In 1883 Season 1, Episode 10, entitled, “This Is Not Your Heaven,” Elsa’s days in this mortal coil are numbered. Written by Taylor Sheridan and directed by Ben Richardson, Episode 10 begins as our pioneers reach Fort Caspar to seek medical help for gravely injured Elsa (Isabel May), Josef (Marc Rissmann) and Risa (Anna Fiamora). With the Fort abandoned by the army, the group is greeted by two young men who take James (Tim McGraw), Captain Shea (Sam Elliott) and the freshly collapsed Elsa to the doctor, Major Hemphill (Raphael Sbarge). He’s unable to do anything for Elsa, but as they are leaving, Shea discovers that the Fort is now owned by the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association—the same organization whose deputies murdered the Lakota women and children and then were killed by James, Shea, and Thomas in retaliation.
James returns to Margaret and tells her to prepare to travel north to Montana to find what will be Elsa’s final resting place and their new home. Knowing the group is not safe, Shea tells the pioneers that they will winter in the Bozeman valley before pushing onto Oregon in the Spring. With Josef incapacitated, a mutiny occurs, and the remaining settlers choose to continue on the trail to Oregon themselves without Shea. Seeing that Josef and Risa are in need of help, Noemi (Gratiela Brancusi) volunteers to drive their wagon, and she, Thomas (LaMonica Garrett) and her two sons choose to follow Shea and the Duttons to Montana to spend the winter with them.
Elsa, Wade (James Landry Hébert), and Colton (Noah Le Gros) share a sweet goodbye, and the two wranglers head back to Texas, leaving the cattle and the wagon party behind. Elsa opines that the foolish pioneers’ future “lay in the abyss of unmarked graves along the Oregon trail.” Unfortunately, her premonition is correct. Later that night at camp, Thomas looks as Josef’s rotting leg and tells him: “Your leg is dying, and the death is working its way up. Now we can take the leg or you can die with it.” Josef tells Thomas to take the leg, and Thomas enlists Shea, James, Margaret and Noemi to help. Shea hands Josef a bottle of whiskey and tells him to drink half of it to “get so drunk you can’t see straight.” Josef laughs and replies: “I’m German. Half this bottle, I’m just hitting my stride.” This moment of levity is well-needed because what follows is the graphic and brutal amputation of Josef’s leg. He lives through the procedure, which causes Elsa to weakly remark from her wagon, “Sure glad I ain’t got shot in the leg.”
After they enter the Montana territory, James leaves the group to go hunting. Soon, Shea and Elsa are approached by 3 members of the Crow tribe. Elsa sees them and promptly collapses. Their leader, Spotted Eagle (played the legendary Graham Greene), offers to take her to his tribe so that they can care for her, but despite his people’s best efforts, Elsa’s fate is sealed. When James arrives at the camp, Spotted Eagle tells him solemnly: “The Lakota dip their arrows in manure so a hit is fatal and an arrow to the liver is for certain.” He goes on to recommend a piece of land in the Paradise Valley to James for his family to settle on, but warns him, “In 7 generations, my people will rise up and take it back from you.” That seems fair enough to James.
Realizing that she will certainly die, Elsa asks James if she can pick the spot where she is buried and he agrees. Later that night, Thomas and Noemi make plans to settle in Oregon together while James and Shea sit by the fire. James asks Shea to help explain to Margaret that he and Elsa need to leave the group separately in the morning to find Elsa’s grave. As the others make their plans, Josef discovers that Risa has died in her sleep.
After a tearful goodbye with Margaret and Shea, Elsa and James make their way to Paradise Valley and the future home of the Yellowstone ranch. The wilderness scenery is breathtaking as Elsa chooses her final resting place. “I’m not scared,” Elsa says to James as she takes her last breath. At the end of the episode the fate of the others is revealed (Shea, Thomas, Noemi, her sons and Josef all make it to Oregon), and we cut to Sam (Martin Semsmeier) waiting for Elsa in the spot he promised her in the Spring. As Elsa appears on the horizon, the voice over narration kicks in: “My heaven is filled with good horses and open plains and wild cattle and a man who loves me.” Elsa is happy and finally at rest.
NO SAFE HAVEN
Upon their arrival at Fort Caspar, Elsa, Shea, and James are surprised to be greeted by two teenagers instead of soldiers, evidence that the fort is no longer an army post. After Elsa collapses due to her injuries, a doctor, Major Hemphill, examines her. He is both rude and unhelpful, explaining that Fort Caspar, where she might have gotten help, has been abandoned. Dejected, the group leaves, but not before Shea finds out that the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association, the group responsible for the slaughter of the Lakota women and children, has taken over Fort Caspar.
