination of authentic and sensitively-written narrative and dialogue. I felt like I could see into Elsa’s heart, while also understanding the other characters’ inner lives as well. As the writer, Taylor Sheridan, explains in “Behind the Story,” he wanted this story to feel as intimate for the audience as reading a good novel, or even the personal journal of a young woman on a wagon train heading west. He does a masterful job of that, and yet I keep wondering how a man could have such an intimate understanding of a teenage woman’s worldview.
As I think about it now, the ever-changing landscape is the main character in this story, that and the silence. So many of Elsa’s observations remind me of my own after moving to rural Colorado eight years ago. My amazement at the silence and beauty of each sunrise and sunset, the comfort of the wildlife passing by our home each day, the glorious seasons we experience so intimately, this is what I love about living out here. Elsa’s story seems to authentically capture the beauty and the violence of the American West over one hundred years ago around the time the transcontinental railroad began changing everything. There is so much truth in some of her observations like:
“I think cities have weakened us as a species.”
Another profound aspect of Elsa’s story is how living in the West allowed so much more freedom for women. I enjoyed watching her relationship with her mother develop as her Mom tries to remind her of the limitations of being a woman in 1880s America. Elsa rebels every chance she gets. Elsa enjoyed the loss of rules and customs as they moved west. The big transition came when she decided she was a cowboy and got herself some pants to wear instead of dresses.
I loved the writer’s sensitive portrayal of the other characters, especially when it came to ‘race.’ Race is not a word I use, because I do not believe we humans are different ‘races.’ But back in 1880s America, blacks were treated badly as a general rule. Thomas, the old Civil War friend of Shea, played by the wagon train boss Sam Elliott, understood how badly others could treat him for being black, as he stated at one point, “You ain’t never been whipped.” Native Americans play an important role in this saga and mostly as sympathetic characters including members of the Comanche and Crow tribes. The true “bad guys” of this Western are “bandits.”
Suffice to say this is by far the best western story I have ever seen. It shows the beauty and severe violence of the American West in no uncertain terms, and I believe it may be more authentic as a story than any other I have read. I found the very last phrase in this story so vivid and relevant to my state of mind these days –
“There is a moment when your dreams and memories merge together and form a perfect world. That is heaven, and each heaven is unique. It is the world of you…”