Last week’s “Walker” episode (‘A Tale of Two Families’) was hard to watch at times. That’s not a criticism though – the show has explored grief since its start, and the reason I appreciate that exploration is because it’s done well enough to feel real. This episode, thanks to some stellar acting by Jared Padalecki especially, felt very real. And that was hard to watch.
There were a few scenes that were hard to watch for a different reason that wasn’t quite as welcome, but mostly, I came to the end of the episode feeling gobsmacked, but that’s exactly how I was supposed to feel.
The episode was a little more innovative than the show has been so far, starting out with a beginning sequence that picks up where the last episode left off, Walker and Stella returning to the ranch. We see in little flashes a sequence play out of Clint and Trevor driving up, Clint holding a gun on Cordell as Stella screams ‘Dad! Liam runs out of the house to help, Cordell yells ‘Liam!’ – and Clint shoots him!
That was quite a beginning!
We then get a flashback to 13 months ago, to the day that kicked off the trauma and loss we’ve seen the characters struggle with ever since. Emily loads up her car with bottles of water to take to the border. Augie asks if he can use her camera and she says she was hoping he’d pick it up – and we immediately realize why he’s followed up on that hope. It was one of the last things she said to her son, and the last wish she expressed for him.
Augie: What should I take a picture of?
Emily: (striking a pose): Something to remember me by!
Of course, she has no idea how poignant and prophetic her words are going to be.
Emily also kicks a ball around with Stella (Gen Padalecki putting her real-life sports skills to good use), asking her if she’s sure about playing basketball since she’s so good at soccer. Stella, too, has tried to follow her mother’s last expressed wishes by doing just that.
Emily and Cordell talk on the phone and she reminds him of game night and they trade ‘I love yous’ and ‘I love you more,”
We see her last exchange with Bonham too, where he’s clearly concerned about her but doesn’t try to tell her not to go, just to drive safe. Abeline expresses her worry too, saying it’s a late start and should she be at the border alone. Emily tries to get her to come along, saying they can brainstorm ways to get Liam to move back there and have his wedding there. (How much guilt does Abeline feel about turning down that invitation now?)
Emily: Keep an eye on my kids for me?
And she too has done that, kept her promise and Emily’s last expressed wish.
Emily drives off, leaving them behind, and we know she’ll never see them again. And that was hard. If you’ve ever lost someone unexpectedly, replaying that final goodbye that you didn’t know was the final goodbye is something that sticks with you for a long time.
The next scene is after Emily’s funeral, the family all dressed in black, Liam there with Bret. They sit awkwardly in the living room, no one knowing quite what to say, each experiencing their own grief. Cordell tries to be supportive of his kids in his own way, saying “your mom would probably tell a joke right now to make everyone more comfortable. What did the ghost say to the bee?”
Cordell: Boo bee.
They all laugh, and Stella tells a ‘dad’ joke too, and so does Liam. Cordell is quiet again, playing with his wedding ring, thinking about kissing Emily goodbye, trying to keep it together. Padalecki is so good at showing these shifts of emotion that are so realistic, just a nuanced change of expression on his face showing where his thoughts are going and how hard he’s working to try to not lose it.
He goes outside saying he’ll be right back, assuring everyone that he’s fine (he is not), and Jared Padalecki looks strikingly handsome wandering around outside in his fitted black suit. He also looks entirely lost, both the way the scene is filmed and the way Padalecki holds his body evoking loneliness and loss.
Cordell imagines Emily for the first time since he’s lost her, admonishing him.
Emily: You can’t walk out on them like that.
He protests that he doesn’t want them to see him like this, but she says they’re in pain too and that the only way through it is with them.
Cordell: But this wasn’t part of the plan, you weren’t supposed to die – it should’ve been me!
It was an emotional moment, and for fans of Jared’s character in “Supernatural,” it also felt like it could be Sam Winchester’s anguished protest too over Dean (Jensen Ackles).
Emily says that it happened anyway, and the only thing that matters is helping their kids. She asks him to promise her that he’s going to be there for them.
Cordell: I don’t know how. Emily, I don’t know what to do!
Emily: Do your best.
