Two-and-a-quarter characters fall prey to the harsh realities of the Oregon Trail in 1883‘s Season 1 finale. One is Risa, Josef’s wife, who succumbs to the wounds she sustained in the previous episode. The quarter is Josef’s lower leg, which Thomas hacks off in an attempt to save the German from dying from his snake bite.
And the other is Elsa Dutton, who — as Brennan notes during the hour — lived more than just about anyone, but whose death makes for a very, very sad end to the season (and for a very, very good reason for the Duttons to settle in Montana). Read on for the highlights of “This Is Not Your Heaven,” and then make sure to check out our post mortem conversation with Tim McGraw and executive producer David Glasser here.
CHANGE OF PLANS | Elsa may have one boot in the grave, thanks to that Lakota arrow to the liver, but her voiceover game is still going strong. She’s considerably the worse for wear, though, at the top of the hour. “It hurts to move, it hurts to breathe. The back of my head throbs with every step of my horse,” she tells us as the Duttons & Co. make their way to get some medical help. She’s feverish but not so far gone as to stop her from pioneer-splaining life to the teen boys standing guard outside the fort. But that gets cut short when she faints and falls off her horse.
James carries his daughter inside to see the fort’s major… who tells them that the fort has been abandoned and there’s no real staff to speak of. He suggests they transport her to Fort Laramie, so James asks the man to help him get Elsa strong enough to make the trip. But the girl’s traveling days are done. “The best you can hope for,” the major says, “Is that she wakes and you get to say goodbye.”
Outside, Brennan and James slowly realize that the fort — and all the land around it — is owned by men who belong to the same organization as the horse thieves they killed in the previous episode. And once the thieves’ bodies are discovered, there’s not going to be anywhere safe for Brennan’s group. So they make a decision, right there, to take a different route and go to Montana instead of Oregon. Then James breaks the news to Margaret that no doctor can help their girl. So they’ll head north, and “where she dies is where we stay.”
At the same time, Brennan tells the rest of the travelers that they’re going to head north, spend the winter in the Boseman Valley, then push on to Oregon in the spring. Some of the Germans protest, but Brennan won’t be swayed. Josef says he and Risa, who are both in very bad shape, will stick with Brennan; Noemi volunteers to drive their wagon. Some of the other Germans peel off and say they’ll follow the trail to Oregon without him. “Suit yourselves,” Brennan says. (We later see that they are robbed, raped and killed by a band of thieves.)
THE LAST LEG OF THE JOURNEY | Given that Brennan is abandoning the cattle, there’s no need for Colton or Wade to continue on. So they bid everyone goodbye, and even though Elsa is legit dying, she musters the energy to flirt playfully with both of them right before they ride off. In fact, can we take a moment to appreciate how rosy Elsa looks overall, despite the fact that she’s about a week away from her next date with Ennis?
OK wait, I take that back: That evening, the teen is sweating and shaking, wrapped up in a blanket, as Margaret sings to her. In the next wagon, Risa still won’t drink any water, and Josef’s leg is horrifying. “We can take the leg, or you can die with it. Those are your choices,” Thomas tells him, adding that he knows how to amputate the limb, if that’s what Josef wants. “Take it,” Josef says.
If it were me, I might’ve waited until the sun came up to do major surgery? But life moves fast out here on the prairie, so they get Josef real drunk and then pin him down so they can lob off his leg by the campfire. It all happens very quickly and with minimal yelling, which is a blessing. Meanwhile, Elsa wakes, her fever broken, and wonders if there’s anything to eat.
Does that mean she’s turned the corner and is going to recover? No, no it does not. After the greatly reduced wagon train crosses into land that is full of pine trees and gorgeous vistas, Elsa doubles over in pain and falls again from her mount just as three Native American men approach on horseback. One of them, an older man, sees that she’s hurt and tells Brennan in English that he can help her get medical attention.
‘SHE HAS OUTLIVED US ALL’ | Elsa is brought to the man’s village, where she is submerged in a frigid river and then placed in what seems like a sweat lodge. Still, the older Native American tells James, she’s a goner. James knows that, too, and mentions that they have to find a place for the family to settle. The older man suggests a spot near-ish by, in Paradise Valley. His only request: when his family wants to hunt there, James will allow it. Smiling, James agrees.
Still, the trip to Paradise – in several senses — will take about a week with the wagon, and Elsa doesn’t have that time. So Papa Dutton has a hard conversation with his daughter in which she sobs as she realizes that she’s dying, then she asks him to promise to let her choose her final resting place. He agrees.
That night by the fire, Brennan tells James about the daughter he lost. Then the two dads talk about the slowly fading, plucky, blonde elephant in the room. “I’ve watched this girl for the last six months, and she has outlived us all,” the captain says fondly. They discuss how James has already decided that he’s going to keep his promise to Elsa by taking her to the valley on horseback, but he needs Brennan to explain it to Margaret, who won’t be able to come because John can’t sit a horse for that long. “She’ll hear the logic in it from you,” he reasons. “From me, all she’ll hear is the cruelty in it.”
Margaret is, indeed, irate when Brennan ambles over. But then she sees James sobbing by himself by the fire and realizes that there’s nothing to be done. Oh, and if you want to feel worse? Josef rolls over in the wagon where he’s sleeping and finds that Risa has died.
ELSA MAKES HER EXIT | In the morning, Margaret helps Elsa up on the horse behind James. He says he loves her. “I love you both with all my heart,” Margaret replies. “See you in the valley, Mama,” Elsa says. “See you there,” her mother replies. Then Brennan tells her he hopes she proves everyone wrong. If she can’t, she shoots back, “I’ll meet you on the beach.” He says he’ll save her a spot and OH MY GOD I’M NOT GOING TO MAKE IT TO THE END OF THIS EPISODE.
James and Elsa make it to the land where the Dutton ranch stands in present-day, and she asks him to stop under a certain tree: “This is the spot.” They sit together, James with his back against the bark and Elsa with her back against his chest, and they rest a while. Then she stirs, saying “I understand it now. I know what it is, and I’m not scared. I’m not scared, Daddy.” James starts crying, bent in half over his daughter, who has just passed on.
Then the action jumps ahead a year. Josef, who’s getting around on crutches, takes off his wedding band. Noemi, Thomas and her boys choose a spot to build their home. Brennan sits on the beach in Oregon and watches the waves crash in. “Just look at that, Helen. Isn’t it beautiful?” he asks aloud. As if in reply, a hummingbird flits around his head and stays much longer than those birds typically do. Just before the camera pulls back to a wide shot, we see that he has a gun in his hand. From a distance, we hear the gun go off and he slumps to the side, dead.
Then suddenly, we’re back on the Plains, in Elsa’s version of Heaven, which she voiceovers is “filled with good horses and open plains and wild cattle and a man who loves me.” She rides up to Sam, who challenges her to a race, and they take off. Though she once thought death had fangs, she says she realizes now that “it smiled at me, and it was beautiful.”
Now it’s your turn. What did you think of the episode? Grade the finale and the season as a whole via the polls below, then hit the comments!
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