The Season 1 Premiere of '1883' References a Contagious Disease — What Is It?

Leila Kozma - Author
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Dec. 20 2021, Published 12:09 p.m. ET

The members of the Dutton clan are in for a wild ride. Season 1 of 1883 kicked off with a double episode on Sunday, Dec. 19, 2021, treating viewers to nearly two hours of drama, shootouts, and some brutal fighting.

The Western drama chronicles the trials and tribulations of James Dutton (Tim McGraw), his wife, Margaret (Faith Hill), their daughter, Elsa (Isabel May), son, John (Audie Rick), and James' sister, Claire Dutton (Dawn Olivieri).

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What's the disease plaguing the community in '1883'?

Season 1, Episodes 1 and 2 of 1883 shed light on the complicated life awaiting the Duttons. Having set out on the journey, the family must do their best to stay alive and more or less intact — regardless of the costs.

The last scene of Season 1, Episode 1 featured a strange physical assessment scene, with a dozen or so of women and men (separately) lined up to get their bodies examined. Turns out, they were getting checked for pustules, a symptom of the infectious disease smallpox.

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At the men's makeshift clinic, Shea Brennan (Sam Elliott) repeatedly tells a man unable to see the horrific rash on his back that he didn't do anything — before instructing him and his wife to leave the city and find a quiet spot near a river where they can die peacefully.

It was a devastating disease, and early symptoms included fever, body aches, and vomiting. Eventually, red spots would appear on the mouth and tongue, which would change into highly infectious sores. A rash would then appear on the face, spreading to the limbs and, in most cases, across the body. "On average, three out of every 10 people who got [smallpox] died," according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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In other words, the advice dished out to the unlucky pioneer couple wasn't disproportionate.

Luckily, smallpox was eradicated in the 20th century thanks to "an unprecedented global immunization campaign" (aka vaccines). The characters in 1883, however, obviously exist in a time before the smallpox vaccine.

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Deadly diseases like smallpox are far from the only cause of death in '1883.'

Although Season 1 premiered only on Sunday, Dec. 19, 2021, the cast is already slimming down. In the first half of the Season 1 premiere, James took matters into his own hands, shooting several menacing strangers — including Elsa's attacker.

The same pattern emerges in Season 1, Episode 2 as well. But the episode strikes a more heartbreaking tone, capturing Claire's suicide after the untimely death of her daughter, Mary Abel (Emma Malouff).

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As the bandits come barrelling through the wagon camp, Claire throws rocks at them. Her daughter dies in the resulting gunfight. Her sister's 5-year-old son, John, survives the altercation.

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Claire lost seven children over the years. The tragedy tips her over. She asks the group to leave her behind, heading to the riverbank to shoot herself.

Does Elsa die in '1883?'

Another character with bleak prospects is Elsa, who ends up in a brutal face-off in Season 1, Episode 1. Elsa serves as the narrator of 1883. Regardless, it's uncertain what the creators have in store for her. For the time being, let's hope that Elsa will get through more or less intact (smallpox permitting).

New episodes of 1883 arrive every Sunday on Paramount Plus.

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