When you remember this is really Cordell talking to himself, his expression of all that self-doubt and anger, and his attempt to give himself a pep talk so he can do right by his kids, is really touching. And again, very realistic. When you lose a partner, your whole identity takes a hit, and it can leave you feeling like you don’t even know who you are let alone how to be there for children depending on you. I feel for him in this episode maybe more than in any of the previous ones. Gen Padalecki was also spot on bringing Emily to life (for real) in the flashbacks but also in portraying this part of Cordell’s psyche that’s trying to keep him afloat.
We skip to 11 months ago, Liam telling Bret that they want to make him partner but not seeming very happy about it.
Bret: No one takes good news worse than you do.
Liam is worried about his family in Austin, saying his brother hasn’t answered his phone, but he feels pressured to be in New York if he takes this job.
Bret: I appreciate what you’re doing for your family.
Liam: I could be doing better in the newly engaged fiancé department.
Bret reassures him that he’s not going anywhere. I miss Bret and Liam’s relationship, another casualty of the trauma this family has been through and how tangled up in lies and deception they all got because of it.
Meanwhile, Stella and Augie wait for their dad to pick them up at school – he’s late again and apparently forgot about them twice already and ouch. That’s not okay, obviously, but it’s also an indication that Cordell is not coping with his wife’s death well at all.
Kids don’t miss anything – they have also noticed that he’s not sleeping and is working too much and shows up for breakfast in ‘last night’s clothes.’ They’re worried, and no doubt feeling neglected too, even more when they notice their grampa’s truck in the parking lot – and find their dad asleep in the truck. I’m tempted to say that at least he got there, he didn’t forget – he just collapsed in exhaustion. It’s still not okay, you have to find a way to be there for your children, but again I feel bad for Cordell. He looks absolutely worn thin.
Stella, who does not have a license, drives them home, afraid he might pass out behind the wheel. Then she makes an impulsive adolescent decision, with more deception.
Stella: He needs a wake-up call, before we lose him too.
With Augie already out of the car, Stella slams the truck right into a hitching post on the lawn. Bonham and Abilene run out, asking what happened.
Bonham: Cordell, did you fall asleep at the wheel?! Are you out of your mind? Damn, son!
Cordell is flustered and upset, not knowing what happened and clearly terrified and guilt stricken that he might have put his kids in danger, and I honestly felt so bad for him.
Later Bonham finds him asleep on his couch and wakes him not very kindly, saying they need to talk.
Bonham: That hitching post has been standing for generations. My dad hitched his horse to it. Shame one of our own knocked it down.
Cordell hangs his head, ashamed.
And honestly, my heart broke for him. Is it okay to not pick up your kids at school? No. Does he need help? Clearly. But guilt trips and shaming are not the way to help someone who’s broken by their own grief and floundering badly.
It’s clear he’s walking into an intervention – which is the kids, his parents, Liam, Captain James and for some reason, Stan.
They say they’re all worried about him, that they know how hard it’s been but that he’s been burning it at both ends and that can’t happen again. The understanding turns to confrontation fairly quickly, though. Stella lies and says that he fell asleep behind the wheel and crashed the truck, and Cordell looks stricken.
Cordell: I’m so sorry.
Captain James also criticizes him for looking into what happened to Emily that night, calling in favors on a case that’s closed. And again, okay, it’s his captain’s role to supervise that sort of thing, but come on, it’s his wife! (And we now know he was right to keep digging)
Everyone tells him this cannot go on, and Walker can’t take it on top of how messed up he already is by Emily’s death. It felt like a lot for me just watching it on my tv screen.
Cordell: Maybe it’s best if I get out of here for a while. I can’t be putting you in danger. The look on all of your faces right now… You mentioned a job out of town?
Stella and Augie protest that they need him there, but Cordell (perhaps understandably even if it isn’t the right decision for his kids) just wants to escape.
Cordell: Right now, they’re better off with you, mama. I’ll be back – a couple of weeks, promise.
He runs away, takes some pills, takes off his wedding ring. He looks at himself in the mirror and Emily confronts him.
Emily: Makes sense getting to be somebody else, run away from your problems. You can take your wedding ring off now, can’t have anyone knowing about me. What’s your new persona. Bachelor? Widower? Coward?
