The Best Yellowstone Franchise Performance Is Only In One Season


Becoming a woman in the wilderness is an ugly, dangerous thing. In 1883, 18-year-old Elsa Dutton tussles with rattlesnakes, lightning storms, and bad men centuries before the ranch wars on the Yellowstone Ranch in Montana. A prequel series to the Paramount Network series Yellowstone, 1883 follows the Dutton family’s journey on the treacherous Oregon Trail and reveals how they wind up on the land that would eventually become the Yellowstone Ranch. Taylor Sheridan retreats from the modern age to go back to a much simpler, more brutal time in the prequel, where violence was often fought with fists in the wilderness. Newcomer Isabel May plays Elsa Dutton, and her fiery disposition and grace in the face of innocence and bloodshed command the screen. The series as a whole consists of big names, but May’s portrayal of a young woman discovering freedom in wide open spaces is its crowning jewel. Though some of Sheridan’s female characters in the Yellowstone franchise have occasionally come under fire, he undeniably created one of his most fearless, complex characters in Elsa Dutton.

The series cast also includes country legends and real-life husband and wife duo, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, as James and Margaret Dutton. Sam Elliott rounds out the famous trio of actors as Shea Brennan, a weathered widower leading the whole expedition. Meanwhile, May had a short filmography at the time of her casting announcement, having previously appeared in a guest role in Young Sheldon and the short-lived Netflix series Alexa & Katie. Serving as the series narrator and commanding the screen with her deep, resonating voice, May quickly establishes herself as someone to watch from the very first episode. Through her portrayal of wonder and fearlessness, Isabel May inhabits the most important character in the Yellowstone franchise.

Isabel May Gives ‘1883’s Best Performance

From the first few moments of 1883, it becomes apparent that Elsa Dutton will be more than just the series narrator; she will be the link that ties the past and present of the Dutton family tree together. The 18-year-old daughter of James and Margaret Dutton, Elsa has never fit in with the stifling society she grew up in, including the corseted dresses she is forced to wear. She’d much rather be out in nature, exploring and riding horses with her father. Undeniably her father’s daughter, she and her mother do not get along, proving that even in the 1880s, teenagers were argumentative, sullen, and rebellious. However, as Elsa discovers the perilous dangers of the untamed wilderness and the various elements that are unpredictable, the audience discovers it in real-time alongside her. Shedding her old skin and clothes from an oppressive society as she enters the untamed land, May’s performance as a woman reborn in the wild is what makes the show a success.

Elsa Dutton walked so Beth Dutton could run, even if Beth technically came to the screen first. They both inhabit business rooms and open fields dominated by men, but never make themselves smaller. As played by Kelly Reilly, Beth quickly became a fan-favorite character when the original Yellowstone debuted — but in 1883, there are echoes of Beth in every scene with Elsa, and the series is better for that. May was born to be a star of the Western genre as she gallops on her horse to fight wildfires, tornadoes, and bandits. Easily out-riding the surrounding men, Elsa has a calming, quiet confidence that is different from Beth’s brassiness, but powerful all the same.

Elsa Dutton Has a Heartbreaking Ending in ‘1883,’ but Her Legacy Lives On

1883 has had a powerful impact on the Yellowstone franchise as a whole, and that is in large part thanks to Elsa Dutton. Her soul is the sum of all its parts, as she fights, bleeds, and then dies on untouched land in Montana, which is what results in her family settling down in the area that will eventually become the Yellowstone Ranch. Although her death is tragic, as she sustains an arrow wound to the stomach during a brutal attack, Elsa goes down fighting in a world she has come to love. Her passion for the natural world never dies, and the beauty she comes to find in Montana during her final hours is the same beauty that Kevin Costner’s John Dutton strives to protect. It can be argued that the reason the current Dutton patriarch fights so hard to never let his family’s land go is because of the perseverance Elsa carried all those centuries ago, falling in love with a place that had so much life to offer.

As Elsa travels across America with her family, she also goes on a spiritual journey while coming of age, and May harnesses a certain magnetism that is impossible not to fall for. Living an entire life in the short span of six months on the trail, the actor undeniably becomes a Western icon over the course of the season. Elsa is empowered, gutsy, and an incredible rider who steals every scene from her male counterparts. Thanks to Sheridan’s writing and a heartbreaking story arc, May has fantastic material to work with that cements her status as the best performance within the Yellowstone universe. May’s Elsa is so crucial to the Dutton saga that she even became the narrator for 1883’s sequel series 1923, starring Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren. While the Yellowstone franchise is ultimately home to many terrific actors and memorable characters, Elsa Dutton is arguably its guiding compass.

1883 is available to stream on Paramount+ in the U.S.