[Warning: The following contains spoilers for 1883 Episode 10. Read at your own risk!]
At almost no point in this first season of 1883 was it clear where this show was going (other than Montana), even though it was spelled out in the series' opening scene. This was a tale about a teenage girl living her life to the fullest before essentially sacrificing herself for her family and tying them to a picturesque valley forever—even if, as star Isabel May guesses, they end up forgetting exactly why that land is so important to them. But we'll get to that in a minute. First, let's talk about what happened in "This Is Not Your Heaven," which honestly might be the best hour of television Taylor Sheridan has ever made. It's up there among some of the best TV finales in general. It was that good!
We knew after Episode 9that Elsa was likely going to die, but there was still a vague "main character on a TV show" hope that someone might manage to save her. Those hopes were quickly dashed in Episode 10, and it became very clear very quickly that we were about to watch Elsa die. The fort was practically abandoned, with barely a doctor in sight, and while Elsa was taken care of at a Native American camp that her family happened upon as they arrived in Montana, there wasn't much hope. As the chief explained, the Lakota dip their arrows in manure, making a hit almost certainly fatal. And if it goes through the liver, as it did for Elsa? There's absolutely no chance.
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As Elsa fully came to terms with what was happening, she had a request. She wanted to pick out the spot where she would die and then be buried. James (Tim McGraw) and Margaret (Faith Hill) decided that wherever Elsa died, they would stay, and the chief suggested a beautiful valley (known in English as Paradise) that would take a few days to ride to. The wagons wouldn't make it there in time, so James realized he would have to ride with Elsa alone. And if you weren't crying already, this is where the tears really started flowing. Margaret had to say goodbye to her daughter for the last time, and James had to ride a horse with his dying daughter sitting behind him for days until they arrived on a vast and familiar landscape. She picked a nice shady spot, and then he held her for hours until she died. It was beautiful, it was brutal, and it's even hard to write about without crying. It was also nearly impossible to talk to stars Faith Hill and Isabel May without crying, especially since it sounds like the two actresses are still coming to terms with the story they just told. While May knew from the very beginning that Elsa was going to die, Hill didn't find out until she read the final script, and she was still mourning a character from Episode 2.
"When I lose my sister Claire, it was tough for me to get past that," Hill tells TV Guide. "The actor that played Claire [Dawn Olivieri], I just fell in love with her. She helped me make it through the entirety of this show, so I can barely even talk about her without crying and I can't watch that episode without losing it."
So when it came time to find out that the whole story was about losing someone even closer than Claire, both Hill and McGraw were shocked. Neither one could finish reading episodes nine and ten without having to stop to wipe their tears.
"We really had no idea [about Elsa]," she says. "We were just completely taken aback by the story, and then we realized, wow, now this makes complete sense why it's so important to keep that land together. Still, it's devastating. My God. It pierces your soul. It's just so powerful."
May, on the other hand, always knew what was at stake for her. "It was the first thing that Taylor told me, so I already knew the trajectory of her story before I read anything," she says. "It was the first sentence he uttered when he called me, so I've had quite some time to just be comfortable with that. And I think it's a beautiful, very real story. It's tragic, of course, but it's reflective of, unfortunately, most people's journeys at that time."
While May was fully prepared for Elsa's tragic end, Hill had a different experience while playing Margaret.
"I was a mess. It was tough, I'm not gonna lie," she says, her voice starting to quiver. "I'm a mom, and I never allowed myself to ever go there, thinking about my children, ever. I don't do it to this day. I just don't go there. Obviously, we all die eventually, every human, but as a mom, I just can't imagine it, to know that your child is going to die and that you cannot be by their side. It's incomprehensible, just as it was for Margaret."
Hill says she had to remind Sheridan that she's "not a trained actor" and that once she started crying, it was going to be "real hard" for her to continue on. She remembers walking off set multiple times while filming her goodbye with Elsa, because she knew Margaret couldn't be as broken down in the scene as she felt. "There's certain times that you have to be strong and not allow your child to see everything that's going on," she says. "Even though Elsa's a smart woman, that was really, really difficult."
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Both Hill and May say that they grew extremely attached to their characters—partly thanks to the somewhat exhausting immersive set—which makes it hard to watch the show back. May hasn't actually watched any of the episodes yet.
"I always feel kind of ridiculous saying this because I understand that she's a fictional character, but I became so emotionally invested in [Elsa] that when I see myself on screen, it doesn't really feel like me, because I'm not like that," May explains. "I'm not a dramatic person, I keep my thoughts to myself. She's kind of, in some ways, the opposite of me. So when I watch her, it's Elsa. It's not Isabel playing Elsa. So I get weird and teary-eyed and I have to turn it off."
Hill has been watching as the episodes debut each week and has been having revelations of her own. She was particularly horrified as she watched Episode 9.
"After watching [that episode], I felt responsible for Elsa's death, because I made her change her clothes," Hill explains. "I put her in that dress, and it never occurred to me after reading that damn script a thousand times and working for hours and hours and hours and being on set and doing it and being Margaret, I never once considered one time, even as she was dying, that it was my fault. But it occurred to me when I saw Episode 9! What if she had left the vest on? Sam gave that to her for protection! That was meant to protect her! I almost can't even talk about it. It's like, you bitch! You're so stupid!"
Luckily for Margaret, Hill says that she and Margaret are one in the same, so the poor grieving mother has not yet thought to blame herself, and May can also promise Elsa does not blame her mom one bit.
"The irony is that the whole time, Elsa has been so difficult with so many things and extremely impulsive, as most teenagers are," May says. "And now that she's married, she's confident in her womanhood and she recognizes that her mother just needs her to behave for once, and it's the one time that she shouldn't. I don't think that was her downfall necessarily. It contributed to it, but it was obviously unintentional. No one should be mad at Margaret."
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The truth is that in the end, Elsa lived as full a life as she could for those six months on the trail, and as a result, her family was able to make it safely to their new home. Without her, as May says, "they'd be goners." And now, her death has forever tied them to a random valley in Montana. While Hill sees Elsa's life and death as the reason the Duttons are still fighting so hard to keep their land on Yellowstone, May thinks they probably have no idea why it matters so much.
"I don't know if, in Yellowstone, they even know that she passed there. I don't know what my ancestors' names were. I don't know how I ended up in California," she says. "There's something, of course, special about it, but I think as time passes, we lose a sense of who came before us. That's sort of the tragedy of it all."
Neither Hill nor May have any idea of what comes next for 1883 or this specific generation of Duttons, but May does hope that the show is not the last Western about a dramatic, headstrong, boy-crazy teenage girl. Maybe she just doesn't have to die next time.
1883 is now available to stream on Paramount+.