Despite his doubts and self-recriminations, we see Walker putting on the clothes he wore as Duke, and we know he stayed away a lot longer than a couple of weeks. Now we know part of why.
Next, it’s 5 months ago, Liam in his old bedroom, Stella pleading with him to let her go to New York with him, saying her dad would never let her go but he’s away for who knows how long.
Stella: I can stay with you and Bret. You need my help with the wedding playlist. I really need to not be here.
Liam: I love you, but your place is here with your family.
Stella: But you’re family too.
It’s a sad conversation, and a reminder of how lost Stella was after her mother died and her father, in her mind I’m sure, abandoned her too. Like father like daughter, Stella wants an escape of her own – and she later finds it for a while with Trevor.
She’s not the only one who’s suffering, more than we knew.
Next, we see Bonham at his doctor’s office getting news he didn’t expect – prostate cancer. It hasn’t spread to any other organs and the type of cancer has a high survival rate the doctor says – if you’re proactive with treatment. Bonham doesn’t seem to be on that page, however, saying this is not news he wants to share right now.
More deception. The guy’s family must feel like it’s falling apart, and I get he doesn’t want to put any more on them but ignoring this is not going to make things any better! Instead, he goes to the hardware store, full of Christmas stuff and merry Christmas music playing, and punches the guy who Abeline had the affair with, leaving with a sarcastic “Merry Christmas.”
Meanwhile, Stella is hanging out with her friends, pouring from a flask of alcohol into their drinks, some playing video games. Stella is spiraling, upset that her uncle Liam, who she’s been leaning on so much, is heading back to New York. She freaks out when another teenager is about to beat the high score on one game, telling him to go play another game and finally physically trying to prevent him from winning. In the scuffle, Stella falls and hits her head – but we see that “High Score – Emily” is still there, and that’s all she cares about, preserving any little thing of her mother that she can.
Liam cancels his return to New York and picks up Stella at the hospital, since he’s her emergency contact. He shows her something he did impulsively as a teenager, someone’s initials tattooed on his chest.
Liam: I had to wear a turtleneck during a heat wave. And if I’m staying, keep this between us.
He says he and Bret will figure it out, that corporate mergers seem trivial compared to family, at least until her father gets back. Her uncle holds her, and Stella sinks into it, very much in need of parenting – and hugs.
Abeline comes home late to find the fireplace roaring, the Christmas tree, more Christmas music – and Bonham.
Abeline: You didn’t have to wait up.
Bonham: I saw Gary. I figured you’d see him later, so wanted to give him my thoughts on the matter.
Abeline: I ended it. With everything that’s going on, best if we were together for now.
Bonham has a moment of looking hopeful.
Bonham: For a second, I thought you fell back in love with me.
Wow show, how much heartache can you put into 42 minutes? Like I said, this was hard to watch at times.
Liam tells his parents he decided to stay through the holidays, and it’s just lies lies lies all through this family that on the outside seems so perfect. That’s a pretty realistic thing to depict, and it gives the show more depth and a genuineness that I really like, but it’s a lot to take in.
They finish decorating the tree, asking whether a star or an angel should go on top, and the kids say a star, that reminds them of their dad.
We jump again to 2 months ago, Micki when she was still a police officer and not a Ranger, siren on to pursue a jeep speeding. The woman driving says she always did have a lead foot, and comments that it was smart of her boss to send a woman, that she can tell her boss is a man by her nonverbals. The two women banter, both trying to get the upper hand, and Crystal shares that she was on her way to see her son and got a bit lost in it – that she’s been out of town, probably working too much.
As always, something that’s pretty much the truth has an impact, and Micki doesn’t give her a ticket.
Micki: Your son probably wants you back in one piece.
Crystal: Thanks for being human about it.
Micki is paying attention though, noting the license plate, the bank pamphlets in her car, and that they’re at the Odessa Rodeo Grounds. There has been a string of robberies near rodeos state wide, and Micki is suspicious. Her boss, however, is not happy that she’s taking initiative and contacted DPS when he had her on traffic duty.
