Despite No New Tricks, ‘Walker: Independence’ Adequately Takes on the Western Genre: TV Review
In January 2021, the Jared Padalecki-starring and executive-produced “Walker, Texas Ranger” reboot (simply titled “Walker”) premiered as a new hit for The CW. Perhaps not quite infiltrating pop culture the same way as “Riverdale” had, still, it found success as a family and crime drama. The show was soon renewed for a second season, and is about to start its third. In the process of that success, naturally, the series was able to go the spinoff route — making this CW fall season two-for-two for spinoffs on Padalecki-associated vehicles, as the “Supernatural” prequel “The Winchesters” is also premiering soon, and he’s an executive producer on “Walker: Independence.” But the most interesting aspect of both of these spinoffs is that they specifically see value not in telling concurrent or future stories of the characters, but instead going back to the past, in prequel form.
For “Walker: Independence,” it’s difficult not to look at it and see it as The CW’s attempt at trying its own spin on what Taylor Sheridan has had great success in with his “Yellowstone”-verse (with prequels in the form of “1883” and the upcoming “1923”). Where “Walker” has contemporary cowboys and Texan pride, there’s just something to seeing old-school cowboys on TV, swigging whiskey while breaking both hearts and the law. Even before the recent departure of Mark Pedowitz as network CEO, The CW had been in a strange place leading up to “Walker: Independence,” with cancellations and a new schedule that signaled a shifting in target demographic away from the female-driven and queer-friendly direction that the network had been known for, especially over the years. But despite its more male-skewing genre, as a Western, “Walker: Independence” is a female-driven spin-off that has a lot of the essence of plenty of CW series over the years. That essence is the type of thing that arguably makes the show worth sticking around for, even if it’s not the remarkable product to come from the network or the genre.
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Despite its prequel status, following the ancestors of two “Walker” characters — widow Abigail “Abby” Collins, née Walker (Katherine McNamara), a forebear of Cordell Walker (Padalecki) and his family, and troublemaking cowboy Hoyt Rawlins (Matt Barr), a relative of Walker’s late best friend Hoyt Rawlins (also Barr) — “Walker: Independence” tells a story that can be enjoyed and appreciated apart from its sibling series. In fact, depending on what the audience is looking for in its Texan dramas on The CW, it can even be an either-or situation. Set in the late 1800s, “Walker: Independence” is a story of vengeance and retribution, as Bostonian Abby sets out to find and kill the man who murdered her husband on the way to their new life in ramshackle Independence, Texas. Gone is the nuclear family drama aspect of “Walker” — specifically, the teen drama, which often manages to interfere with the crime drama — as the series relies on found families that stem from new alliances, in a world full of enemies and people they never quite know whether to trust.
It’s a tried-and-true Western concept, with the fish-out-of-water newcomer in town working to take down the Black hat who ruined her life, and teaming with a ragtag bunch of frontier misfits, from rogue cowboys to Native Americans to local dancers who know all the town gossip. “Walker: Independence” definitely isn’t reinventing the wheel, or even the stagecoach, with what it’s doing. There are the briefest of moments when it seems like “Walker: Independence” is trying to do — and possibly should try to do — what shows like “Reign” and “Dickinson” did (and “Bridgerton” does) for their particular period genres, instead of just retread territory that plenty of series in this genre (like the grimier “Hell on Wheels”) have already done. However, those brief moments truly are just moments, as though the series doesn’t want to rock the boat too much. But rocking the boat would at least be different from what has been seen before from Westerns on television, or at least since “The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.” Especially considering how “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow” — a show that was part of The CW’s recent bloodbath of cancellations last season — always managed to bring levity and something different to the genre whenever its band of time travelers ended up in Old West times.
Where “Walker: Independence” is different, though, is in its diversity, which is technically true of the era, if not the movies and shows depicting that era. The deputy of Independence is a Black man named Augustus (Philemon Chambers), aka “Gus,” a seemingly honorable man who was passed over for the position of Sheriff. The town’s Chinese laundryman and cook Kai (Lawrence Kao) knows everyone’s dirty laundry (literally) and is always around at the right moment to learn even more. Then there’s Calian, an Apache tracker who befriends Abby and enters into an uneasy alliance with Hoyt. “Walker: Independence” definitely dances around the strain of these characters making their way through this quite white town, but the question will be as the series progresses just how far it is willing to take these tensions. Of the three characters, Calian’s is easily the most interesting up top, as he is the one about a character torn between two worlds, with neither one truly wanting him around. While Gus and Kai are part of the town, even with the moments when other characters treat them as less-than, Cailin is the one clear outsider. And the series relies on the outsider trio of Calian, Abby and Hoyt to drive it.
The big overlap between both “Walker” and “Walker: Independence” going into this series was the “return” of Matt Barr as Hoyt Rawlins. Even before “Walker,” Barr had popped up in just about every era of The CW. He had a turn as Peyton’s crazed stalker in the third season of “One Tree Hill” back in 2006; a role as Keith Van Der Woodsen (presumably, relative to William) in the attempted “Gossip Girl” ‘80s spin-off backdoor pilot “Valley Girls;” and appeared in one-and-dones, like cheerleading series “Hellcats” and the military drama “Valor.” As the charming bad boy Hoyt in “Walker,” it had seemed like Barr possibly found the right role on the network’s new hit series, only for the character to die at the end of the first season. As “Walker” is a grounded CW series, it couldn’t just pull what most other series on the network would’ve and brought Hoyt back to life, so “Walker: Independence” is pretty much the workaround. As the tortured Western bad boy, Barr reveals just how practiced he is from over a decade and a half of CW shows, understanding the cadence and flow of these shows better than just about anyone else on this series other than Katie Findlay, who plays Kate, a chatty dancer who is more than meets the eye. (Comparing “Walker: Independence” to “Reign” once more, every time Kate pops into frame, it’s difficult not to be taken out of believing these characters are actually in this era. Kate feels the most like a character out of a Western version of “Reign,” which is something to appreciate but is also not the show’s norm.) As its lead, Katherine McNamara has the thankless role of the character whose “purity” is chipped away at with every passing episode — the one who has to sully herself, which is rarely the character people latch onto in a Western. She can anchor the show, but she is not fun. And given the material, it’s hard not to want to lean into the fun of “Walker Independence.”
Despite its role as a prequel, “Walker: Independence” is arguably a better show for viewers who are going into it without knowing the source material. For “Walker” viewers, “Walker: Independence” definitely has plenty of Easter Eggs — but there are so many of them that looking deeper could arguably just muddle the family tree of the original. Really, it’s easy to see that the “Walker” IP got the series greenlit, but it’s not necessary to view it through that lens. But unlike “Walker,” “Walker: Independence’s” action isn’t weighed down by a family drama component, and that’s as good a reason as any to give it a try. If you’re a fan of Westerns and interested in the series, “Walker: Independence” hits the genre beats without trying to do anything new. If you’re not a fan of Westerns and interested in the series, “Walker: Independence” isn’t so aggressively of the genre that it’s difficult to get through. And if you’re a fan of The CW, “Walker: Independence” is ultimately fine. Much like its sibling show, it has the potential to outgrow that status, but there’s no harm if it doesn’t. In fact, because it’s higher-concept, it actually has greater potential to outgrow just being fine. As the show makes clear, Independence is a town where no one is as they seem and everyone’s trying to find themselves. The former may not actually be the case for “Walker: Independence,” which is pretty easy to take at face value given the genre, but the latter just might be. Because the series’ connection to “Walker” probably isn’t going to be the thing that keeps it afloat.
“Walker: Independence” premieres Thursday, October 6 on The CW.
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