*Content warning: racism, mentions of historical genocide, and a description of fictional police brutality*
In recent years, the Western genre has been scarce on television, and The CW’s new show Walker has stepped up to fill this gap. The series, a reboot of Walker, Texas Ranger from the 1990s, centres on Texas Ranger Cordell Walker (Jared Padalecki), a man who lost his wife (Genevieve Padalecki) in a mysterious murder a year prior to the show’s present day. After over ten months spent undercover away from home, Cordell returns to find his family changed, and while his brother Liam (Keegan Allen), son August (Kale Culley), mother Abeline (Molly Hagan) and father Bonham (Mitch Pileggi) all show openness to his return, his teenage daughter Stella (Violet Brinson) voices resentment and hurt that her father went three months without contacting them. Since Cordell’s departure from town, his old Ranger partner Larry James (Coby Bell) received a promotion and is now his boss. Cordell’s task is to readjust to his “old” life, knowing that there’s no real going back to normal.
One of the issues facing anyone trying to tell stories about Texas Rangers is how those narratives fit into and extend a nearly two-century long history of the law enforcement unit. According to historian Doug J. Swanson who wrote a book about the division, the first unofficial Rangers were organised in an attempt to exterminate the Karankawa Indigenous tribe. Later, after official establishment, they deployed to the Mexican border where their death squads were so extreme that Swanson said the Rangers “perfected” police brutality. Although one could argue the Texas Rangers have evolved and progressed over the years, the division still perpetuates antagonism against Latinx immigrants. Even Micki Ramirez (Lindsey Morgan), Cordell’s new Mexican-American Ranger partner on the show, tells him her mother no longer speaks to her because becoming a Ranger is “aggressively off-message.”
Showrunner Anna Fricke, who also penned the pilot’s script and second episode, acknowledged the difficulty in telling a story about law enforcement following the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, and asserted that the writers wanted to explore the issues instead of shying away from them. Despite this commitment, the pilot of Walker sees Cordell commit police brutality and face no significant repercussions for it. When Walker and Ramirez go to question some suspects, one of them insults Walker and his late wife, takes a swing, and spits on Walker. Walker then uses excessive force to restrain the man, kicking him in the groin and slamming him down on a wooden crate three times before Ramirez stops him. Worst of all at a filmmaking level, a hip hop song (“Run” by Abhi the Nomad) plays over the scene, and although the rapper is of Indian descent and not a Black artist, hip hop is rooted in Black American culture and often addresses racism, so it’s in poor taste to use it to add tension to a scene of police brutality. Although Walker’s boss Captain James (Coby Bell) chastises him for his violence and warns him it won’t be tolerated in the future, Cordell still receives a promotion because his superiors recognise that his consistent “tenacity” achieves their desired results.
Walker does depict the ways U.S. society often expects people of colour to use extensive energy in rebuking and then rehabilitating violent white people, but because Walker is the main character and flawed hero archetype, the show asks the audience to cheer on these individual efforts rather than critique the enabling system. During his scene of brutality, Cordell hurts his own hand, and Micki takes him back to her apartment where her army medic romantic interest, Trey Barnett (Jeff Pierre), must literally bandage Cordell’s hand. Trey is a Black man and yet must actively work to heal an injury Cordell sustains while committing police brutality. This moment is a powerful example of how American society continues to expect Black people to nurture violent white men in an effort to help them “evolve.” Although Micki emphasises that she —as a Latina building her own career— is not there to clean up Cordell’s messes, she sure does a lot of it in the pilot, and we can only hope Cordell commits to his own growth and stops relying on his partner’s emotional labour to do this work for him.
Although the pilot utilises progressive rhetoric around the current state of law enforcement, the plot reaffirms the centrality of whiteness and the supporting roles people of colour play in fictional white men’s redemption narratives. Despite a lot of pushback against similar media like Green Book, it’s strange and disappointing that Walker employs this dynamic on behalf of a violent cop. The best case scenario for the series going forward is that it will dig deeper into its threads of critique, but unfortunately, even the premise itself makes us question why Cordell, after a career of rule-breaking and violence, should be given any more chances to reform professionally. Why should an audience, living in a world that saw thousands taking to the streets to protest police brutality, want to invest in him as a protagonist? For those in staunch support of BLM activism, this will not be a question the series can answer.
Walker is available to watch weekly on The CW
by Bishop V. Navarro
Bishop V. Navarro (they/she) is a poet, writer, and media studies scholar from Tampa, Florida. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of South Florida and currently pursues a PhD in Communication at USF. Her scholarly work examines boundary vulnerability in horror and science fiction media. You can find her on Twitter, Letterboxd, Instagram, and Tumblr @vnavarrowriter