Boss: You’re an A student, but no one likes it when you try to teach the class. Stay in your lane.
Micki does not. She goes to Crystal’s house and finds a different license plate on the jeep. She confronts Crystal, who doesn’t get rattled and has excuses for the plate change and why she stopped driving for the night before going to see her son.
Meanwhile, inside the house Duke is pacing restlessly, having beers and conversation with Clint and trying to convince Clint that he’s loyal enough to be part of their crime family. (And looking pretty adorable).
Clint: I’ve been thinking about letting you in, but I have questions. I never can remember where you came from.
‘Duke’ uses what seems to be a bit of Hoyt’s actual backstory about working the oil fields outside of Lubbock and Hilltop before that, but Clint says he’s got a friend doing time there who doesn’t seem to remember him. There’s a gun on the table between them and Clint spins it to point toward Duke. Duke holds it together though.
Duke: Too bad. Sorry I didn’t make an impression.
He then uses the same strategy that keeps working for everyone – he tells a little bit of truth.
Duke: I lost my wife down at the border. I was on the phone with her when I heard the shots. Not sure if you’ve ever gone through anything like that, but I had to get away from that place, and just become someone else. I don’t know if that makes sense to you.
Clint: It might.
He’s getting through to Clint, who for the first time is portrayed as human in this episode. I even felt for him a little, especially once he believes Duke and seems to very much want to create a sort of found family around him and Crystal and Trevor. It’s also a little heartbreaking that Duke shares about the loss of his wife and asks if Clint has ever gone through anything like that – since we know he will lose Crystal very soon and a little of it will be on Duke’s shoulders.
They’re interrupted by noticing Micki talking to Crystal outside and Duke sees his opportunity to prove his loyalty, grabbing the gun from the table and raising it, seemingly prepared to shoot Ramirez.
Duke: Do I pull the trigger, or is that gonna bring too much heat down on us? Depends on how close we are to that robbery…
Clint reluctantly admits that “you got balls”.
Outside, Micki tells Crystal she doesn’t have to do whatever she’s planning.
Micki: Your son must be dying to see you.
Crystal: Not sure I should be taking advice from someone who didn’t bring a warrant. Maybe you should think about a change in profession.
Micki leaves – and Crystal is kind of right, Ramirez wasn’t exactly following procedure when she went to Crystal’s house to confront her without any warrant and against orders. That kind of thing can be a slippery slope in law enforcement, allowing for bad things to happen to people who don’t deserve it.
Anyway, she leaves, and Crystal comes inside. Duke hands the gun back to Clint.
Duke: So, you gonna tell me about this bank we’re gonna rob?
Clint laughs and says yes, but Crystal is not so sure, saying she has a bad feeling and that Ramirez was following her.
Crystal: What about our boy? I want him to have a father when this is done.
Clint: All I wanna do is lasso the moon for you. Let me try, one last time? Whaddya say, Duke? You’re in the inner circle now, so weigh in.
Duke does. He says Clint always treated his crew like family, so why push it – but that they’re this close, so “I say we stay the course.”
Clint: One last score and we get to see our boy. Go anywhere we want.
It’s actually a pretty sad scene, and I’m not sure how Cordell could not feel guilty about his part in convincing them to pull that last robbery that got Crystal killed. I understand why he would have wanted them to commit the crime that will get them caught and keep innocent bystanders out of danger, but there was indecision there and he had the influencing vote.
The Rodeo Kings are one of the least believable elements of this show for me – too over the top sometimes and almost romanticized with their Bonnie and Clyde vibe of robbing banks “for love and family”.
Back at the police station, Captain James comes to ask Ramirez a few questions about her special request for surveillance. Her boss says he told her to stay in her lane, and Captain James seems to agree, telling Micki he’s been bored at his job too – next time try Sudoku.
Micki has a hunch though and goes after him, asking if she was close to discovering anything.
James: No, I chase down meaningless traffic stops during my lunch hour…
Micki smiles and then there’s a call – bank robbery in progress. It’s the robbery we’ve seen before, Crystal shot but insisting she’s fine, that they’re almost home free. Cordell helps her to the car and hits the ground, seemingly getting arrested.