“It won’t take ’em long to find those deputies we killed. This whole country will be hunting us,” Shea laments to James as they get back to the wagons. Shea and James decide to go North to Montana on the Bozeman trail. When Thomas insists that Josef and Risa need medical attention, Shea reiterates: “There is no doctor. Just more of those thieves, and if we stay around here, they’re gonna hang us.” Upon hearing that, Thomas, Noemi, her boys, and Josef choose to follow Shea and the Duttons north for the winter rather than continuing on the Oregon Trail with the ill-fated pioneers.
ONE LAST FATHER DAUGHTER CHAT
Elsa and James ride next to each other as they enter the Montana territory. Elsa observes: “Not sure what Oregon looks like, but I bet it don’t look like this. Should have aimed for this place from the start.” As he takes in the beauty of their surroundings, James agrees. Elsa goes on: “The only people who know what it looks like are already there. Funny when you think about it. All those people from Europe, don’t speak our language, don’t know anything about this place, risking their lives over rumors and dreams.” James replies wistfully: “Rumors and dreams build the whole world, honey.”
Their chat turns serious when Elsa says: “Want to know my greatest fear about dying? It’s being forgotten, and I can’t understand why because I won’t be here to know anyone forgot me.” “Nobody gonna forget you, Elsa,” James replies earnestly. When Elsa tells James that he looks at her like she’s dying, James tells her: “I look at you for what you are: the most important thing to me on this planet. That comes with a lot of worry because I can’t replace you.”
SPOTTED EAGLE’S GIFT AND WARNING
As Spotted Eagle and his people do all they can for Elsa, James tells him, “Where we put her in the ground is where we stay, and I gotta find that place fast.” In an incredible act of kindness, Spotted Eagle gives him a gift: “I know a place for you. You go through that pass and you follow the river south. I used to hunt that valley as a boy. The winters are cruel, but the summers are rich. A man who plans can thrive, and you look like a man who plans.” It is settled. Paradise Valley is where the Duttons will make their home.
Spotted Eagle warns, “Know this. In 7 generations, my people will rise up and take it back from you.” Undeterred, James tells him, “7 generations, you can have it.” Looking out for his people, Spotted Eagle adds: “Someday my family might seek to hunt that valley, and if they do, you remember me and you let them.” James graciously agrees “Your family can hunt the day I get there and every day after.” Yellowstone fans will remember in the Season 4 premiere that James allows Red Bear (Gregory Zaragoza) and his family to bury his father in Paradise Valley. Looks like the Duttons did not forget Spotted Eagle’s generosity.
FRIENDS AT LAST
Throughout the series, James and Shea’s relationship has been tumultuous, but it’s clear they always had a deep respect for the other. As they sit by the fire, Shea confesses: “I’ve lost a daughter too. You’re gonna blame yourself, think it’s your fault for giving her so much rein.” Thinking of Elsa’s vivacity and high spirits, Shea comforts James by telling him: “She has outlived us all. I’m 75 years old and she has out-smiled me, out-loved me, outfought me, she’s outlived me. She’s outlived all of us.”
Knowing that Elsa doesn’t have much time left to pick her burial spot, James realizes that he and Elsa must go alone to find her grave. He explains to Shea: “This wagon won’t make the trip in time. My boy can’t make the trip on horseback, and I gave her my word. I can’t let her life end with me breaking it.” James also asks Shea a tremendous favor—to break the news to Margaret: “I have absolutely no idea how to tell my wife I’ve gotta take her daughter away from her to die. And she can’t go. She’ll hear the logic in it from you. From me, all she’ll hear is the cruelty in it.” Thankfully, Shea is up to the task.
After we see Elsa die in James’s arms at the base of a tree, we flash forward to one year later. True to his word, Shea has gotten Josef to Oregon. We see Josef on crutches taking off his wedding ring to start building his house on his newly acquired piece of land. Elsewhere in the Willamette Valley, Noemi, Thomas and her boys are about to stake out their land so that they can build their life together. “Is it too far?” Noemi asks Thomas smiling. “Ain’t nothing too far for us. If you want the river, I’ll stake you a river,” Thomas responds, excited for the future.
In Episode 6, Shea tells Elsa he was heading to Oregon to see the ocean because that was his wife’s dream. Sure enough, the last time we see Shea is on the beach, watching the waves on the shore with tears in his eyes. A hummingbird flies right up to him, and Shea takes it as a sign his wife is with him. As the camera cuts to a long shot, we see Shea pull out his gun and kill himself so that he can join his beloved wife and daughter in the afterlife. Maybe he’ll see Elsa there too.
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