With the recent successes of Yellowstone, 1883, Outer Range, and Dark Winds, westerns have been experiencing a major resurgence on television. And now, The CW, a network that has seen a wave of cancellations this year and was recently acquired by Nexstar Media Group, will be banking on the renewed interest in the storied genre to kick-start its fall schedule. Created by Seamus Kevin Fahey and Anna Fricke, Walker Independence, a prequel to Jared Padalecki’s Walker, purposefully weaves overlooked parts of U.S. history into the narrative to create a refreshingly inclusive and subversive take on the old-fashioned western, honoring its classic cornerstones while bringing some much-needed and long-overdue diversity to the genre.
The pilot introduces audiences to the woman who would later become known as Abigail “Abby” Walker (Katherine McNamara), an affluent, strong-willed Bostonian schoolteacher in the late 1800s who witnesses the brutal murder of her husband, Liam, during their journey to Texas, where he was set to become the new sheriff of a small town called Independence. After mourning the loss, Abby ventures out West with the help of an Apache tracker named Calian (Justin Johnson Cortez) to complete her trip to Independence. Upon arrival, she crosses paths with a number of colorful characters, including Tom Davidson (Greg Hovanessian), the new sheriff in town who she believes fits the description of the man who killed her husband.
Directed by executive producer Larry Teng, Independence’s first three episodes are beautifully rendered with hallmarks of westerns—vast plains, horseback rides, gun-toting villagers, and, of course, the dusty desert air—and waste no time in introducing the other supporting players and setting the stage for what feels like a revenge plot. There’s Hoyt Rawlins (Matt Barr), an irreverent con artist who immediately butts heads with Abby and has a fling with aspiring singer Lucia Reyes (Gabriela Quezada); Kate Carver (Katie Findlay), a free-spirited burlesque dancer who knows about the inner workings of the town; Kai (Lawrence Kao), a Chinese immigrant who runs a local laundry/restaurant and takes an immediate liking to Abby; and Augustus (Philemon Chambers), the well-meaning deputy sheriff who could either be a friend or foe.
Having risen to fame on Shadowhunters and Arrow, McNamara has stepped into her most grounded role to date, commanding the screen with a quiet strength and self-possession. While her character often feels like she is one misstep away from a nervous breakdown, McNamara walks the extremely fine line of playing a grieving widow and a scornful outsider willing to be pushed into the gray area of the law. In fact, with their cat-and-mouse dynamic, McNamara’s Walker and Hovanessian’s Davidson—two names that have a long history if you’re familiar with the present-day Walker—drive most of the intrigue in the first few episodes and consistently keep the tension taut. Barr, who famously played a younger version of Hoyt Rawlins in Walker and now plays his own ancestor in Independence, transplants all of the irreverent qualities that audiences know and love from his present-day character to bring some levity to this very self-aware show.
But it’s the characters from marginalized communities who feel like the biggest breath of fresh air. As the son of Chinese immigrants, I can’t remember the last time I saw a Chinese person with a name and a significant backstory in a western. Hearing Kao’s Kai say something as simple as 请坐 (qǐng zuò), or “Please sit” in Mandarin, evoked an unexpected sense of poignancy, which made me wonder, “Why haven’t I seen this before?” This is a feeling that will likely reverberate throughout the show’s first season, particularly for viewers familiar with the history of white-washing in westerns. The show’s commitment to diversity is commendable, but only time will tell to see if the writers are truly able to do each of the characters justice and prevent them from devolving into all-too-common archetypes or sidekicks.
For better or for worse, Independence still feels very much like a western that was fed into the CW machine—there are soapy plot twists, impossibly high stakes, potential love triangles, and the like. Being on a major broadcast network instead of streaming, by nature, will also make the show lose some of the edge of other westerns. (There’s a reason why the other networks aren’t explicitly in the market for a western, at least right now.) How the show will make up for that difference and how it will find a way to reinvent itself if/when the sheriff meets his demise remains to be seen. But on a network known for its superhero shows and high-kicking action heroes, Walker Independence feels like a welcome change of pace—one that could help usher in a new era for not only the Walker franchise but The CW as a whole.