Captain James fills him in after, saying that Crystal Strand died, and Jaxon and Clint were arrested. Cordell looks traumatized himself.
Cordell: I lost too much of myself at the end there.
James: That’s on me.
Cordell: No, this is on me. I don’t have any idea what I’m walking into (going home). I don’t have any idea WHO I’m walking in as. How do I not take this with me?
James: Do what you did here at first. Just pretend for a little while. Start with letting go.
He hands Cordell the key, and he unlocks his handcuffs.
Flash to Trevor at the cabin with his Aunt Harriett, practicing his roping, hoping to join his father on the rodeo circuit. He’s waiting for his parents, saying he’s been packed for two days, and you can feel his excitement and anticipation, which is pretty damn heartbreaking too – I feel like I’m overusing that word, but I keep coming back to it anyway.
A trooper shows up instead, giving Harriet the bad news that there was a bank robbery, and then turns to Trevor.
Trooper: Son, your father has been arrested and your mother…
Trevor: Where is she?
He drops the rope in shock.
Later we see Trevor visiting Clint in prison, distraught now that he knows that there were “ten bank robberies and seven people dead, and now Mom…”
Clint insists they’ll make it right, and Trevor asks how, how is anything about this right?
He starts to walk away but Clint calls him back.
Clint: Son, we’re all we have now. I have to live with what happened, but if you turn on me now, I think you’ll regret it.
I don’t know if it’s genuine or manipulative or a little of both, but Trevor comes back to the phone. On the next visit, he tells Clint that he got a job at the prison stables so he could be close, and they could talk more.
Clint: I made mistakes, son. Seeing you, makes me think awful hard about it all. I think I need you to help me see what I did wrong.
Trevor: I want to understand too.
It’s understandable how desperately Trevor wants to hang onto his father – he really does feel like all the family he has left. Losing a parent is incredibly difficult for children – including adolescents – and both Trevor and Stella lost their moms, who they were closest too. That makes the remaining parent – their dads – someone the child is desperate to hang onto, and that sometimes leads people to make decisions that hurt them and others in the process.
We skip time again to “1 Day Ago”, Trevor and his dad visiting Crystal’s grave. Trevor is asleep in the car and wakes up, his father reassuring him.
Clint: You’re okay now, son.
That reassurance – similar to what we saw Stella get from Liam and crave from her own father – goes a very long way when there’s been a significant loss, and would be hard for Trevor to give up.
Clint: They wouldn’t let me go to her funeral. I never got to say goodbye.
He takes his hat off, touches her grave, running his fingers over her name.
Trevor puts his hand on his dad’s shoulder. Gavin Casalegno and Austin Nichols shine in their scenes together in this episode too, another child desperately wanting his mother back and to hang onto what he has left of his father.
Clint: I’m sorry she’s not here for you. All that mattered was us, our family. We were gonna get out. We just wanted to be a family again. You believe that, don’t you? You still think that girl loves you, but she’s been poisoned by her daddy. He told me to finish that last job! Your mother would still be alive if it wasn’t for him. He still has his family, while we suffer. We can’t let that stand, son. It’s just you and me but there’s still time to set things right.
Again, I don’t know how much of that is genuine – some of it clearly is – and how much is manipulation. But it’s a compelling case to be made for Trevor, because someone who had any part in taking your beloved mother away from you is going to be very hard to forgive. (The Winchesters learned this same lesson when Jack accidentally killed their mother, and there was no way they were getting over that easily either).
The end of the episode wraps back around to the beginning, and ‘Present Day.’ The Mustang pulls up to the ranch house and the truck pulls up behind them, Trevor getting out and Clint pointing a gun and Liam running out of the house and getting shot, collapsing to the ground.
It also ends with the words Emily said to Cordell (that is, that he reminded himself) at the beginning, as Clint tells Walker to “do your best.”
They’re at a standoff as everyone else watches, horrified.
‘To Be Continued’
And now we have to wait until June 10 for the second part of that emotional “Walker “two-parter entitled Defend the Ranch (1.13)! Next episode was originally planned as the first season finale before the show was picked up for another five episodes, so it’s sure to be just as full of dramatic moments. And probably some heartbreak.