“Sometimes we get things wrong,” Walker says to his former-partner-turned-boss Captain James as an explanation for continuing to investigate his wife Emily’s death despite a man named Carlos Mendoza already admitting to the crime. Walker is convinced there’s something more happening here, despite every single person in his life doubting him—James, his brother Liam, Emily’s friend Geri, and even Walker’s own children and parents. They’ve all moved on, or are trying to move on. Why can’t Walker just… focus on equine crimes, and get on with it?
But look, there’s no way this show isn’t acting in service of a larger mystery, right? Because, well, these episodic plots are not really cutting it so far, and I refuse to believe Walker isn’t purposefully spinning its wheels while its protagonist uncovers more information about his wife’s murder. In last week’s pilot, we had the felons who turned to religious-themed pottery to cover up their drug smuggling. The only thing that came out of that plot: that one criminal who goaded Walker about Emily, renewing our Texas Ranger’s obsession with what happened near the border that night nearly a year ago. This week in “Back In The Saddle” we had a rich guy whose stable goes up in flames, with the fire accidentally killing a man and (seemingly) killing a prize racehorse. The only thing that came out of that plot: that Walker likes queso. Come on! Who doesn’t like queso! Is this really character development? Walker cannot build an entire first season on taunts and dips alone!
Let’s talk about the case surrounding the horse Texas Nightshade, I guess, because at least that name is pretty great. It’s no Shadowfax, but it will do. While Walker is butting heads with his family and Ramirez is about to get busy with visiting boyfriend Trey, she gets a call from Captain James about a case, and immediately calls Walker. They show up at the very bougie Manchester Fields Stables, where the night before the security cameras were cut and a gigantic fire spread, killing one man when a beam fell on him as he tried to rescue a trapped racehorse. Both the man and the prize stallion, Texas Nightshade, died, and Mr. Manchester calls in the Rangers for their help. Maybe a neighbor caused the fire? Ramirez and Walker are on the case! There’s only one problem: Micki jumped the gun by calling her partner, and James hadn’t wanted Walker on this case at all. Not just because Walker shows up unshaven and wearing his (personal) black cowboy hat instead of his (professional) white cowboy hat—get it, Westworld watchers? Black hats vs. white hats!—which in James’s very strict eyes is breaking dress code. But primarily because Walker let his certification as a Texas Ranger lapse, and he’s technically not an officer of the law at all.
Walker has a “chance to be on the right side of history,” James says, and there’s a stiffness to that dialogue that is common throughout Anna Fricke’s teleplay this week. Why the need to co-opt activist terminology when you’re basically just telling your subordinate to dress better for work? But James, like everyone else, also uses that conversation to tell Walker to give the Emily investigating a rest. Instead, he sends Walker off to take his recertifications, and while last week’s pilot was mostly focused on expository dialogue telling us all about Cordell Walker, the legend, “Back In The Saddle” shows off some of his heavily praised skills. He’s a fantastic marksman, never wasting a bullet. He Texas drifts all over the training course, simultaneously scaring and thrilling his in-car test proctor. But when it’s time to get on a horse and ride, Walker gets spooked by his saddle bag, a gift from Emily with his and her initials embossed on it. He walks away from the part of the exam when his memories of Emily become too much, and he’s not the only one missing her—Stella and Augie are, too.
I remain confused by the show’s timeline in between that moment when we see Walker realize something is wrong when Emily calls him, fleeing from her pursuers as she’s leaving water and food along the border, and that moment when Walker arrives back home after 10 months undercover, the final 3 months of which he never spoke with his teen children. Was Walker immediately suspicious of the poker chip left on Emily’s body, and her closed eyes? Did he share those concerns with his family or fellow Texas Rangers before leaving for his undercover assignment? Did he spend any time with Stella and Augie, grieving together, or did he just leave them on his parents’ doorstep and bounce? Did Walker’s younger brother Liam always think he was a subpar dad? Maybe the show is parceling out these details over time, but so much of the tension between Stella and Walker, and between Walker and his mother and brother, seems caught up in the messiness of this undercover-Walker timeline. Did y’all just … never have a talk?
But Walker finally, finally starts somewhat trying, and by the end of the “Back In The Saddle,” he’s made some progress. With Stella, whose rebelliousness this episode is in service of an admirable cause—demanding that her friend Bel, the one who was arrested with her, be treated the same way by their soccer coach—but who spins her frustrations into a big argument with Walker about him not deserving a second chance to be their dad. It’s a sloppy scene that relies more on raw anger than much logic, but Stella is a teenager, so I suppose I will cut this exchange some slack. After the fight, father and daughter still aren’t really talking, but they are texting, and their trip to collect a concrete step from the Austin house—a memento of Stella and Augie’s childhood, with their handprints captured in the concrete—was an important bonding moment. Augie, meanwhile, is tasked with a “What Texas Means to Me” school project, which he uses to pick up his mother’s old cameras and get to creating. And although Walker and Liam get in a wrasslin’ match, they too reach a sort of peace when Liam’s warnings about Walker losing his kids if he doesn’t focus on the present finally seem to make it through.
In the episode’s closing moments, Walker and his children come together in their new home on his parents’ ranch to watch Augie’s “What Texas Means to Me” video, and to try and give their family a fresh start. Augie is proud of his work collecting family footage from Emily’s old cameras. Stella is moved by seeing their mom again. And Walker—well, Walker looks like he still has some questions about Emily’s death. He knows now that Geri closed her eyes, and that the poker chip was from a poker kit Emily bought him for Father’s Day. But is he really going to let this go? That doesn’t seem likely.
Oh, and Walker passes his final test and gets recertified as a ranger, and Texas Nightshade is okay! The rich guy set the fire on purpose on his own property to protect himself from paying out losing racing bets because Texas Nightshade was injured, and then he tried to frame a horse-loving neighbor for the crime. A wealthy guy who’s an asshole? What a shocker.
- Hello to Alex Landi’s Bret, who wants fiancé Liam to move to New York City with him. Please leave your Hen-of-the-wood mushrooms for me, I am hungry!
- I wondered last week how well Walker would be able to juggle storylines about immigration, ICE, and the U.S.-Mexico border, all of which were introduced in the pilot. This week, we learn that ICE is investigating Stella’s friend Bel’s family, who are undocumented. Not gonna lie, if Walker punches an ICE agent in the face or something, this would high-key become my new favorite show.
- … Although, Walker is also the character who says “progress” like it’s a forbidden concept and does skeptical finger wagging when uttering the word. So maybe my daydream of him attacking federal agents is slightly impractical.
- I still don’t think we know Emily as a character at all, but the whole “I use vintage cameras and love overnight oats and gift my husband artisanal leather goods” thing is really adding to my “Was Emily an Instagram influencer?” theory.
- I would watch an entire show of Texas Nightshade clip-clopping around and exploring Austin. Can, say, discovery+ green-light this? What is the point of all these streaming services if not for important horse-girl content?
- That… mailbox wall?… in front of the Walkers’ home in Austin was laughably large, and totally impractical, and yet—more Instagram influencer evidence.
- Would Micki refer to herself as a “woman of color”? Last week she described herself as a first-generation Mexican American, but this week, she gets the WOC descriptor. Why not describe herself with such specificity as Mexican-American again, or say Latina (or Latinx, if she prefers), especially to a man she’s been romantically involved with for years? “Woman of color” felt strangely stiff in such intimate quarters, and was the same issue I had with James’s dialogue, too—lines that feel more written than spoken.
- To be fair, Micki doing a Legolas up onto the horse behind Walker was pretty great.
- Shout out to Trey taking off his shirt; more female gaze, please!