Life on the Texas frontier could be downright nasty in the late 1800s. It was an era marked by fear and prejudice, when the roots of our “rugged individualism” were watered with so much blood. On the other hand, as suggested by the CW’s new Walker: Independence, it could also be a pretty great place for sorting your life out. “People here are all running from something, trying to find themselves,” one character says of the show’s titular Texas town, making this lawless outpost sound a bit like a wellness retreat with guns.
Premiering October 6, Walker: Independence is a prequel to the network’s Jared Padalecki–starring reboot of Walker, Texas Ranger, a fact that makes all its themes of reinvention and self-reliance ring a tad ironic. Still, much as Walker quickly distanced itself from Chuck Norris’s demented nineties punch-’em-up by reimagining Cordell Walker as a modern, more sensitive kind of supercop, Walker: Independence stakes its own claim by putting a progressive spin on the old-fashioned western. Its chief protagonist is a woman—still a rarity for the genre—and it features a deep supporting cast of the kinds of characters who traditionally find themselves marginalized in these kinds of stories. It’s a nineteenth-century tale that has clearly been tailored for the twenty-first.
And yet, Walker: Independence’s first three episodes will still probably feel a tad warmed-over to anyone with even a cursory knowledge of cowboy yarns. The pilot introduces us to Abby Collins (Arrow’s Katherine McNamara), a blue-blood Bostonian who finds herself—before really finding herself—somewhere on the outskirts of Austin. Abby’s a soft-spoken, piano-playing intellectual who was uprooted from big-city life when her husband, Liam (Brandon Sklenar), took a job as Independence’s new sheriff. But after Liam is gunned down before the opening credits have even rolled, Abby must suddenly face Independence alone.
When she finally stumbles into town, Abby discovers that her husband’s suspected murderer, Tommy Davidson (Greg Hovanessian), has installed himself as sheriff. And so Abby dedicates herself to bringing Davidson to justice, beginning with going incognito under a tough new surname that establishes her as the early ancestor to everybody’s favorite, two-fisted Texas lawman. Abby soon finds an unlikely ally in another name—and face—familiar to Walker fans: Hoyt Rawlins, the ancestor of the Walker character of the same name, who’s played by the same actor, Dallas native Matt Barr. Like his great-great-whatever-grandson, this Hoyt is another charming scoundrel, a Han Solo on horseback who’s as handy with a pistol as he is with the ladies. And naturally, all of Hoyt’s card-cheating, day-drinking, bank-robbing ways can’t hide his stubbly heart of gold.
Walker: Independence promises to delve further into the Walker clan’s long-simmering feud with the rival Davidson family, although you definitely don’t need to have kept up with the flagship show to follow the plot. Hovanessian’s Sheriff Davidson, with his black hat, shifty eyes, and Evil Spock goatee, is so self-evidently villainous that the specifics of his larger machinations don’t particularly matter. The show’s creators have also talked up its connections to real-life Texas history, although right now its Texanness feels almost incidental. Independence may share a name with the Washington County ghost town where Baylor University was born and Sam Houston briefly settled. But this is an obviously fictional place, one filmed entirely in New Mexico and located within the same dusty thoroughfares of American myth we’ve walked since the days of Gunsmoke and Gary Cooper.
In some respects, it’s almost novel to see a western this straightforward occupying prime-time TV space in 2023 (or it would be if Taylor Sheridan’s very similar Yellowstone spinoff, 1883, hadn’t already been released). The initial episodes of Walker: Independence serve up plenty of cowboy comfort food, filling out its somewhat-thin revenge plot with cattle rustlers, stagecoach robbers, and gunfights at the generic corral. There are omens of weightier changes to come; the looming specter of a railroad and lurking Pinkerton spies all point to tectonic shifts ahead. Still, in the show’s early going, most of that paranoid political maneuvering just comes off as Deadwood lite, a self-serious ballast to the CW’s usual gloss of stylized action and soft-core sex scenes (including a show-opening romp that’s set inside a cramped covered wagon).
There are other hints of more intriguing directions Walker: Independence might take once the dust settles. Abby’s makeshift posse includes the Apache tracker Calian (Justin Johnston Cortez, doing his best impression of Lou Diamond Phillips in Young Guns), as well as the Chinese laundry owner Kai (Lawrence Kao), who seems to have a murky, checkered past. Both men are the kind of stock western archetypes that don’t often get to be the heroes, and the show treats them with uncommon gravity and tenderness.
Likewise, Independence’s deputy sheriff, Augustus (Philemon Chambers), is a Black man who’s forced to put a noble face on being passed over yet again for a white stranger. There’s an interesting tension there around Augustus’s loyalties to a town that doesn’t entirely trust him. And it’s through Hoyt’s love interest, the aspiring singer Lucia (Gabriela Quezada), that we meet a family of virtuous Mexican ranchers who are facing threats from white interlopers. All of these characters provide an opportunity to reexamine the western through a fresh, more inclusive lens—or, at least, to put a slightly different perspective on its most well-worn tropes.
Walker: Independence also gives its women more agency than we’re used to seeing in these kinds of tales. McNamara’s Abby is introduced as your typical damsel in distress, but she quickly fashions herself into a crafty leader of men—even though the show seemingly demands that Abby share a tense, will-they-or-won’t-they sexual chemistry with just about all of them, evil sheriff included. The series also gets a frequent, welcome zip of energy from Kate Carver (Katie Findlay), a sharp-tongued burlesque dancer who seems to have her eyes on everyone in town. In interviews, Findlay has suggested that her role also makes room for Walker: Independence to explore issues of “gender roles and queerness” in the Old West—although in the early episodes, this is hardly even a subtext.
The creators of Walker: Independence clearly have admirable aspirations to diversify the western genre, in line with recent efforts such as Netflix’s The Harder They Fall, Syfy’s Wynonna Earp, and Taylor Sheridan’s upcoming Bass Reeves series. Do those aims run counter to the traditional tastes of the western audience, a group that still skews largely conservative? Only time will tell, of course. But anyone who might be turned off by Walker: Independence’s “agenda” should be assuaged by the fact that, so far, nearly every character takes a back seat to Barr’s Hoyt and his boilerplate outlaw antics.
Considering Barr’s obvious charisma—and the fact that this whole show was conceived because Walker’s producers felt bad about cutting his fan-favorite character loose too soon—perhaps that’s understandable. Still, anyone who’s tuning into Walker: Independence expecting something wholly original, even from a prequel to a reboot, may initially find themselves wondering what all the fuss is about. For now, Walker: Independence has carved out plenty of theoretical space to someday find itself and maybe, eventually, become the modestly revolutionary western it strives to be. But first it needs to put the past behind it.